Before I started working out and eating (relatively) healthy, I was a skinny 18 year old weighing [almost] 120 pounds. Once I started lifting weights, I got obsessed with ditching my skinny look and gaining some weight. An early tool I relied on were weight gainers which are loaded with calories and promise to help you pack on the pounds. Unfortunately, as I later learned, while loaded with calories, weight gainers are an expensive and glorified form of sugar mixed with other junk that you're probably better off without.
What are weight gainers?
Weight gainers are a line of products within the protein powder family combining protein with extra calories to supply the energy needed for weight gain. At least that's the friendly description. In reality, weight gainers are carbohydrate laden protein powders, sometimes filled with vitamin supplements, creatine and other additives to make gaining weight with 1,200+ calories in one sitting seem healthy.
Why are weight gainers an inefficient way of gaining weight?
Weight gainers are made with some protein and a lot of carbohydrates. The carbohydrate typically used in weight gainers is maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a type of carbohydrate made from (among other sources) corn and typically used as an inexpensive filler. Maltodextrin has a glycemic index of around 90, meaning it causes a spike in blood sugar and a corresponding release of insulin which promotes fat storage.
Currently, most popular weight gainer in the "Sports Nutrition - Weight Gainers" section on Amazon is Optimum Nutrition's Serious Mass. This product contains (when mixed with water) 1,250 calories, 252 grams of carbohydrates (mostly maltodextrin, some sugar) and 50 grams of whey protein.
Because the glycemic index of maltodextrin is 90, the huge surge of these carbs is going to cause a correspondingly large release of insulin. Insulin causes tissue (such as liver and muscle) to absorb blood glucose. When glycogen/glucose stores are full, the body begins storing extra energy as fat. Yes, 1,250 calories is going to cause a lot of weight gain; it will not necessarily be in the form of extra muscle.
Weight Gainer Alternatives
To gain weight, you need to eat a lot. But how much is a lot? There's a difference between eating for muscle gain and eating for fat gain. People tend to go a bit crazy with "bulking." They sometimes use it as a blank check to eat everything in sight. These weight gainers, with their 1,250 calories per serving are a great illustration of this bulking mentality.
I always thought my delicious protein shakes were a bit excessive and they only have 700-800 calories (depending on how I define a serving of peanut butter). Here's my recipe:
- 10oz soy milk
- 1 scoop of soy protein
- 1 banana
- 1 cup of chocolate soy ice cream
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
- nutrition information: 729 calories/21.5g fat/51g carbs/44.5g protein
Rather than use these pre-made weight gainer solutions, make your own. While Serious Mass only costs about $3 per serving (which isn't too absurd for 1,250 calories, 252 grams of carbs and 50 grams of protein), you can do a lot better. First off, you don't need 1,250 calories in one sitting. Second, you can use better ingredients than whey protein and maltodextrin to provide your body with a higher quality protein shake: fruits, mixing different kinds of protein (whey, casein, soy, pea, rice), branched chain amino acids, peanut butter, honey and yogurt to name a few.
The Bottom Line
Gaining weight requires a calorie surplus. If the surplus is excessive, the body won't build more muscle, it'll simply store extra energy/calories as fat. Sure, these weight gainers are relatively inexpensive for the protein and calories you're getting, but when you look deeper than the numbers, you're wasting money because you're getting much more of a substandard product than your body has the need for.