Weight-gain drinks (with enticing names such as Muscle Milk, N-Large, Muscle Juice, and Serious Mass) are high-calorie beverages (more than 500 calories per serving) that are more about convenience than necessity. A big jug of powder might cost as much as $55; the price for 1,000 calories ranges between $2.50 and $4.50, which is more than a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The commercial weight-gain drinks do not offer any advantage you cannot get from eating real food (Godard, Williamson, and Trappe 2002) or by making your own weight-gain drink. But if you lack the time or inclination to make extra sandwiches and smoothies, weight-gain drinks can be a convenient way to consume adequate calories.
The ingredients in weight-gain drinks vary from brand to brand, but all brands supply plenty of protein to help build muscle and plenty of carbohydrate to help fuel muscle-building exercise plus the muscle-building process itself. The products are generally fortified with vitamins and minerals—and possibly other questionable ingredients as well. (Remember, the sports supplement industry is poorly regulated.) Weight-gain drinks tend to be low in (saturated) fat, which offers an advantage over boosting your calories with French fries, cheeseburgers, and ice cream.
As for what to look for in a weight-gain drink, the most important factor is taste. If you enjoy your calories, you'll have an easier time sticking to your weight-gain program. Each brand touts the type(s) of protein it has—whey, casein, egg, soy—and the type of carbohydrate—glucose, fructose, and glucose polymers (also called maltodextrins). Consuming a blend of protein and carbohydrate provides varying speeds of absorption, which creates a sustained release effect—similar to what you get with standard foods. Assuming your meals include a balance of protein- and carbohydrate-rich foods, you are likely already meeting your goals for those nutrients: 0.7 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.5 to 1.7 g per kg); 3 to 5 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight (6 to 10 g per kg). Hence, you are using the weight-gain drinks for convenient, concentrated calories.
The type of carbohydrate, protein, or weight-gain drink you consume as a supplement to your sports diet will likely have an insignificant long-term impact on your ability to reach your weight goals. The biggest impact comes from your genetics, training intensity, timing of fueling, and ability to consistently consume additional calories.
If you are a collegiate athlete, be sure to follow the NCAA guidelines regarding acceptable weight-gain supplements. Like the NCAA, I believe that proper nutrition based on scientific principles, not commercial supplements, should lay the foundation for optimal performance. Generations of athletes have built muscles with hard work and real foods. You can, too.
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