Gaining Weight as a Vegan
These days, everyone seems so focused around losing weight that gaining weight is only ever talked about in a negative light. But sometimes, gaining weight is exactly what is crucial in order to be healthy and happy. Gaining weight is NOT a bad thing. Sometimes it is absolutely essential.
Being underweight has severe consequences on the body: From feeling cold all the time, being pale, feeling tired/low energy levels, losing hair, feeling weak and dizzy, to hormonal imbalances, reduced bone density and risk of osteoporosis, decreased muscle mass, low immune function, poor wound healing, low heart rate and blood pressure, low blood sugar, digestive dysfunction, sleep disturbances, mood irregularities, arrhythmia, nutrient deficiencies, heart disease...the list goes on.
As hard as gaining weight is, I tell you now, it is so worth it. The temporary discomfort, anxiety, bloating and feeling yuck will pass. If you wish to achieve health: you will have to keep eating when you're already full, you will have to eat when you aren't hungry, you will have to eat when others aren't and you will have to eat more than most other people. But with gaining weight comes gaining health, energy, strength, LIFE. Being a healthy weight and feeling fit, strong and full of life is one million times better than being frail, skinny and weak will ever be. Trust me on this one.
And while it's damn hard, if you want to, you can. You can do it.
There's a misconception in society that it's impossible to gain weight on a vegan diet. Again, definitely not true. Gaining weight in the first place is JUST as difficult as losing weight, if not more. Not only is it hard to come to terms with mentally, seeing that number on the scale go up and feeling clothes get tighter, but it's also extremely hard physically. People underestimate juts how MUCH food is actually needed to gain weight, especially on a vegan diet where most foods are naturally lower in calories and higher in fibre and water content.
Studies have shown that it takes over 7000-8000 extra calories (that means ON TOP of what you normally need to maintain your weight) to gain just 1 kg of weight. That means you have to eat a 500 calorie surplus every single day to gain half a kg a week. If you are in recovery from a restrictive eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, you will most likely need even more to continue gaining weight. In recovery, people often go into a hyper-metabolic state, and usually need anywhere from 2500 to 4500+ calories per day to restore their weight to a healthy level. In hospital, I was having over 4000 calories per day, in order to gain roughly 500g per week. I know this seems incredibly overwhelming, but after months and years of restriction, there is so much to heal and repair within the body (bones, brain, organs, hormones, hair, the metabolism etc). This takes a lot of energy.
Just a quick disclaimer: If you are in recovery from an eating disorder, I want to stress how important it is that you are closely monitored by a team of qualified health professionals during the weight restoration process, in order to make sure you're staying on the right track, everything is working as it should, and to avoid refeeding syndrome. I very very highly recommend seeing a qualified nutritionist or dietitian, who can give you a personalised meal plan that takes into consideration exactly what YOU need. This also helps normalise eating patterns, and means you don't have to count calories and think about food too much, which I believe is an important part of making a full recovery. This post is just general advice on how to gain weight in a healthy way, and make the process as easy and enjoyable as possible.
1. EAT MORE
The most obvious, but sometimes overlooked, thing is simply eating more. Increase your portion sizes. It simply isn't possible to gain weight without eating more food!
If you're having 1/2 cup of cooked rice at the moment, increase it to 1 cup. If you're having a tablespoon of peanut butter, increase it to two. Make the most of every single meal and snack, by making sure the portions are adequate, and yes, when gaining weight, 'adequate' means the same size, if not BIGGER than the portions everyone else is having. That being said, don't compare your intake to what others are eating. It's completely irrelevant and only makes things harder. Focus on YOU and your goals/needs.
Adding extra sauces, spreads to meals, nut butters on oats and in smoothies, sprinkles of nuts and seeds on meals etc, is also great for increasing energy without having to huge increase the volume of portions.
2. EAT MORE OFTEN
If you like having just three meals a day, that's fine, but I can promise you here and now that it's SO much easier to get in all the energy needed to gain weight if you have snacks in between those meals. I typically have 3 meals, as well as 3-5 snacks throughout the day. It's so much easier on the digestive system too, especially when you're not used to eating very large quantities at once. Plus, who does't love snacks, right?
I go for energy-dense snacks, such as bliss balls, raw bars, nuts and seeds or trail mix, bananas with nut butter, smoothies, homemade muffins and slices, dried fruit, dates, vegan yoghurt with muesli, rice cakes or toast with nut butter and banana or hummus and avocado etc. Check out my Mastering the Art of Snacking post for more ideas!
3. EAT CALORIE DENSE FOOD
You won't get very far eating just fruit and vegetables. This is probably where the idea that gaining weight as a vegan isn't possible comes from. Gaining weight is hard and uncomfortable as it is, don't make it even harder for yourself by trying to fill up on low-calorie, high-volume foods like salad and melon. I did this at first and it didn't get me anywhere. Plant foods are naturally lower in calories and higher in volume than animal products, and much more filling due to the high fibre content. Portions are going to be BIG anyway, so make use of those more calorie-dense foods to avoid having to eat an even bigger mountain of food.
Now I make sure to base all my meals on energy-dense foods. This means basing meals on whole grains like rice or quinoa, whole grain products like pasta, wraps, bread, couscous, or other starches like sweet potato or potato. As well as having a protein component, such as beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu or tempeh, and a source of healthy fats like avocado, tahini, nuts etc. Swap out lower calorie options for higher calorie ones (e.g. ditch the noodles for real pasta or brown rice, swap berries on oats for banana, swap rice cakes for grainy bread/toast).
This one is really important. In the vegan community, the high-carb low-fat is very popular. I have no problem with this, apart from two things: 1.) Especially among people with an eating disorder history, it's easy to take this to the extreme with low-fat becoming no-fat, and 2.) HCLF is a weight-loss or at least weight-maintenance diet. It is EXTREMELY difficult to gain weight eating such little amounts of fat and protein if you don't want to eat ginormous quantities of food.
While I was eating very low-fat, not only was I not gaining any weight, but I wasn't able to increase my calories enough TO gain weight in the first place because of the sheer volume of food I had to eat. I also would feel incredibly full and bloated after meals, yet not be satisfied. Since adding more healthy fats, like avocado, tahini, nuts and seeds to my meals, and also increasing my protein (beans, lentils, chickpeas, hummus, vegan protein powder) intake, I feel much more satisfied but less uncomfortably full as I did eating very high carb low fat.
NOTE: To gain weight, you need to be eating high-carb, high-protein, high-fat. It's that simple. Make sure meals contain a source of each macronutrient. For example, for breakfast you might have a bowl of oats with banana, berries, soy milk and peanut butter, or a dinner might be rice with a chickpea chilli, some greens and half an avo.
Each of the three macronutrients have their purpose, and this is even more important in recovery. Carbohydrates fuel our muscles and cells with the energy they need to function, fats are important for hair, skin and nail health, they are a structural component of our cells, in particular the our neurons (brain cells) and are needed for hormone production. Protein is needed for DNA synthesis, tissue and muscle repair and growth, transport of substances in the body, hormones and more. All are equally important!
5. DRINK YOUR FOOD
This one has been a lifesaver for me. Drinking your food is so much easier on the stomach than having to eat the same quantities. I make sure to have at least one energy and nutrient-dense smoothie per day to give me a boost. I think once your meals and snacks have reached a certain size, it's a much better idea to add in a few nourishing smoothies per day on top of those meals/snacks, rather than try to increase to crazy big portions. It also makes it easier to maintain your weight afterwards, as you can simply remove some of these extra drinks if needed, but not have to worry about decreasing what you're actually eating.
Frozen bananas, mango and berries, together with oats, chia seeds, flaxseed meal, vegan protein powder, vegan yoghurt, avocado, nut butter and plant milk are great ingredients to pack into nourishing and delicious smoothies. Other ideas for drinks include fruit juice, hot chocolate, chai or turmeric lattes made with plant milk, or drinking coconut water throughout the day to replace some of your water.
6. TRAIN SMART, REST MORE
While you're very underweight, no exercise is recommended until a healthy BMI is reached, as this places additional stress on the body that it might not be able to handle, as well as burning extra calories you just can't afford to burn. All energy needs to go towards healing and repairing your body during this recovery process. Some stretching, light yoga and leisurely walks might help improve your mood and make you feel better!
If you do have the doctor's approval to exercise, minimise the cardio. Cardio-based exercise, again, just burns and burns calories that should be going towards weight gain at the moment. It also makes gaining muscle a lot harder. Instead, focus on building strength through body weight, resistance and/or weight training exercises, preferably developed by a qualified coach who knows about your situation and goals. For me, exercise is a big passion, and really helps motivate me and makes me feel amazing. If this isn't you, don't force yourself. Do yoga, go for walks, swim in the ocean, whatever you enjoy.
And make sure you get PLENTY of rest and sleep. I cannot stress how important this is in both recovery, gaining weight and gaining muscle. Also, keep in mind, the more you exercise, the more you will have to eat to gain weight. Don't make it any harder for yourself than it has to be!
7. EASE UP ON THE FOOD RULES
Trust me, gaining weight is SO much easier when you let go of all those rigid food rules and relax a little with your eating. If there's ever a time to do it, it's now, and your mind and soul, as well as your body, will thank you for it.
If you are eating a diet that's full of whole plant foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts/seeds, its PERFECTLY okay to also enjoy some more processed foods. In fact, I think it's an essential part of gaining weight and mental recovery as well. Once I started allowing myself to eat some more processed foods every day, I felt so much more freedom around food as well as less discomfort and anxiety, as I didn't have to eat such huge portions of whole plant foods.
- Include more wholegrain pastas, breads, wraps, crackers, granola, vegan bars.
- Get in the kitchen, if you like, and start baking some wholesome muffins, cookies or banana bread to have as snacks.
- Add condiments like sauces to your meals and put dressing son your salads
- Eat out!! Go try out all the vegan cafes in your area, join your Mum on a coffee date and enjoy a piece of raw cake, have a vegan pizza or sushi picnic with your friends. Enjoy yourself, fight the food rules! It can honestly only benefit you and get you closer to full health and freedom around food.
8. BE CONSISTENT
Gaining weight doesn't happen overnight, it takes a long time, and a lot of patience. It also won't happen if you aren't consistent with your intake. And that means sometimes having to plan ahead, just to ensure you eat enough every day. Take energy-dense snacks with you when ever you go. Eat enough even when you're busy or out and about all day. You need to do your absolute best to make sure your body is getting what it needs every single day. Your health is your number one priority!
9. REACH OUT
You don't have to do this alone! There is nothing shameful or weak about asking for help, in fact, the opposite. Reaching out for support is a sign of courage and strength.
Talk to your family and friends about what you're going through and what you're aiming towards. They can help support you, motivate you to stay on track and keep you accountable. I have found this to be one of the biggest keys! Also, check in regularly with your team of health professionals, such as your doctor. And if you are struggling emotionally, I can't stress how helpful it is to seek the help and support of a psychologist or counsellor. They can provide the listening ear, different perspective, and helpful tools to coping with any stress and unhelpful thoughts and feelings you may be experiencing.
If you are trying to gain weight, and still finding it hard even after putting these tips into practice, or would like more individualised and personalised guidance, then I also highly recommend working together with a qualified nutritionist or dietitian to help get you back to your best health and wellbeing. They can come up with a plan for you that is suited to your individual calorie and macronutrient needs, give you more ideas and tips, as well as provide further support and monitor your progress. Once I am a fully qualified nutritionist in July, I will be able to help you with this!
If you have any further questions, feel free to leave a comment or email me, and I'll do my best to answer. I hope this post has been helpful, and if you're trying to gain weight (gain HEALTH) at the moment, then I'm sending you lots of love and strength. You got this! xxx