How to eat like a big beautiful horse

I've been on the "eating more" grind for years now; here is every tip I've fought to learn along the way.

How to eat like a big beautiful horse
Me and the girlies on our way to Panera Bread after the gym

The Question

Hi, I just cried a little and spiraled while I read your piece in The Cut. Would you happen to have any advice for eating more? Also, just, thank you for being such a great voice.


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The Answer

tw: food numbers, contextual mentions of disordered eating behaviors

I'm hearing from many of you who are doing LIFTOFF: Couch to Barbell that you are loving it, and even feeling that particular burning, primordial hunger after your lifting sessions. But despite that, you're at a bit of a loss as to how to meet your new total daily energy expenditure calories and higher protein intake.

This post is going to be more about calories than protein, but taking care of the former will probably go a ways to helping solve the latter (plus, we already have some posts about how to get more protein). Therefore, here is every tip I can think of that helps me to eat more, ranging from the strictly practical to the mental/spiritual. As always, this is for educational purposes only, I'm not a or your doctor, please consult a medical professional for practically applicable health advice that is specific to you.1

The topline here is always going to be, eating more can take a bit of deliberate effort, but ultimately, it should be fun, relatively low-stakes, and overall enriching to your daily life. While lifting weights is a fun hobby for us all, if you're reading this newsletter, it's almost certainly not your entire livelihood. Don’t ruin your life over it. If your one true happiness is, for instance, eating very slowly, don't give that up.

You are also not required to do all of these things to the max in order to get results. They are suggestions of things to try in whatever quantity or combination works for you. These are all levers you can pull.

Hold off on fluids while you eat.

If you hail from a semi-problematic dieting background like me, you're probably used to hearing about using water as a way of tamping down your appetite: drinking it before meals, during meals. This suggestion is essentially the opposite of that. I can put down so much more food if I don't intersperse it with gulps of water, like I normally might. I will drink some water once I've gotten all the food in because, you know, water is good. But if you've ever heard that metaphor about filling a big jar with various sizes of rocks as an analogy for setting priorities, "food" is the big rocks here, and water is the little rocks, at least at mealtimes. Don't waste precious stomach space on liquids when you have a big pile of food to plow through.

Eat calorically dense foods.

I don't mean to hate on my earth mothers, my hippie fiber enthusiasts, my children of the whole grains. Fiber, vitamins, micronutrients: These things matter, and you should eat them. When I'm trying to eat slowly, few things work better than "high volume" foods. But when I'm trying to put down a few thousand calories a day, I can't do it all in the form of like, quinoa and kale.

Once, a friend who we'll call Eva told me about how she wanted to bulk, but she was struggling to gain weight. Her trainer asked her what she ate, and it was almost entirely health foods (she was raised in the flower-child tradition of eating, like,  a big bowl of ancient grains for every meal). He told her she needed to branch out to foods with more calories. At one point, she showed him my Instagram, where he located a video of me pouring Martha Stewart's Perfect Mac and Cheese sauce over pasta shells. He showed it to her and pointed at it and said, "THIS IS WHAT YOU NEED TO BE DOING."

You need macaroni and cheese. You need pizza. You need cookies. You need Pop Tarts. You need potato chips. McDonald's burgers. Peanut butter. Candy. Juice. Soda. Soda? Yes, even the dreaded full-calorie soda (though obviously not before or instead of real food).


A post shared by Casey Johnston (@swolewoman)

We get a lot (a looooot) of messaging about how these foods are "bad" and "unhealthy" for us, so everyone is forgiven for thinking that means we should never ever touch them. And while a diet composed entirely of these things for eternity may, yes, cause some health issues, they can fully be part of a balanced diet. More to the point, they are useful tools as part of a short term effort to eat more, if you struggle with eating a lot.

You CAN reach your high caloric goal with only wheat berries and cod and slugs of olive oil, but like... I find that to be a lot of chewing. So much chewing. A prohibitive amount of chewing. 400 calories of apples is like, five apples. 400 calories of Snickers bars is like, one king size Snickers bar. Do you see what I am saying? I don’t have time to eat that healthy; I am not Gwyneth Paltrow. I have shit to do.

Treat yourself a few foods that slide easily down the gullet. Which brings me to...

Eat fast.

Another shadowy semi-problematic-dieting-background habit I have is to default to nibbling at foods as a way of eating them more slowly and "feeling my fullness" (it's definitely written in a Weight Watchers text somewhere that it takes about 15-20 minutes for the biological signals of how much I ate to register in my brain, and I find this to be true in practice).

Once again, with the goal of eating more, we turn this "tip" on its head. This means I'm not separating the Oreo halves, ponderously licking out the cream, dunking one half of one sandwich cookie in milk and waiting for it to soften, biting off half, dunking the other half, etc. I'm popping the whole Oreo in my mouth, chewing, swallowing, and doing that six or twelve more times. You are not doing the meditative Weight Watchers "40 chews of every bite" or whatever.

Gather data on what "a lot of food" looks like, in terms of servings.

When I started out with lifting, I didn't even know what a lot of food and protein looked like, practically. I would input all my usual foods and quantities and end up at around 1500 calories and have no idea how to fill in the rest of the caloric space. Sure, I could eat an additional ... chicken breast? ... and cup of rice?... but then I'm still 600 calories away and I don't know what to do with all of that.

I mention Eat This Much a lot, but it was a super useful tool for me in understanding what a lot of food and protein looks like.

We'll get into tracking a little bit more below, but this is an exercise to try even if tracking food is not your thing. Open up MyFitnessPal (ignore any of its attempts to make you diet), the tracking app of your choice (14-day free trial of MacroFactor with the code ‘beasties’!), or go to Eat This Much, and plug in your needed total-daily-energy-expenditure calories and protein to the goals sections. Eat This Much will just spin you up a little menu so you can see: oh, I shouldn't be eating a few little slices of chicken on my salad, I need like, three quarters of a breast. I need not one, but three servings of cereal. Not a dollop of yogurt, but a whole cup. Likewise, a tracking app can be used not just for logging, but planning. I will input foods I like to eat and tweak the amounts until they are meeting my goals.

What I eat in a day/full day of eating videos get flack lately, but it also helps me to see someone's real-life diet. I love the below Alan Thrall video, too, as a paean to frontloading food quantity without taking on a lot of guilt about "eating clean" or trying to "lean bulk."

She's A Beast: A Swole Woman's Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

Sit down.

Again we'll get at this tip with a case study of its opposite: When I was a tech journalist, I would go to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas every year for a few days. CES involves mostly walking around and going to meeting between various hotels and an absolutely sprawling convention center. On those days, I would eat breakfast, then go-go-gadget-gadgets for 12 hours. Dinner time would roll around, and I wouldn't even be hungry.

If I had to take a evo-psych stab in the dark, I would say it makes sense that our bodies work to not make us hungry when we are physically busy, or even heavily stressed/mentally preoccupied: It would be interruptive to whatever we are doing to have to sit down and eat. Conversely, I get hungry very easily when I am sitting around doing nothing. This also makes sense to my wild imagination: my body is still mostly biologically adapted to being a hunter-gatherer in the Caucasus, so to it, fueling up is a "good" use of the "rare" gift of down time. My body is not really aware of our modern reality, where the CES convention hall has a centrally located Sbarro, and I don't need to eat just because I have time to watch a few episodes of Better Things.

This is all to say: if you're trying to eat more and your lifestyle condones it, try resting a bit more. While it's probably not this simple, managing your stress may likewise help you feel more hungry (if you are so stressed it's interruptive to your hunger, hopefully there are many other motivating reasons for trying to sort that out!) If you're doing lots of extra cardio or walking? Cut it out. Again, you don't have to cut it out forever. But give yourself a little space to get hungry. (Conversely, some cardio, particularly intensity intervals, can make me intensely hungry. Just play around and pay attention to what it does to you!)

Think of foods you could eat a lot of at any time, and work backwards.

Sometimes a food problem I have is just a total lack of imagination. I mostly enjoy eating the same 20-30 things all the time, but then will be mystified as to why I don't like eating anything. Sometimes it's because I'm sick of my little food ruts!

In these moments, it helps to blue-sky food as a concept. What could you eat endlessly? For me, a few such items are the standard Johnston family Outback Steakhouse order (brown bread, Bloomin' Onion, house salad, steak, loaded potato); Cheesecake Factory mac and cheese balls; any spinach and artichoke dip; mozzarella sticks; really good lasagna. And then if you can't go right out and eat that food for some reason, work backward to approximate it in your life. Rule 35: if there exists a restaurant dish, there is a YouTube video tutorial out there on how to recreate it in your home.

Double the protein.

This is sort of a side point, but eating a lot won't necessarily always translate to getting enough protein. If you are eating out, whether McDonald's or a fancy restaurant, nothing ever has enough protein. I'd love to make a whole separate post about this, but this is why the 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight metric is good; it's a margin of error that afford off-meals and off-days. But to head off that problem when you're not the one cooking, when possible, double the protein. A fancy restaurant won't do it, but Chipotle will. Get an extra egg patty on your Dunkin sandwich. Get the double burger instead of the single.

Prioritize eating right after working out.

I am never able to house a meal like I am right after the gym. There's some broscience around the "anabolic window" where you MUST eat within two hours after a workout, and I genuinely don't think anyone needs to stress themselves out about that.

But if you are struggling to eat, try making a point of eating pretty close to after your workout. When I do this, I can eat almost endlessly. It feels amazing. As a counterpoint, when I don't eat right after, oftentimes soreness sets in AND I become extremely drowsy about an hour later.  I don't think this is everyone, but I notice eating right after makes a material difference to my life, not just how big or strong my muscles are.

Sometimes people feel nauseous after working out; sometimes this is because they went too hard, but often it's because they had not eaten enough generally and were underfueled. Eat more all of the time in order to support eating after working out.

Get organized around your food workflow.

I am guilty of doing things in the following self-sabotaging order:

  • going to the grocery store, buying the same basic shit I always do (swoalts materials, a random vegetable out of vague guilt, a whole chicken, some Oreos, bread, etc)
  • deciding midweek I wanna cook something
  • looking at a bunch of recipes to see if any of them align with what I have
  • none of them do, because I don't have anything
  • picking a recipe where I have to either do a special trip to the grocery store just for it, go shopping, and them come home with no patience left cooking, OR
  • I have to cut a bunch of things out of the recipe because I don't have them on hand, thereby making a very impoverished version of the recipe that I end up hating
  • deciding anew that cooking is too much work for these mediocre results
  • continuing making my plain ass food all week, deciding I don't like food and can't eat enough after all despite that I want to be stronger

When I am trying to be deliberate about food, this is what the sequence of events needs be:

  • Envision what it is I want to eat
  • Choose my recipes that will constitute enough food for the week
  • Make my grocery list and go shopping
  • THEN cook, ideally in one or two concentrated blocks of time per week (and NOT on the same day I shop)

Do you see the difference? Obviously this essentially meal-prepping, which takes some planning and intentionality. But it saves me so much time and misery when I take the trouble to do it. Plus, I enjoy my food a lot more.

There are a lot of things that constitute being a responsible adult that I don’t do because I have weird hang ups about them. Mostly I fret that taking them seriously is either stupid or something I don't deserve. But I try to think about it like this: Lifting weights is one of the only things I like. Eating is one of the only things I enjoy, and I need to do it to lift weights. Therefore, I DESERVE to take it seriously and spend time and energy on it. Having food on hand that you like and invested time in to make it good will go a long way to making sure you are eating enough.

When I am trying to follow some food guidelines, I can end up painting myself into an efficiency and effort corner. I am the biggest victim of the following: a friend passes along a recipe for a salad that looks good. I need to eat some salad, so I skim over the ingredients. It looks doable, except it calls for tarragon; tarragon costs like $2 for a little packet and I never use it all, so I'll leave it out. It calls for shallots, and I don't have shallots and they are also expensive, but I have regular onions. I don't feel like spending the time to cook them or spattering the stove with cooking oil, so I keep them raw. The recipe calls for cheese and an apple; my cheese is moldy, and I don't have any apples, so I leave those out. Before you know it, I am "making the salad" but I've skimped on so many ingredients that all of a sudden, I am eating plain kale and raw onions with a little balsamic vinegar sprinkled on top.

I have to really struggle to not go down the road of "it doesn't matter THAT much if I don't add sauce"; "it doesn't matter THAT much if I just steam the broccoli in the microwave vs turning on the oven so I can roast it." I can be lazy, but I've recently learned to say a firm "no" to cutting too many corners. Those little things are what makes food so good and tasty that when you are served it in a restaurant, you can't stop eating it. Going, not even an extra mile, but that extra like 100 feet, is self-care in terms of making sure I eat. This is also why it matters to pick recipes first, THEN shop, THEN cook, as above.

I can go too far in the opposite direction of this very problem and become slavish to recipes, where I never cook anything even remotely interesting because a recipe calls for like, a very specific brand of fish sauce, and the experience of hauling my ass to five different grocery stores looking for fish sauce leaves me so traumatized I don't try to cook anything again for a while. This takes some learning and trial and error and patience you should allow yourself, but most recipes are more flexible than you might think. If you set up to cook something and realize you forgot an ingredient, Google "[ingredient] substitutions," or try leaving it out entirely. Whatever you're making probably won't be totally inedible without it. Being able to improvise a little is super-key to making cooking a sustainable activity.

Try tracking your food, or not tracking your food.

It's become somewhat popular to paint paying attention to food numbers as some kind of moral failing or a sure sign of disordered eating; I must disagree. I am a longtime proponent of food tracking, for my personal case. It's just not possible for me to eat enough in a goal-oriented way without tracking.2 I strive to make my life as easy on myself as possible, and when I'm try to gain muscle or lose body fat, tracking food makes it ~less~ mentally taxing. Even the Intuitive Eating bible circles back around to telling people that "how they feel" is not the only consideration in the food x health picture.

This is not the same thing as saying everyone should be on a diet or losing weight. But numbers and nutritional puzzle pieces can be neutral tools. Calories and grams may be a significant digit too specific, but they are not totally useless in terms of getting a rough picture of where your eating is stacking up.

On the flipside, for many people, any numbers trigger them to restrict. If that's you, you should very likely redirect to working with a dietitian and/or therapist as a first line of defense, because you never know what trying to soldier to the opposite end of the actions spectrum is going to do to you. But if you are going to ignore that advice, it is true that many people find not tracking food helpful with their journey to eating more. Neither approach is right for everyone.

Have patience; this can take some getting used to.

Another bit of eating lore that's lodged in my brain and I'd loosely source to Weight Watchers is the idea of one's stomach "stretches" or "shrinks" according to being accustomed to eating different amounts of foods. While I don't think this is literal science, I find it can be true with eating in a spiritual sense. If I'm acclimated to eating 1800 calories per day and suddenly try to eat as much as possible, I might tap out at 2400 calories. If I'm acclimated to eating 2800 calories a day, suddenly eating only 2200 calories can make me feel like I'm starving. I really try not to get impatient with myself if I'm trying to double my food intake from one day to the next and my body exhibits a little confusion. In these instances, it can help me to add 200-250 calories for a few days or a week, then ramp up again, then again, until I'm where I want to be.

I think that's everything I can think of. If you have your own tips you'd recommend to your fellow Beasties, you should leave them in the comments! No Beastie should go underfed when they're trying to build strength.

  1. Just a note that, eating more aside, cutting and bulking, specifically, are not 101 topics. As in all things, do not listen to me before you listen to a medical professional who knows you personally and biologically. Manipulating body composition should be something you can deal with in a slow, measured, and dispassionate way, or at least, have good and sane support in doing it if you can’t.

  2. You can do whatever mewling Julia-Fox-inflected "I'm likeeeee You know I just like forget? To eat? You know things like that" but it's just a reality borne of my personal combination of traumas and mental health challenges!