So, you’ve decided that you want to add body mass, but you also want to avoid eating refined sugar. Sugar is an easy way to add calories to your diet. However, you don’t have to eat it to gain weight.
You can gain weight without eating sugar, as there are many high-calorie foods that don’t contain added sugar, including whole grains, nuts/seeds, dried fruit, and most dairy products. Once you determine your maintenance level of calories, all you need to do is add 10-20% additional calories to bulk without sugar.
Below, I’m going to give you a complete high-calorie food list, as well as a sample meal plan that includes no added sugar.
Is It Possible To Gain Weight Without Eating Sugar?
Many nutrition coaches allow their clients to eat more sugar during a bulking phase because it’s easier to get the caloric surplus necessary to gain weight. However, it’s not impossible to gain weight without sugar.
Gaining weight is a matter of energy balance, that is to say, looking at the total number of calories coming in (calorie intake from the foods you eat), compared to the total number of calories going out (calorie output from activity and exercise). It does not matter whether the calories coming in are from foods with or without sugar.
Whether you gain, lose or maintain your weight will depend on the balance of calorie intake versus calorie output.
- When you take in more calories than you expend (a caloric surplus), you gain weight.
- When you take in fewer calories than you expend (a caloric deficit), you lose weight.
- When the calories in are matched by the calories out, you maintain your weight.
In order to gain weight, you will need to ensure that the number of calories you consume exceeds the number of calories you burn, which can be achieved by nearly any combination of foods.
Examples of High-Calorie Foods With No Sugar
When gaining weight it is a good idea to focus on foods that are calorie-dense, meaning that they provide a high number of calories for a small amount of food. This will allow you to eat more food without feeling uncomfortably full.
We will look at examples of high-calorie foods according to each of the three main macronutrients they contain (protein, carbohydrates, and fat).
Since protein provides the building blocks for building lean muscle mass, you’ll want to make sure that you are eating protein-containing foods at regular intervals throughout the day, and especially after your training sessions.
A general guideline for athletes is to consume 1.2 – 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or up to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. In the case of desired mass gain, this can be based on goal body weight as opposed to current body weight. Protein ideally can provide up to 35% of your total daily calories.
- A 165lbs male who would like to weigh 190lbs should eat 190 grams of protein per day, providing 760 calories.
It’s important to recognize that most protein sources, especially animal protein sources, contain both protein and fat. If you’re looking to add calories without sugar, it’s best to pick ‘fattier’ protein sources whenever possible, such as chicken thighs, ground beef, or salmon, compared with leaner options like tilapia.
As well, you’ll want to avoid protein sources that come pre-packaged, such as beef jerky. Even though a serving of beef jerky has 20-25g of protein, most brands typically contain a lot of added sugar for flavoring.
High-calorie protein sources without sugar:
- Milk, 2% or whole milk
- Greek yogurt
- Ground beef
- Marbled steak
- Chicken thighs with skin
Related Article: How Many Eggs Should I Eat Per Day To Gain Weight?
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. Refined sugar (also called “table sugar”), or sucrose (another type of sugar)) is a carbohydrate. But, if sugar is off the table, we’ll need to find other carb sources to fuel the body.
The best food sources of carbohydrates are whole grains such as rice (all varieties, including white and brown), oats, barley, wheat (if gluten is not an issue), rye and similar, including pasta made from these grains.
It’s also still important to consume carb sources like fruit and vegetables for their micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) as part of an overall balanced diet. But compared to the whole grains above, fruit and vegetables offer fewer calories, which makes it harder to gain weight.
If you want a complete list of fruits that are best for muscle gain, which are higher in calories, check out my other article: Best Fruits For Muscle Gain. You’ll notice dried fruit is a more calorie-dense option to help you get more calories without filling your stomach.
High-calorie carbohydrate sources without sugar:
- Dried fruit (dates, raisins, prunes, dried dates, dried figs, dried apricots)
- Whole grains (rice, oats, barley, wheat, rye).
If you’re trying to gain weight without sugar, you’ll want to fill your diet with healthy fats since foods with a high fat content are more calorically dense.
The key is to steer clear of most high-fat processed food items, as they typically contain refined sugar as well (think cookies, cakes, donuts, pizza).
High-calorie fat sources without sugar:
- Butter, oil and lard
- Hemp seeds
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
Additional Tips For Avoiding Sugar While Gaining Weight
Sugar is a sneaky additive in many processed foods, lurking in places you might not expect. To keep you on the straight and narrow no-sugar path, you’ll want to consider the following tips:
Modern food manufacturing means that sugar is added to foods you might not even expect, such as salad dressings, pasta sauces, salsa, bread, crackers, and more.
If it comes in a box, bag or can with an ingredient label, get in the habit of actually reading the label to scan for sugar.
- Read our complete guide: Top 10 Foods High In Calories But Low In Sugar.
Know Your “oses”
Seeing “ose” at the end of a word is often a clue that it’s describing something that is a form of sugar or starch.
For example, fructose, glucose, sucrose, lactose, dextrose, and maltose are all forms of sugar. When in doubt, a quick search in your favourite search engine will let you know.
Recognize Sugar in Disguise
Syrups of all kinds are forms of sugar (corn syrup, HFCS high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup).
Also be on the lookout for evaporated or concentrated juices such as evaporated cane juice, or concentrated white grape juice.
Many products, especially those marketed as “natural” or “organic” will use several of these sweeteners in combination.
Keep in mind that ingredients are listed in order by volume. While no one sweetener might be near the beginning of the list, adding them together could mean that sweeteners in total are one of the most abundant ingredients.
Gaining Weight Without Eating Sugar: 6 Steps
Now that you know what to eat, here’s how to gain weight without eating sugar:
Step 1: Determine Your Estimated Maintenance Intake
Your maintenance intake is the calorie intake needed to maintain your current body weight, at your current activity level, without gaining or losing.
An easy online calculator is here. Input your age, sex, height, current weight and activity level and press Calculate. For example, a 165lbs male who is 5’8” and trains 4-5 times per week has 2,502 calories for maintenance.
If you are currently maintaining your weight, you can also track your intake for seven to ten days, to see what your maintenance intake would be. You can track your macros using an app like MacroFactor. Using this link gets you an extra week on your free trial (2 weeks total). Cancel any time before your trial ends without being charged.
Step 2: Add 10-20% to Your Estimated Maintenance Intake
Once you have your maintenance intake, add 10-20% more calories to that total.
For example, if your maintenance intake is 2,500 calories per day, you would be looking to add 250-500 calories each day.
Step 3: Figure Out Your Macronutrient Split
Your macronutrient split will tell you how many grams each of protein, carbohydrate and fat to eat.
For example, a 165lbs male looking to gain 25lbs would eat 3,000 calories. Protein is 190g, providing 760 calories (~25% of total). The remaining 2,240 calories come from carbs and fat. This is based on your preference.
If you like carbs, put the split like this:
- Protein 190g = 760 calories
- Carbs 410g = 1,640 calories
- Fat 67g = 600 calories
If you like fats, put the split like this:
- Protein 190g = 760 calories
- Carbs 185g = 740 calories
- Fat 167g = 1500 calories
Step 4: Select Your Foods & Plan Your Meals
Choosing foods from each of the macronutrient groups above, add extra meals or snacks to your day, or simply increase your existing meals and snacks to include extra calories.
For example, if you normally have a 4-ounce serving of chicken at lunch, make it 5 ounces instead (25% more).
Consider switching from low-fat dairy to higher percentages, if applicable, and opt for fattier cuts of meat from time to time.
Step 5: Monitor Progress for 2-4 Weeks
Give yourself time to implement your new way of eating and to see the results.
Set a regular interval to weigh yourself and to take measurements and photos, if physique change is important to you.
Keep track of your performance in the gym if mass gain is desired for improved performance.
Step 6: Assess and Adjust as Needed
Carefully review the results from step 5. Are you able to consistently eat the full amount of your new target calories? If not, consider why not.
If you’re struggling to eat this amount, I’ll offer some more tips in the next section.
If you are eating the higher amount of calories but not seeing the progress you want, it’s possible that the original estimate of your maintenance calories was too low, and/or your new higher intake is allowing you to train more intensely and thereby burn more calories.
This means you need to eat even more to achieve an energy surplus for mass gain.
- Related Article: Eating 4000 Calorie A Day and NOT Gaining Weight (5 Reasons)
Sample Meal Plan: Bulking Diet Without Sugar
To help you wrap your head around what, when and how much to eat on a bulking diet that does not contain any added sugar, I’ve come up with the following sample days to demonstrate a high-carb day or a high-fat day for a 3,000-calorie meal plan.
Calories - 570
Nutty Blueberry Oats & Yogurt
|Calories - 685|
Protein - 38g
Carbs - 40g
Fat - 42g
|Cheesy Scrambled Eggs & Avocado Toast |
- 4 eggs, scrambled with 1 ounce (~30g) cheddar cheese
- 2 large handfuls baby spinach, sautéed
- 1 slice sugar-free rye bread, toasted and topped with 1 medium avocado, sliced
(adjust timing as needed based on training time of day)
|Calories - 495|
Protein - 40g
Carbs - 50g
Fat - 15g
|Bananarama Protein Smoothie|
- 1 cup (250mL) 2% milk
- 1 scoop (30g) vanilla protein powder
- 1 large banana
- 1 handful of baby spinach
- 1 handful ice cubes
Blend together until smooth. Eat 1 large orange on the side.
|Calories - 440|
Protein - 44g
Carbs - 19g
Fat - 22g
|PB-Chocolate Protein Smoothie |
- 1 cup (250mL) whole milk
- 1 scoop (30g) chocolate protein powder
- 1 tbsp (5g) unsweetened cocoa powder
- 2 tbsp (30g) natural peanut butter
- 1 handful ice cubes
Blend together until smooth.
|Lunch||Calories - 710|
Protein - 52g
Carbs - 93g
Fat - 15g
|Chicken-Veggie Rice Bowl|
- ½ cup (90g) dry white rice, cooked
- 6 ounces (~180g) cooked chicken breast strips
- 2 cups mixed chopped veggies of choice, raw or steamed
- 1 medium avocado, cubed
|Calories - 655|
Protein - 46g
Carbs - 42g
Fat - 24g
|Beany Beef Tacos |
- 6 ounces (~180g) cooked lean ground beef
- 2 hard shell corn tacos
- ¼ cup sugar-free salsa
- ½ cup black beans
|Snack||Calories - 495|
Protein - 11g
Carbs - 82g
Fat - 15g
|Fruit ‘n’ Nuts|
- ½ cup (80g) raisins
- 1 ounce (~30g) raw unsalted almonds or other nuts
- 1 large apple, sliced
|Calories - 260|
Protein - 11g
Carbs - 26g
Fat - 15g
Fruit ‘n’ Nuts
|Dinner||Calories - 530|
Protein - 43g
Carbs - 47g
Fat - 20g
|Pork Tenderloin & Sweet Potato|
- 6 ounces (~180g) roasted pork tenderloin
- 6 ounces (~180g) steamed sweet potato, mashed with cinnamon & ½ tbsp (7g) butter
- 4 ounces (~113g) steamed broccoli with ½ tbsp (7g) butter
|Calories - 715|
Protein - 42g
Carbs - 36g
Fat - 48g
|Roasted Salmon & Bacon Brussels |
- 6 ounces (~180g) roasted salmon
- 4 ounces (~113g) Brussels sprouts, roasted with 1 tbsp olive oil and 1 strip of bacon, crumbled
|Snack||Calories - 255|
Protein - 15g
Carbs - 43g
Fat - 2g
|Creamy Cheesy Bowl|
- 1 ounce (~30g) dry cream of wheat or cream of rice, cooked
- ½ cup (125g) cottage cheese
- 4 ounces (~113g) carrots
|Calories - 245|
Protein - 9g
Carbs - 22g
Fat - 16g
Nutty Rice Cakes & Berries
|Daily Total||Calories - 3,000|
Protein - 190g
Carbs - 410g
Fat - 67g
|Calories - 3,000|
Protein - 190g
Carbs - 185g
Fat - 167g
The meal plan above is a great jumping-off point for you to get a sense of the types, amounts and combinations of nutritious whole foods that you can eat to meet your mass gain goals without sugar.
Scale the portion sizes up or down as needed for your goals, and consider the plan to be a basic template. You can and should substitute your favourite foods into the plan, replacing items with others that have a similar calorie count and macronutrient profile.
- Read our complete guide: How To Count Calories Without Labels (4 Ways)
Eating More But Not Gaining Weight?
Have you been eating at least 10-20% more calories for 2-4 weeks and you’re not gaining weight?
It is normal to experience eating more and not gaining weight. Eating more food also increases the amount of energy used to digest that food (the thermic effect of eating). Eating more food can also make you more energetic, burning more calories both during your workouts and in the activities in the rest of your day.
As we have seen, the causes can be many and varied, but the fix is simple: eat more.
Possible Reasons for Not Gaining Weight Despite Eating More Include:
- Initial maintenance estimate was too low
- Eating more means more energy used to digest the food, and the net result is that you are not actually in an energy surplus.
- Eating more means you have more energy to train at a higher intensity, causing you to burn more calories when you exercise.
- Eating more means that you have more energy in general, causing you to burn more calories throughout the day as you move around more such as taking the stairs, pacing, or fidgeting.
- Accidentally overestimating your actual food intake (thinking that you are eating more than you actually are).
Related Article: Can You Eat Sugar While Bulking? (Complete Guide)
Tips for Eating More Without Eating Sugar:
- Increase your portion sizes at every meal and snack: if you normally order a medium coffee with milk, order a large coffee with cream.
- Add butter or oil to cooked vegetables.
- Eat more quickly than usual (while still taking the time to chew your food properly).
- Drink your calories: make protein smoothies with a liquid that contains calories, such as milk or unsweetened fruit juice, instead of with water, and add calorie-dense options such as peanut butter or other nut butters or avocado.
- Accept that you may feel a little bit uncomfortable after meals from fullness.
- Track your intake at least periodically to ensure that you are not overestimating your actual intake.
- Enlist an accountability buddy such as a friend, training partner or coach.
Related Article: Eating 5000 Calorie A Day And NOT Gaining Weight (5 Reasons)
Now you know that it IS possible to gain weight without eating sugar, and HOW to do it. It’s time to hit the grocery store for some delicious and nutritious sugar-free options. Happy gaining!
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About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.