Weight loss gets a lot of media attention. But for many people, weight gain is the goal. People who have difficulty gaining weight under normal circumstances may find it even harder on a vegan diet. But healthy vegan weight gain is not impossible.
Here’s how to go about it.
Why Would Vegans Want to Put on Weight?
Everyone has a healthy weight. This can vary from individual to individual, and it can depend on a lot of different factors. But the long and short of it is that we all have an optimal body weight, and being too far over or under that weight can be unhealthy.
Who might want to gain weight?
Some athletes, like bodybuilders, may have weight gain goals. Athletes often want to increase their muscle mass for better athletic performance.
Aging bodies can experience muscle loss, and this, in turn, can cause unwanted weight loss.
Certain medications and medical treatments can cause unwanted weight loss.
People recovering from serious medical conditions that have caused unwanted weight loss may also be anxious to return to their healthy weight.
And yes, there are people who would simply like to put on a few pounds.
But weight gain isn’t simply a matter of increasing your calorie intake. There’s healthy weight gain, and there’s gain that’s not so healthy. We want the healthy kind. Right?
Of course right.
What is a Healthy Weight, Anyway?
That’s a very fraught question.
Body Mass Index (BMI) is often used to determine if a person is underweight, of a normal weight, or overweight. At its most basic, the BMI compares a person’s height and weight.
Which means that the BMI has some very serious limitations.
It doesn’t take muscle mass into consideration, for example, which means that athletes with a high muscle mass may fall into the “obese” range, even if their body is very lean.
The BMI also doesn’t factor in gender or age. Studies have found that women, young adults, and individuals over the age of seventy often have a higher BMI without the associated health risks. (1)
It’s also important to consider body type. People are built differently, full stop.
Some people gain weight easily, and others do not. Some are naturally small-boned, while others have larger, heavier bones. Different bodies also have different distributions of fat and muscle.
A healthy weight for one person may be unrealistic for another.
Your health care provider can help you to build an accurate picture of what a healthy weight for you may look like. This may include:
- BMI assessment
- Waist circumference measurement
- Body fat measurement
- Test for blood sugar level
- Blood pressure measurement
- Heart rate
- Blood cholesterol levels
And other tests that can evaluate your general health relative to your weight.
Is it Possible to Gain Weight While Eating a Plant-Based Diet?
In fact, if you’re increasing your calorie intake, high calorie vegan foods can be one of the healthiest ways to do it.
A vegan or vegetarian diet rich in high quality, nutrient dense plant foods can provide you with not just more calories, but better ones.
What Makes Gaining Weight on a Vegan Diet Difficult?
One misconception about veganism is that we only eat fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are important, of course. But they’re not the whole picture. Specifically, raw fruits and vegetables don’t have a lot of fat or protein.
And fat and protein are necessary for a healthy body, no matter what your weight goals.
Another misconception is the idea that weight change comes down to a balance of calories in and out. Like the BMI, measuring calorie intake is one of several tools, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
If you’re trying for weight gain, simply eating more calories may not do the trick, just as eating fewer calories doesn’t always result in weight loss.
Doing Vegan Weight Gain Right
Whatever your weight goals, it’s important to get the right balance of macronutrients (“macros”) — that’s fat, protein and carbohydrates — as well as the essential micronutrients, that is, vitamins and minerals. (2)
Calculating and keeping track of macros and micros can be complicated. Consider using an app to do some of the record keeping for you. (3)
Protein is essential for anyone who wants to gain weight, and especially to gain muscle mass. For most people, protein should comprise between 10 and 35 percent of your diet.
Animal products like meat and cheese are many people’s go-tos for protein. But there are plenty of great vegan sources of protein (4), including:
- Nuts and nut butter
- Beans and legumes
- Nutritional yeast
- Hemp seeds
You can also buy vegan protein powder and protein supplements. These are often made from pea protein powder or hemp protein powder.
Look for minimally processed foods, as they will be more nutritionally dense than highly processed foods.
With nine calories per gram, fats are amongst the most calorie dense foods out there. That means that they can be a great help for gaining weight. And there are many plant foods that are rich in healthy fats, including:
- Nuts and nut butters
- Plant oils
- Coconut oil
- Coconut milk
- Coconut cream
- Dark chocolate
It’s easy to add some of these healthy, nutrition packed fats to your diet. We’ll show you some tips and tricks in a bit.
Carbs have taken a lot of flack in recent years, but they’re an essential source of energy and nutrition. And if you want to gain weight as a vegan, you’ll need to eat your carbs. Many experts recommend a diet that is between 45 and 65 percent carbohydrates.
Healthy sources of vegan carbs include:
- Fruits and vegetables, especially starchy vegetables
- Whole grains
- “Ancient grains”
How to Gain Weight as a Vegan : Step by Step
If you want to gain weight healthily, there are a few steps you can take.
Set Your Goal
How much would you like to weigh? Set yourself a healthy, realistic goal and timeline. It’s neither healthy nor realistic to gain weight too fast.
A safe pace for losing weight is one to two pounds a week; it’s the same for gaining weight. Aim for a gain of one to two pounds per week. (5)
To gain one pound of lean body weight per week requires eating an extra 2,000 to 2,500 calories per week over and above what your body uses. So, how many calories does your body use?
You’ll need two numbers to figure that out: your BMR (basal metabolic rate) and your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure).
Work out your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate)
The Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), also called Resting Energy Expenditure (REE) is the measure of how many calories your body uses while at rest. Ideally, eating extra calories over and above your BMR, will help you to gain weight. (6)
For a quick and convenient way to calculate your BMR, try an online BMR calculator. (7)
Calculate Your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure)
Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) is the basal metabolic rate plus the energy burned from exercise and daily activities.
An online calculator can give you an idea of calorie burn for various activities. (8)
You can also multiply your BMR by your general activity level to get your TDEE. Read more about that here. (9)
Consume 110 Percent of Your TDEE
Food provides energy. The body uses the energy from food as fuel, and what it doesn’t use, it stores. This is one of the most important elements of weight gain.
Now that you have an idea how much energy your body typically uses, don’t just eat enough calories; eat more than you need to. 10 percent above your needs is a good place to start.
For example, if your TDEE is 2000 calories per day, start with a daily budget of 2,200 calories per day.
As for macros, try for a balance of 25 percent protein, 55 percent carbohydrates, and 20 percent fat.
Eat High-Calorie, Healthy Foods
Sure, you could probably gain weight by gorging on junk food. But why would you do that to yourself? You should absolutely indulge yourself with treats, but the bulk of your diet should be high quality, nutrient and calorie rich foods.
Here are some ways to sneak high quality extra calories into your diet. And you can absolutely do this with vegan foods.
Hit all The Food Groups
A healthy way to get enough calories (and many essential nutrients) is to eat a variety of different types of foods, including fruits and vegetables, grains and grain-based foods, healthy fats, and plant based protein sources.
Just remember to check your labels, as some plant based meat and dairy substitutes may not have exactly the same essential nutrients as their animal based counterparts.
Experiment with sauces and dressings. Many of these are rich in fats, which can help with gaining weight. Just be aware that many commercial sauces and dressings are also high in sodium.
Be Generous with Oils
Plant oils like sesame oil, olive oil, and canola oil are packed with heart healthy fats. So don’t skimp on the oil when you’re cooking.
Protein, Protein, Protein
If gaining muscle is your goal, then protein is your friend.
Eat a variety of protein dense foods, such as nuts and nut butter, soy products like tofu, soy milk, and tempeh; beans and legumes, seitan (“wheat meat”) and mycoprotein (often sold under the trade name Quorn.)
Beans and rice together are a complete protein, which means that they provide all of the essential amino acids. Soybeans also provide complete protein.
Vegan protein powders can also help you to get the protein your body needs.
Eat Your Carbs
Carbohydrates, including refined carbs, are a great source of energy and can help you to gain the weight you desire.
Choose Snacks Wisely
Adding a few snacks between meals can help with gaining weight. But don’t just choose calorie dense foods; choose foods that will sneak some extra nutrition into your day, too.
More Strength Training, Less Cardio
Gaining weight in a healthy way means building muscle. Cardiovascular exercise has many health benefits, and will put you at reduced risk for developing heart disease, but it won’t help you to gain weight.
If you’ve never done any sort of weight training before, a few sessions with a trainer can ease you into it and lower your risk of injury.
You don’t have to throw yourself into weight lifting immediately — or at all. Resistance training, using resistance bands or your own bodyweight, can also help you to build muscle and strength.
Check out these easy bodyweight exercises for muscle building that you can do anywhere, with no equipment required. (12)
Add Some Vegan Protein to Shakes and Smoothies
Shakes and smoothies can be quick and tasty. If you add vegan protein powder, they can also help you to gain weight.
Consider Other Supplements
There are some supplements that can help with weight gain, including:
- Weight gainers
However, it’s important to check with your doctor before starting any sort of supplement routine, especially if you have any medical conditions, or are taking medication.
How Long will it Take to Gain Weight on a Vegan Diet?
This depends on a lot of factors.
Generally speaking, you can expect to gain one to two pounds per week by eating 10 percent more calories than your body uses.
This can vary, however, from individual to individual.
Are You Ready to Bulk Up the Vegan Way?
You can gain weight as a vegan, and you can do it in a healthy way.
Set your goal, determine how many calories your body needs per day, and eat around ten percent more than that. Choose healthy, nutrient dense foods, and focus on muscle building exercises.
And if you’re struggling, don’t hesitate to ask for help from your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian.
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About The Author:
Jess Faraday is a vegetarian from a family of vegetarians. A recent vegan, she wants to spread the word about the benefits of plant-based eating for health, for animals, and for the planet.
- Smart BMI | What is the SBMI? | https://www.smartbmicalculator.com/why-sbmic.html
- Healthline | What Are Macronutrients and Micronutrients? | https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/micros-vs-macros
- Prevention | 7 Best Macro Tracking Apps | https://www.prevention.com/food-nutrition/g35649564/best-macro-tracking-apps
- Healthline The 18 Best Protein Sources for Vegans | https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/protein-for-vegans-vegetarians
- Sanford Health | How to Gain Healthy Weight | https://news.sanfordhealth.org/sports-medicine/weight-gain-performance/
- Healthline | What is Basal Metabolic Rate? | https://www.healthline.com/health/what-is-basal-metabolic-rate
- Calculator.net | BMR Calculator | https://www.calculator.net/bmr-calculator.html
- Calculators.org | Exercise Calculator | https://www.calculators.org/health/calorie-burn-rate.php
- Kansas State University | Physical Activity and Controlling Weight | https://www.k-state.edu/paccats/Contents/PA/PDF/Physical%20Activity%20and%20Controlling%20Weight.pdf
- National Health Service | Eatwell Guide | https://www.nhs.uk/Live-well/eat-well/food-guidelines-and-food-labels/the-eatwell-guide/
- US Department of Agriculture | My Plate | https://www.myplate.gov
- Men’s Health | 28 Bodyweight Exercises that Build Serious Muscle | https://www.menshealth.com/uk/building-muscle/a756325/10-best-bodyweight-exercises-for-men/