HOW TO GAIN WEIGHT » healthfully, on a plant-based diet
There's certainly fewer resources out there dedicated to healthfully gaining weight than there are on losing weight, but it can be equally as challenging and complex.
It might seem tempting to turn to foods high in processed sugar and fats as a method to gain weight, and it might get the job done, but these foods in excessive amounts aren't going to do your body any good for long term health outcomes. There are healthier ways to gain weight with proper foods and strategies. This article will help guide you in the right direction.
Why Gain Weight?
There are several reasons a person may want to consider gaining weight. Perhaps there was a recent illness resulting in weight loss, or a change in appetite during a stressful time in your life, maybe you're an athlete looking to gain muscle mass, or maybe you feel you're simply underweight and want to increase the weight to what you feel is normal and healthy for you. We've also had some people e-mail in about changing over to a vegan diet and noticing some unintentional weight loss, wondering how they can normalize it.
Those who follow a vegan diet tend to have lower BMI (body mass index) scores when compared to the general population or even to vegetarians (1). So while it's certainly possible to maintain a healthy weight while following plant-based lifestyle, it may take some extra attention and care to ensure you eat enough calories from carbohydrates, protein and fats to maintain a healthy weight.
What about eating disorders? This article does not discuss eating disorders as this is an extraordinarily complex topic and one that merits an article of its own. To learn more about overcoming eating disorders you can read our PUL article about it here.
Increase Your Food Intake
This one seems fairly straightforward: eating more calories than you are expending can steer you towards gaining weight, and this doesn't necessarily mean having to add unreasonable amounts of food to your regular diet. Adding an extra 500-750 calories a day can result in a slow and steady gain, which is ideal. If you've been reading our blog for a while now, you'll know we do not promote calorie counting unless there is a medical reason for it. But for the sake of demonstration purposes, let's see what it means to add these extra calories: + 1/2 an avocado mashed on 1 slice toast with 1 banana on the side = ~ 500 calories + our Chocolate Hazelnut Smoothie recipe = ~ 600 calories (without toppings) + 1/4 cup hummus with 10 multiseed crackers and a 1/4 cup of dried fruit (dates, apricots etc.) = 500 calories + 1 cup edamame pods (or 1/2 cup shelled) drizzled with sesame oil, and a side of toast = 500 calories + 1 sliced apple with 3 tbsp of peanut butter and 1 cup of soy milk = 500 calories (caloric information obtained from Canadian Nutrient File)
Choose Energy Dense Foods More Often
Nuts & Seeds: this is a fantastic way to increase those calories, protein and healthy fats all in one. Aim for the unsalted varieties. You can also consider purchasing candied nuts, though we prefer to make them ourselves. Macadamia nuts and walnuts are especially dense.
Remember that nut and seed butters, like peanut butter, almond butter, and tahini are wonderfully nutrient- and calorie-dense ingredients that can be added to almost any meal or snack!
Olives: loaded with plenty of healthy fats, olives are a wonderful addition to salads, wraps, sandwiches and snacks. Try our olive tapenade on some crackers or in a sandwich for an explosion of flavour and for some extra calories.
Avocados: these are one of the few produce items that are calorically dense. You can add these to the side of any savoury dish, or use their creaminess to your advantage in a dessert, such as this DIVINE chocolate pudding. Granola: you can pretty much add granola to anything, and the beauty of making it at home is that you can really pack those nuts, seeds and dried fruits in there. Give any one of our granolas a try and customize to your liking.
Dairy Alternatives: aim for soy milk, as it provides more protein per cup (comparable to that of cow's milk) than any other plant-based dairy. Another great options is adding full fat coconut milk into your smoothies, coffee or soups/curries.
Fats & Oils: are an easy way to increase your calories while cooking or baking; it can be added to a sauce or salad dressing, and you can add a little drizzle of olive oil to a dish just before serving. Read more about oils and fats in our article here!
It's important to note, we do recommend getting as much of your healthy fats from whole food sources such as nut butters, nuts, seeds, olives or coconuts first before opting for oils. Even for those aiming to gain weight, we still recommend using oil in moderation.
+ Try adding granola to oatmeal/parfait as we do here. + Drizzle a nut butter of choice over oatmeal/parfait, like in this comforting oatmeal. + Cut up and spread avocado onto a piece of wholegrain toast. + Try out a smoothie: consider adding a combination of a nut butter, fruit(s), and plant milk, like in this PB smoothie.
Classic comforting oatmeal, packed with steel cut oats, nut butters, and fruit
Meals (Lunch/Dinner): + Incorporate avocados into your dishes or on the side. Slice them up and drizzle some hot sauce over top, add into a salsa, smoothie or a sandwich. + Incorporate roasted potatoes and yams into your meal or on the side. Drizzle with some olive oil and seasonings before serving. + Create sauces and dressings using oils and nut butters. Give this coconut peanut sauce a try! + Aim to a have protein source in every meal: be it tofu, edamame, tempeh, or soy dairy product. Read our article on protein here.
+ Enjoy soups which include beans and/or legumes, and try adding full fat coconut milk to boost the calories even more!
+ Drizzle a little virgin olive oil over rice, steamed vegetables, or a salad.
Try this Heirloom Beetroot Soup as a side to dinner to add calories using sweet potatoes and whole fat coconut milk.
Snacks: + Always keep calorie-dense snacks on hand, like some homemade granola bars packed with nuts and dried fruits.
+ Try a handful of unsweetened dried fruits such as apricots, figs, dates, apples etc. They are calorically dense while still providing vitamins, minerals and fibre. + Dip fresh fruit such as apples, bananas or pears into a nut butter of choice. Or try out these nutty granola apple bites. + Include olives or sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil in salads, or as a tapenade to include whole food sources of healthy fats.
+ Snack on dried fruits, like dates or dried mangoes. Not only are these foods wonderfully calorie-dense, they are also loaded with fibre and a plethora of vitamins and minerals!
Try these no-bake granola bars as energy-dense snacks that can be enjoyed on-the-go!
Use Beverages to Up Your Intake
One easy way to add caloric density to your meals is through your beverage choices. Here are some ways to up your intake through fluids:
Drink Ideas: + Try opting for drinks that are both hydrating and offer some calories. This might include smoothies that include avocados and bananas, or lattes made with full-fat coconut milk.
+ Aim to drink beverages such as water/juice/tea after meals instead of before or during so that you don't feel as full as quickly. Choose high-calorie options more often such as full-fat plant milks, juices and smoothies over low calorie drinks such as water or tea.
+ Store-bought juices tend to be calorie dense options, but they are often loaded with artificial sugars and flavouring. If you choose to drink juices, opt for ones that naturally made with mostly fresh fruit and veggies.
Our PB & Jelly Smoothie includes peanut butter, bananas, and soy milk. Turning your smoothies into smoothie bowls helps to increase calories with the addition of calorie-dense toppings such as granola, crushed nuts, hemps seeds, and other nut butters!
Training Your Appetite
It might feel difficult in increase the amount of food you eat at first. Here are some of tips to help train your appetite to eat more foods. + Start slow: incorporate only one of our suggestions above each day and choose the ones that you know are within your abilities and that you will stick to. Keep it up for a few days before adding another one. + Exercise & sleep: exercising might seem counterintuitive for someone wanting to gain weight, but exercising regularly and getting enough sleep can help to increase appetite. Try to practice weight-training exercises more than cardio exercises. + Small & frequent: try eating smaller meals, more often. Spread it out over the course of a day to avoid getting too full. Aim for a meal every 2-3 hours. + Set a timer: it might feel odd at first, but this will help you remember to eat meals and have them consistently.
+ Avoid "fat-free", "low-fat", or "light" products: full fat products have more calories in them, plus they taste much better! + Try a bite: sometimes your appetite isn't up for it, but you'd be surprised how even taking a few bites of something can get it going and make you realize you were hungrier than you thought.
Still Need Help?
By eating a variety of foods including whole grains, nuts & seeds, and fruits and vegetables and by eating enough volume of these foods, it is possible to obtain enough calories to adequately gain weight over a period of time. However, if you are unable to gain weight adequately from food and beverages alone, consider seeking professional help from a dietitian or physician that can help address your individual concerns and possible supplementation.
The Bottom Line
A: Increase your intake: gradually increase your food (and therefore calorie) intake; start with adding an extra 250 calories a day and work up to 700-800.
B: Choose foods higher in calories: examples include nuts, seeds avocados, granola, dairy alternatives. Choose foods you know you will actually eat and enjoy! No need to force ones you don't enjoy. C: Pack the energy into beverages: aim for milk, juice, and smoothies when possible, in addition to water
D: Seek professional help: speak to a healthcare professional. Whether it's your physician or a local dietitian - they will be able to give you individualized information and follow up with you on your ongoing progress.
Additional References (1) Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina. "Becoming Vegan: the Complete Reference on Plant-Based Nutrition." Becoming Vegan: the Complete Reference on Plant-Based Nutrition, Book Publishing Company, 2014, pp. 377-390.
Psst: » Find this book in our shop! Choose between the comprehensive edition or the express edition.
Want To Learn More?
Read this previous nutrition article called BECOMING A DIETITIAN » frequently asked questions
What About You?
What are your tips to help gain weight? Let us know in the comment below and share your recipes with us on Instagram with the hashtag #pickuplimes.
❤ Written by: Mitra (PUL Executive Assistant and Dietetics Student) & Sadia