Why would someone want (or need) to gain weight?
Some vegans choose to become vegan simply because they’ve found it to be a healthier lifestyle for them. No judgment here.
Not everyone feels the need or is motivated by the same thing. Some vegans decide to become vegan to lose weight, others because they feel we should eat more of a vegetarian diet, and still others make the switch from meat to meatless to be kinder to animals.
Others still are inspired by holistic health and lifestyle to become vegans and lose weight without a real worry about the amount of weight lost.
In my experience and in observing others, most vegans that do lose weight on a vegan diet are motivated to make the switch because they feel they can live a more compassionate lifestyle. Those same people are often more likely to be more flexible in their thinking around food.
For an example think about it this way: If you look at a vegan diet as a way to eliminate an unnecessary product from the grocery store shelf (animal suffering) and think about all the others that can be helped by reducing or eliminating your meat eating and become vegan in a way to make the world a better place for more than those lucky enough to be born with a higher metabolism.
The Science Behind Weight Gain
To understand how to gain weight as a vegan, we first need to understand how our bodies are equipped to gain weight. Although there are different schools of thought, I’ll suggest we take a look at the evolution of the human body. In Primal Body-Primal Mind, evolutionary biologist Dr. Staffan Lindeberg says that humans originally evolved in equatorial Africa, and we fared best when our diet matched the availability of plants and animals in our environment. So, we were able to survive on a variety of different foods. However, we evolved to store a lot of body fat for times of famine, and by doing so, we were able to protect ourselves against the famines that were common at that time.
Weight Gain Type #1: Weight gain via an increase in fat
You may see some vegans who are muscular. But according to Dr. Cordain, it’s almost impossible to build muscle mass as a vegan. The reason for this is because vegans have a much harder time building muscle mass and achieving optimal sports performance than non-vegan athletes have.
There are two major reasons why this is the case for vegans:
- Vegans typically have lower protein intake. This is because many healthy proteins (like whey) come from animals
- A lot of plant-based foods lack the proper amino acid profile. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Meat and fish are relatively easy to digest contain all the amino acids that your body needs. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, on the other hand, have incomplete amino acid profiles. As a result, vegans need to combine these foods in order to create a complete amino acid profile and achieve optimal protein intake.
If your goal is to build muscle mass, these two points alone can set you up for failure.
Weight Gain Type #2: Weight gain via an increase in muscle
Vegetarians¹ have been shown to have a leaner physique than non-vegetarians, due to the body converting some of the carbohydrate and fat in their diet into muscle protein. Vegans tend to be even leaner than vegetarians due to the exclusion of eggs and dairy-based protein.
So what happens when a vegan wants to add some additional muscle?
Some weight trainers and/or bodybuilders can become fixated on the “hardgainer” physique that is lean, but with little muscle mass.
If you’re a vegan, or a vegetarian who wants to gain weight, the first thing you need to do is convert some of the existing fat into muscle. As you add more muscle mass, your body will increase your basal metabolic rate, and thus you will need more calories in your diet.
If the caloric content of the vegan/vegetarian diet is too low to meet the RMR of a new weight trainer, muscle mass will be built at the expense of fat.
Examples of calorie-dense calorie sources that can be added to a vegan/vegetarian diet are oats, brown rice, and fruits.
Those calorie-dense calorie sources will help you meet the increased calorie requirement for building muscle mass while getting all of the other nutrients that you need to stay healthy.
Weight Gain Type #3: Weight gain via fluid retention
This type of weight gain can occur in both men and women, and it’s seen mostly in people with an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism).
This gland usually produces too much thyroid-stimulating hormone, which causes your body to produce more thyroid hormones.
This extra production of hormones can lead to a buildup of fluid in the cells of the body and a weight gain of 3 to 5 lbs in a few days.
Note: most of this fluid is not fat – it’s just liquid. This typically won’t happen to people who are severely overweight. This is also not considered healthy weight gain.
How to Gain Weight on a Vegan Diet
Vegan diet is generally associated with weight loss and overall a healthier lifestyle. However, there are also some people who choose the vegan diet for other reasons: ethical, religious, economic, environmental, etc.
Some vegans are not overweight since they have fewer cravings and face less urge to binge on foods that are high in fat and sugar.
However, some vegans are suffering from a certain degree of underweight and they crave for more calories. Here are some suggestions about gaining a healthy weight while being on a vegetarian diet.
Tip #1: Increase your portion sizes
This is a win-win situation … you’re going to eat healthier foods, and you’re going to gain weight. That’s because you’re adding more calories to your diet, which increases your caloric intake.
While it’s important to make sure that you’re eating the right types of foods, it’s equally important to make sure you’re nourishing your body. By increasing your portion sizes, you’re more likely to feel full, and you’re stuffing more calories into your body.
This is important because you want to increase the number of calories you get each day. You want to add a healthy amount of calories that will allow your body to use the food you eat rather than waste it.
Tip #2: Add in some snacks
Don’t go for nondairy snack options like fruit, crackers, and chips. Instead, choose ones that are calorie-dense but nutrient poor like vegan cookies, candy, and chips. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, eating nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables first will help you to feel fuller, which then allows you to choose more calorie-dense snacks.
This process is called “eating copious and varied healthy foods”, which will not only allow you to be full for longer, but will also provide you with more nutrients to help you grow and remain strong.
Tip #3: Go nuts about nuts!
I always thought it was ironic that there were tips for how to avoid gaining weight on a vegan diet. A vegan diet eliminates many weight gain triggers, but there are some foods that vegans tend to over eat.
For example, many vegans are lactose intolerant. Befriending soy products at your local organic health food store can be a big mistake. For some people, soy products can create bloating, too much gas, and intestinal discomfort.
It’s important to pay attention to your body and its reaction to foods. As a general rule, try to avoid heavy foods within and hour before bedtime. Eat your heaviest meal in the mid-afternoon or early evening.
If you’re feeling fat, bloated, or crampy after your meal, then you’re probably eating something you are sensitive to. So if you know that you are sensitive to gluten, dairy, soy, or something else, then eliminate those foods and see your reaction to them.
You can also try adding more healthy fats and carbs to your diet. Here’s a recent post on high-fat vegan recipes to get you started.
Tip #4: A little heart healthy oil goes a long way
If you just keep increasing the amount of water you ingest, you will only lose weight. As your body becomes deprived of key nutrients, it will down-regulate, and your metabolism will slow down.
Think about it, your body needs fat to transport these nutrients to the cells. So, by adding a small amount of heart-healthy oil, you are actually adding an important nutrient that your body needs to function.
Olive oil contains a healthy combination of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. Research has shown that diets rich in monounsaturated fatty acids can help improve blood pressure (Narwani, 2007) and decrease LDL levels (Larsson, 2006).
Tip #5: Slice open an avocado
And eat it inside out.
This is a mouthful of delight. A vegan recipe that combines three of the best things in life: avocado, tomato, and garlic.
It’s soft and creamy, but the crispy sun dried tomato strips give it a nice edge. It’s a perfect match for toasted baguette, or even better wrapped in a tortilla and served open-faced. But the best way to serve this slightly spicy condiment is to save it for the last bite of the last slice of pizza on your plate.
And best of all, it’s so easy to make at home. You can prep the ingredients the night before (if you happen to have sun dried tomatoes hanging around), and when breakfast rolls around, you are ready to rock.
Need another reason to wake up early?
This recipe only cooks in 5 minutes.
Bagel and lox is one of the most popular combinations. The bagel is soft, chewy, and doughy. The cream cheese is smooth and creamy. And the lox is salty with a nice layer of smoky flavor. This is like a big, fat, drippy sandwich.
But it’s definitely not a low-calorie combo.
Tip #6: Get your starchy vegetables
(the good kind)
So your diet is definitely vegan: no dairy, no meat, and no eggs. That’s right … not a carby grain in sight either. Of course, that’s a smart choice since most carbohydrates (bread, pasta, rice) have had their natural fiber stripped away and are potentially harmful if eaten in large quantities. But is it really possible to gain weight on a vegan diet?
Sure. The right kind of carbs can help you to gain a few pounds, and there are also other ways to cause some weight gain. Here’s the good news: almost all vegetarian and vegan sources of carbohydrates have fiber in them. And that fiber doesn’t contribute to weight gain.
The best foods for gaining some weight on a vegan diet are the so-called whole grains. Whole grains are the entire grain with the bran, germ, and endosperm present.
You can gain weight with wheat bread as long as the grains are whole grain and the bread is made with whole wheat flour. Barley provides indigestible calories and is a great grain for weight gain. Or you can try some brown rice or bulgur wheat and see if that works. Even quinoa qualifies as a whole grain, and it’s pretty satisfying.
Optimizing Your Vegan Diet
When your goal is to gain weight, pay close attention to calorie intake. Most vegans often eat large amounts of tofu, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. All of these foods are nutrient-dense, but they tend to be low in calories.
A vegan who is looking to gain weight will need to pay close attention to calories and get enough calories from the right mix of macronutrients, just like everyone else.
Besides paying attention to your calories, it’s also important to get the right amount of the essential nutrients you’re going to need on a high-calorie diet. Here, you can use supplements to make up for the nutrients you’re missing out on …
Eat More Calories
Keep a food journal to actually see what you’re eating. Some of us are lucky enough to keep track of calories in our heads, but some people need more external help.
The food journal will help you to see if you’re making any caloric oversights. Write down what you’re eating, when you’re eating it, and how much of it you’re eating.