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How To Use Healthy High-Calorie Foods to Bulk Up Safely, Explained by the Experts

Men's Health UK logo Men's Health UK 21/01/2021 Edward Cooper

Whether you're a newbie desperate to add muscle quickly or a hardened gym veteran looking to increase in size, it's hard to ignore the appeal of gaining mass — "bulking" — through consuming high-calorie foods. After all, they make up your favourite meals, formed fond childhood memories and give 'cheat' days their questionable moniker, so why can't they work for your muscles, too?

Prepared and consumed correctly, they could hold the power to improve your physiology, bodily functions and even improve your health and fitness. This, for many, is the precise appeal of bulking up through a high-calorie diet. Thankfully, to achieve this, you don't even need to touch a high-calorie protein shake — though they do have their place, as we explain below — as you can build muscle and expand your frame through real food. Which, frankly, makes it an even more appealing task, not to mention healthier, too.

Tip the opposite way, however, and you could run the risk of gaining weight, damaging your mental health and cause an imbalance to an otherwise-balanced diet and your overdraft. When the rewards of a high-calorie diet can be sufficient or scant, here's what you need to know before updating your shopping list.

What Is a Calorie? How Many Calories Do We Need to Build Muscle?

A calorie is the amount of energy that's found in food. Consumed in excess, a high-calorie diet can lead to weight gain as our bodies stories surplus calories as body fat. The NHS recommends that the average man needs 2500kcal (10,500kJ) and the average woman needs 2000kcal (8400kJ) to maintain a healthy body weight. Our bodies then use these calories as energy, that's expended through everyday movement, from breathing and walking to physical activity and sleeping. This means that the amount of calories we consume needs to be relative to our activity level — our bodies must use the energy we're providing it to help us maintain a stable weight.

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"Calories are a good benchmark for people who are trying to control the amount of food that they eat across the day, especially as most of the foods we buy are labelled for calories," explains nutritionist Rob Hobson. However, not all high-calorie foods are the same, Hobson explains.

"You still need to choose foods in your diet that offer the most bang for your buck. This means choosing mostly whole foods and meals cooked from scratch. A handful of nuts or a healthy dried fruit and nut bar is going to offer more nutrition than a Mars bar for the same number of calories."

So, to add size, you'll need to be in a calorie surplus — consuming more calories than you're burning. Generally, most men will need to eat around 200-300 additional calories to begin adding size.

What High-Calorie Foods Can I Use to Bulk-Up?

With that in mind, what high-calorie foods should you be opting for if your mission is to add size? And which should you be avoiding? It's important firstly to understand what gives certain ingredients their high calorie count. "High-calorie foods are mostly rich in fat which contains twice the number of calories as carbohydrate and protein," Hobson explains. "However, fat is not unhealthy when you opt for whole foods rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids." These include:

a close up of a fruit: A high-calorie ingredient, avocados are a verstaile fruit © Westend61 - Getty Images A high-calorie ingredient, avocados are a verstaile fruit


At 15g of fat and 160kcals per 100g, avocados are often touted as the headliner of the 'healthy fats' gang. A 2013 study published in the Nutrition Journal found that those devoted who ate avocado frequently consume more nutrients and have higher levels of ‘good’ cholesterol.

a slice of pizza sitting on top of a wooden cutting board: High in protein and high in fat, salmon comes with bountiful health benefits © fcafotodigital - Getty Images High in protein and high in fat, salmon comes with bountiful health benefits

Oily Fish

Using salmon as an example — which has 13g of fat and 208kcals per 100g — oily fish is a versatile, high-calorie food that offers impressive health benefits. For example, a National Eye Institute study found men with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids from salmon in their diets were a third less likely to experience sight loss. Similarly, fish contains vitamin D, a crucial nutrient that regulates the amount of calcium and phosphorus in the body to maintain bone health, improve mental health and support the immune system.

a close up of a pan on a table: Man frying beef patties in a pan © Westend61 - Getty Images Man frying beef patties in a pan


Whether you're a rump, sirloin or rib-eye man, there's no questioning the bulk-up benefits of beef. Not only is it high in calories, but it's also high in heme iron, an essential nutrient for building muscle and supporting hard training.

a pile of rocks: Oat background © Dimitris66 - Getty Images Oat background


Scientists at the University of South Carolina found that the beta-glucans in oats can help keep your immune system topped-up by stimulating a response that puts your body’s virus-fighting T-cells on red alert. Moreover, oats are packed with fibre and complex carbohydrates that can aid digestion and give a slow, sustained fuelling throughout the day. That you'll add plenty of fats and calories to your diet is just a bonus.

Best High-Calorie Snacks

Needless to say, bulking up is a lifestyle choice. You need to be in it to win it, which means that what you do — or, rather, what you snack on — outside of your meal times is crucial to your expansion campaign. Here are a few handy, high-calorie snacks that will keep you ticking over.

a bunch of green bananas on a rock: Though high in calories, seeds can pack a healthy, high-calorie hit. Grab a handful in your next shop © Diana Miller - Getty Images Though high in calories, seeds can pack a healthy, high-calorie hit. Grab a handful in your next shop


Popular with keto enthusiasts, seeds are fairly high in calories and, using pumpkin seeds as an example, come in at around 4-6 calories per gram. Thankfully, a little goes a long way — pumpkin seeds are high in zinc, sesame seeds are high in bone-fortifying calcium and phosphorous, and flax seeds are loaded with omega-3.

a pile of fruit: mixe of various nuts background above closeup © R.Tsubin - Getty Images mixe of various nuts background above closeup


Even a small smattering of nuts can pack a huge caloric hit, helping you stay on top of your bulking objective when you're on the move. Nuts also contain zinc, magnesium and selenium. Handily, US research also saw that almond-eaters shed 64 per cent more fat than dieters consuming an identical calorie intake, despite a 100 bag packing around 580kcal. Macadamia nuts, too, are a rare source of omega-7: the fatty acid cuts 'bad' LDL cholesterol levels by nine per cent.

shape, arrow: brie cheese placed in a repetative pattern © Daniel Grizelj - Getty Images brie cheese placed in a repetative pattern


Gallery: Best foods for staying healthy this winter (Espresso)

Looking to gain weight? Look to the cheese — 28g of cheddar, for example, contains approximately 110 calories and 7 grams of protein. Add it to meals where you need a calorie and/or a flavour boost. Combine with unprocessed red meat, as a 218,00 person McMaster University study suggests, and you could potentially reduce your risk of early death by improving the wellbeing of your heart.

Ask an expert: "Even though these foods are healthy, if your health goal is to lose weight then no matter how healthy the whole food may be, eating in excess can still increase your calorie intake which will promote weight gain" — Rob Hobson, nutritionist

Best Supplements to Help You Bulk Up

Of course, it's not entirely about your diet. You can give it a nudge towards your objective by supplementing your food with a few products. Here's the lowdown:

What the Science Says

"The other upside of choosing healthy high-calorie foods such as nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocado is that they are rich in many other health-giving nutrients such as magnesium, iron and zinc," says Hobson.

"High-calorie foods rich in healthy fats should still be eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet to ensure that the energy (calories) you glean from your diet is in sync with your level of activity."

"Choosing to eat healthy fats in your diet has many health benefits. Monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, nuts, seeds and avocado have been shown to help reduce LDL cholesterol while also increasing healthy HDL cholesterol in the body. These fats have also been shown to help reduce inflammation especially the omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish."

However, Hobson explains, people can slip up easily when opting to consume a high-calorie diet, especially in regards to fat content — the macronutrient that makes up the bulk of high-calorie ingredients. "High-calorie foods are mostly rich in fat, which contains twice the number of calories as carbohydrate and protein. Less healthy fats are saturated [and] foods that are rich in saturated fats are usually high in sugar and salt, which is proven to increase the risk of [heart] disease."

When Should You Eat to Bulk Up?

As with 'regular' meal plans, nutrition strategies and meals, there's not a catch-all approach to starting a high-calorie diet. Instead, you have to work to your limitations and what suits your lifestyle. As a rough guide, however, the NHS recommends the following:

  • Aim for three meals with three snacks, or try having five to six small meals if you struggle with larger meals
  • Try eating small portions little and often, regularly throughout the day. Large portions may put you off eating altogether. You can always go back for a second helping
  • Treat yourself to food that you enjoy
  • Try to have nourishing drinks throughout the day
  • Drink regular amounts of fluids, but avoid drinking large amounts right before a meal, as this may fill you up
  • Everybody’s appetite changes daily; make the most of good days and eat when your appetite is best, even if that is not at set meal times (via)

What About 'Dirty Bulking' With High-Calorie Food?

Dirty bulkers — those who gain size by eating high-calorie, largely unhealthy food — aren't safe, either. "If you are eating a diet that consists of unhealthy high-calorie foods then there is a good chance that you are not eating them alongside healthy foods such as wholegrain, fruits and vegetables. In light of this, it could mean that your intake of fibre is low which will, of course, have an impact on your digestion."

Are High-Calorie 'Mass Gainer' Protein Shakes Safe?

If you've been looking to gain weight, you've probably considered high-calorie "mass-gain" protein shakes, which pack an enormous amount of calories per scoop. They're designed for 'hard gainers' — people who find it very hard to pack on muscle despite lifting weights regularly. Of course, as Hobson explains, it's entirely subjective on your goals and your total calorie goal.

"I think that if you are trying to gain weight then they are a useful addition to the diet. While food should always come first, incorporating shakes can be a good way of adding calories and protein to your diet especially if your lifestyle poses restrictions on opportunities to eat during the day. The use of these shakes should really be based on the reality of your training sessions and how they factor into your diet overall."

High-Calorie Food Recipes

Ready to fire up the grill and get cooking? Below, we've shared three high-calorie recipes that are perfect for increasing your caloric intake without compromising on nutrients.

Sock Eye Salmon

Salmon is rich in omega-3, due to the fish's diet of krill. These fatty acids help to boost your recovery if you've been training hard recently.

You will need:

  • Cedar planks to support the salmon fillet
  • Olive oil, for brushing
  • Sea salt
  • Brown sugar, 800g
  • An orange, zested and sliced
  • A lemon, zested and sliced
  • Sockeye salmon, a large fillet, skin-on
  • Dill, a bunch
  • Basil, a bunch
  • An onion, sliced


  1. Brush one side of each plank with olive oil and arrange them oil-side up on a baking sheet. Place them in a 190°C oven.
  2. In a small bow, mix a few large pinches of salt with the brown sugar and the zest. Rub this on the flesh side of the fish.
  3. Arrange the citrus slices on the planks. Place the fillet on top and cover with herbs and onion. Bake for 30 minutes or until the inside is pink.
  4. Remove the baking sheet and toppings, slice the fish and serve.

Steak and Cheese Taco

Lean cuts of red meat are a good source of zinc, a mineral essential to the production of testosterone.

You'll need:

  • 1 tbsp. fajita or taco spice mix
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 100 g beef stir-fry strips
  • Romaine lettuce, 1
  • Tomato, 1
  • Soft tortilla
  • 25 g pre-grated cheddar
  • 1 tbsp. chilli sauce
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • Fresh coriander


  1. Mix the Mexican seasoning and garlic powder. Add the beef strips and toss to coat.
  2. Heat the oil in a frying pan on a medium-high heat and add the steak strips. Cook for two to four minutes. These are still steak, so take into consideration whether you are a medium-rare or medium man. Roughly chop the tomato and lettuce.
  3. Microwave the tortilla on a plate for 30 seconds. Spoon the steak over half the tortilla, top with the other ingredients, and fold. Eat immediately. Could be a good one to have before a big date (not if you’re meeting her in a restaurant though, obviously)

Timmy’s Burger with Seeded Avocado Bun and Sweet Potato Wedges

Scarlett Green in Soho by the team at the Daisy Green Collection

You’ll need:

  • 200g beef mince with 50 per cent fat content
  • 75g mature cheddar cheese
  • 1 medium sweet potato
  • 50ml olive oil
  • 20g pineapple salsa*
  • 100g seed mix**
  • 2 tbsp handful sliced onions
  • 1 slice beef tomato
  • 1 leaf batavia lettuce
  • 1 ripe avocado


  1. Cut the sweet potato in half lengthways and each half into thirds. Season with salt, pepper and olive oil.
  2. Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and place the potatoes skin side down. Roast in the oven at 200 degrees celsius for 20-25 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
  3. To make the patty, form a ball with the beef mince, flattening it into a 2cm-thick disc. Heat a frying pan with oil, place the patty in the middle of the pan and cook until golden brown and slightly charred on the first side (about 4 minutes).
  4. Flip the burger over, place the cheese on top and cook for another 3 minutes covered so that the cheese melts, before removing from the pan.
  5. Wash and dry the lettuce before folding it to the size of the burger and placing it on a small plate. On top, add sliced onions and 1 slice of tomato. Place the lettuce tower on top of the burger.
  6. Cut the avocado in half, scooping out the flesh in one go using a large spoon. Cut a sliver off the bottom of 1 avocado half to make it more stable as you build the burger. Place the burger tower with all the trimmings on top, adding 2 heaped tablespoons of pineapple salsa. Dunk the second half of avocado into the sesame seed mix and place on top. Hold in place with bamboo skewer and serve roasted sweet potatoes on the side.
*Pineapple salsa: Peel 1 pineapple and cut in quarters lengthways. Remove the hard stalk in the middle and discard. Chargrill over coals or roast at 200 degrees celsius for 15 minutes. Allow to cool, dice finely and then mix with 1 red onion, 2 finely-diced red chillies, 20g chopped coriander, 5g salt, 1g black pepper and 100ml olive oil.
**Seed mix: Combine 50g toasted sesame seeds, 50g black sesame seeds and 1g salt, and place into an airtight container.

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