“11 Tips for Gaining Weight as a Vegan” was written by Anthony Salazar. Edited/reviewed by Katie Dodd, MS, RDN, CSG, LD, FAND.
Anthony follows a vegan diet and is a dietetic intern at Oregon Health Sciences University. He is also the owner of the Chronically Nourished blog.
Are you looking to gain weight as a vegan? Even if you gained weight after adopting a vegan diet, and are now looking to shed that extra weight, this article on gaining weight as a vegan has something to offer you.
What is a Healthy Weight?
To begin, let’s start off by explaining what a healthy weight is. In the medical field, a healthy weight is often classified as body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9 (1).
To put this in perspective look at some of the examples below:
- An adult male at 5’ 8” is considered a healthy body weight if he is between 125-158 pounds.
- An adult female at 5’ 5” is considered a healthy body weight is she is between 114-144 pounds.
Challenges with BMI
The BMI charts are useful for research purposes, comparing trends in large groups, and for general uses in the public. However, they are flawed because the only factors it considers are height and weight.
There are many other factors that are missed such as age, body fat percentage, genetics, how much lean body mass someone has, what their cultural norms are, and many other reasons.
So, what is a healthy weight then?
Well, there really isn’t an exact healthy weight for anyone as it varies from person to person.
In addition, just because someone is above the normal BMI range does not mean they are unhealthy, similarly, everyone at a normal BMI is not a clear picture of health either. These figures have been used to identify certain health trends related to BMI, but this is only a small piece of the puzzle.
Let’s look at BMI research in the geriatric population (over 65 years of age).
A meta-analysis examining BMI in older adults showed a U-shaped relationship between BMI and mortality that significantly differs from the BMI recommendations for the general population (2). A graphic representation of this is shown below:
In a nutshell, lower BMIs may be harmful in the geriatric population. And high BMIs are often associated with a lower risk of death. If you are interested in learning more about BMI in the elderly, check out our article on BMI in the Elderly.
Why Gaining Weight as a Vegan is Difficult
There are several different reasons someone may have difficulty gaining weight as a vegan.
Some people may find it particularly difficult because whole plant foods are mostly low in calories. Additionally, they are high in volume as they contain a lot of water and fiber.
Typically, if someone consumes more calories than they burn on a daily basis then weight gain should occur. This is known as energy balance.
Calories are considered energy for the body and if you consume more energy than your body needs, then usually the body will store that excess energy and weight gain will occur.
The image below gives you a visual of energy balance.
- Maintain weight: when the calories your body burns every day equals the amount consumed, weight will stay steady.
- Weight loss: when the calories your body burns every day is more than the amount consumed, weight loss will occur.
- Weight loss: when the calories your body burns every day is less than the amount consumed, weight gain will occur.
If you are interested in learning about some reasons people may have difficulty gaining weight check out our article titled Why am I Not Gaining Weight?
Calorie density is a measure of how many calories are in a certain weight or volume of food.
Why is this important?
Because one way the body perceives fullness is based on how stretched out the stomach is. Stretch receptors in your stomach and intestines signal to your brain that you are full.
The image below gives a good visual of how full the stomach is based on approximately 500 calories of each food listed.
Note: This is only one mechanism in which the body perceives fullness.
The body also tightly regulates blood sugar to determine if you are hungry. In addition, how long it takes food to digest often influences how long you are full.
Food high in protein and fiber takes longer to breakdown and keep you full longer.
11 Tips for Gaining Weight As A Vegan
Below are 11 tips for gaining weight as a vegan. These tips will help you add calories to your meals to assist you in gaining weight.
1) Add Nuts, Nut Butters, and Seeds to Meals
Adding nuts, nut butters, and seeds to your meals is a great way to add some flavor and a healthy source of extra calories. Nuts are also rich in protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Example: ¼ cup of chopped walnuts contains approximately 195 calories, and 4.5 grams of protein.
- 1 Brazil nut contains over 100% of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for selenium.
- ¼ cup pumpkin seeds contain approximately 28% of the Zinc RDA for women and about 21% for adult men.
- While all nuts are regarded as having anti-inflammatory effects, nuts and seeds like walnuts, chia, flax, and hemp seeds have an added benefit due to being rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These may reduce the risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and several types of cancers (3)(4).
2) Include Avocado
Adding avocado to dishes is a good way to add some extra nutrient-dense calories. Avocado contains healthy fats and is a significant source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants.
Example: A half cup of avocado contains approximately 195 calories, 2 grams of protein, and almost 8 grams of fiber.
- A ½ cup of avocado contains a significant source of Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), Pantothenic acid (B5), Pyridoxine (B6), Folate, and vitamins C, E, and K. It contains over 15% of the RDA for all these nutrients.
- A ½ cup of avocado contains almost 8 grams of fiber, helping maintain a healthy gut and microbiome, and can lower cholesterol levels.
- A ½ cup of avocado contains a significant source of copper and potassium having more than 15% of the RDA.
- It is also a good source of magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc containing over 10% of the RDA for each of these nutrients.
3) Swap Some Cardio for Resistance Exercise (Weight-lifting)
If you are currently working out, then swapping a day or two of cardiovascular exercise (cardio) for weightlifting (resistance) is a good way to increase muscle mass and decrease the total amount of calories burned.
Weightlifting has more rest in between sets and on average burns less calories. Plus, there is the added benefit of being stronger and reducing the risk of disability in adulthood.
Note: It is still important to perform cardiovascular exercise to maintain proper cardiorespiratory health.
Fun Facts (5):
- Individuals who do not perform resistance exercise are at a significantly increased risk of becoming disabled in adulthood.
- Resistance exercise assists in lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, and balancing blood sugar levels.
- Resistance exercise improves balance and posture.
4) Include Oils & Vegan Cheese
Oils, vegan butter, and vegan cheeses are a great way to add a boost in flavor to dishes as well as some extra calories. Olive oil when used in place of other oils has shown to have protective properties against several chronic diseases (6).
Example: 2 tablespoons of olive oil contain approximately 240 calories.
- Oils contain no protein or carbohydrates and are 100% dietary fat.
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil contain approximately 26% of the RDA for vitamin E.
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil contain approximately 18% of the RDA for vitamin K.
Note: Consume vegan butter, vegan cheese, coconut oil, and palm oil in moderate amounts due to their high saturated fat content.
5) Include Tofu, Tempeh, & Mock Vegan Meats
Tofu, tempeh, and mock vegan meats are great foods to add an extra source of calories, protein, and nutrients. These foods are excellent options for those looking to add more muscle mass.
Example: half a block of extra-firm tofu contains approximately 190 calories and almost 23 grams of protein.
Fun Facts (7):
- Soy foods such as tofu, tempeh, and soy milk do not increase estrogen in the body because plant estrogens are completely different than human and animal estrogens. In fact, soy foods are correlated with reduced risk of certain types of cancer and heart disease.
- Tofu is a significant source of Pantothenic Acid (B5), Pyridoxine (B6), and Choline, containing over 15% of the RDA for these nutrients. It is also a good source of Thiamine (B1) and Riboflavin (B2), containing 10% or more of the RDA for these nutrients.
- Tofu is an excellent source of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc containing far over 25% of the RDA in half of a block.
6) Include Plenty of Legumes
Lentils, beans, soy foods, and chickpeas are types of legumes and are one of the richest sources of fiber. They are also a significant source of protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Example: A half cup of black beans contains approximately 115 calories and almost 8 grams of protein.
- Legumes have been identified as a longevity food; they were identified as a key staple in Blue Zone populations. Blue Zones are population subgroups that have the highest amount of people that live to 100 and low risk of contracting chronic diseases throughout their lifetime (8).
- A half cup of black beans contains a significant source of Thiamine (B1), Folate, Copper, Magnesium, Manganese, and Phosphorus, containing over 15% of the RDA. They are also a good source of iron and zinc, having more than 10% of the RDA for these minerals.
- A half cup of black beans contains 7.5 grams (30% RDA) of fiber which improves gut health, the microbiome, and may lower cholesterol.
7) Utilize Dried Fruit
Dried fruit is a delicious and healthy snack that can be eaten between meals or when you need something to hold you over for 30 minutes to an hour. Dried fruit is a good source of fiber, carbohydrates (energy), and minerals.
Example: a half cup of dried apricots contains approximately 160 calories.
- A half cup of dried apricots is loaded with vitamin A and contains approximately 100% of the RDA in the form of beta-carotene. Dried apricots are also loaded in vitamin E (19% RDA), Copper (25% RDA), Potassium (29% RDA), and Fiber (20% RDA). It is also a good source of iron (10% RDA for women).
- Dried fruit are a great way to add sweetness, vitamins, minerals, and fiber to smoothies.
- Raisins are a nutrient-dense and contain antioxidant compounds. They have shown to decrease blood pressure, help control blood sugar, and decrease inflammatory markers (9).
8) Drink 100% Fruit Juices between Meals
While I am a big proponent of consuming whole fruit instead of fruit juices, due to the removal of the fiber that occurs when juice is made, 100% fruit juice is still a healthy way to add some extra calories without bulky whole fruits filling you up.
Example: 1 cup of grape juice contains approximately 150 calories.
- 1 cup of grape juice is a significant source of manganese (34% RDA), a good source of potassium (10% RDA), and supplies trace amounts of b-vitamins and other minerals.
- Dark color juices like purple grape, cranberry, and pomegranate contain high levels of antioxidants which have show to reduce inflammatory markers (10).
- Watermelon juice contains l-citrulline and other compounds which may improve blood vessel health (11).
When adding sugary foods like fruit juices and dried fruit always remember to practice good oral hygiene. Here is an article for maintaining dental health in older adults if you are interested: click here.
9) Make Smoothies for Breakfast
Smoothies are my favorite way to consume nutrient-dense foods I otherwise wouldn’t regularly consume, such as kale. They are also a great way to add some calorie-rich ingredients listed in this article like nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and fruit juices.
Check out our article on High Calorie Smoothies for ideas to create your own smoothies.
- You can also include white beans or silken tofu to smoothies, as they take on the flavor of the rest of the smoothie and add a nutrient-dense source of calories, protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
10) Consider Supplements
Depending on your goals you may want to consider weight gain supplements.
Those looking to build muscle can add protein powders, carbohydrate-based weight gainers, and creatine to add some extra weight and calories.
Caution: when picking a supplement always ensure to check if the supplement has been third-party tested for contaminants such as bacteria, heavy metals, and products not listed on the label.
- Creatine is one of the most well researched sports and exercise supplements on the market. In clinical trials it has shown to be safe and increase strength, muscle mass, and sports performance (12).
11) Treat Yourself!
Whether you are trying to gain or lose weight it is always important to treat yourself.
Desserts are a great way to add some extra calories and joy to your life. Red wine and dark chocolate can be a good option for some looking to wind (“wine”) down at the end of the day and they are rich in polyphenols which are plant compounds that act as antioxidants within the body. A healthy diet always leaves room to treat yourself.
Free Vegan Weight Gain Meal Plan
Pre-planning meals can be a useful tool for ensuring that you are eating regularly and that your meals contain enough calories for your goals.
Here is our meal plan for gaining weight as a vegan:
You can learn more about a vegan diet for weight gain and snag our free meal plan here:
A Note on Calorie Counting
Note: I am not an advocate of calorie counting as a long-term sustainable habit, but keeping a temporary food diary may be useful to learn things about your eating habits.
Sometimes you may be thinking that you are eating more calories than you actually are, but it is difficult to know if you have never tracked it.
Conclusion: Gaining Weight as a Vegan
This article covered a lot of information on gaining weight as a vegan. Below is a summary:
- There is no one-size fits all weight that is considered healthy. One person can be healthy at many different weights. The optimal weight depends on a person’s goals, how they feel, what their cultural norms are, and several other factors.
- Many whole plant foods are high in water and fiber and lower in calories. This means that they take up a lot of space in the stomach and contribute less towards your energy (calorie) balance.
- Eating more high-calorie plant foods such as oils, vegan cheese, nuts, seeds, legumes, dried fruit, tofu, mock meats, and whole grains will increase the likelihood that you will put on some additional weight.
- Smoothies and fruit juices are a great way to add some additional nutritious calories.
- Depending on your goals, supplements may be beneficial for weight gain. Always make sure that the supplements you get are 3rd party tested for safety and accuracy.
- Always remember to treat yourself and don’t be overly strict.
- Planning ahead or using a meal plan can be an excellent tool to help you reach your goal.
If you are interested in learning more about high calorie vegan foods, gaining weight, or need tools to assist you in this process check out some of the blog articles:
- Zierle-Ghosh A, Jan A. Physiology, Body Mass Index. [Updated 2021 Jul 22]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK535456/.
- Winter JE, MacInnis RJ, Wattanapenpaiboon N, Nowson CA. BMI and all-cause mortality in older adults: a meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;99:875-890.
- Wu, L., Wang, Z., Zhu, J., Murad, A. L., Prokop, L. J., & Murad, M. H. (2015). Nut consumption and risk of cancer and type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrition reviews, 73(7), 409–425. https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuv006.
- Aune, D., Keum, N., Giovannucci, E., Fadnes, L. T., Boffetta, P., Greenwood, D. C., Tonstad, S., Vatten, L. J., Riboli, E., & Norat, T. (2016). Nut consumption and risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer, all-cause and cause-specific mortality: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMC medicine, 14(1), 207. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-016-0730-3.
- Westcott W. L. (2012). Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Current sports medicine reports, 11(4), 209–216. https://doi.org/10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8.
- Gaforio, J. J., Visioli, F., Alarcón-de-la-Lastra, C., Castañer, O., Delgado-Rodríguez, M., Fitó, M., Hernández, A. F., Huertas, J. R., Martínez-González, M. A., Menendez, J. A., Osada, J., Papadaki, A., Parrón, T., Pereira, J. E., Rosillo, M. A., Sánchez-Quesada, C., Schwingshackl, L., Toledo, E., & Tsatsakis, A. M. (2019). Virgin Olive Oil and Health: Summary of the III International Conference on Virgin Olive Oil and Health Consensus Report, JAEN (Spain) 2018. Nutrients, 11(9), 2039. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11092039.
- Messina M. (2016). Soy and Health Update: Evaluation of the Clinical and Epidemiologic Literature. Nutrients, 8(12), 754. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8120754.
- Buettner, D., & Skemp, S. (2016). Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 10(5), 318–321. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827616637066.
- Olmo-Cunillera, A., Escobar-Avello, D., Pérez, A. J., Marhuenda-Muñoz, M., Lamuela-Raventós, R. M., & Vallverdú-Queralt, A. (2019). Is Eating Raisins Healthy?. Nutrients, 12(1), 54. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12010054.
- Hyson D. A. (2015). A review and critical analysis of the scientific literature related to 100% fruit juice and human health. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 6(1), 37–51. https://doi.org/10.3945/an.114.005728.\
- Zuraini NZA, Sekar M, Wu YS, Gan SH, Bonam SR, Mat Rani NNI, Begum MY, Lum PT, Subramaniyan V, Fuloria NK, Fuloria S. Promising Nutritional Fruits Against Cardiovascular Diseases: An Overview of Experimental Evidence and Understanding Their Mechanisms of Action. Vasc Health Risk Manag. 2021;17:739-769
- Kreider, R.B., Kalman, D.S., Antonio, J. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14,18 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z.