Not everyone goes vegan to lose weight, but it can be hard to find information on how to maintain your weight or gain when you go vegan. Here’s how to go vegan without losing weight.
It’s definitely possible to maintain or even gain weight on a vegan diet. Just look at football player David Carter, who reached his goal weight of 300 pounds eating only plants. It’s all about eating the right food and enough of it.
NFL players aren’t the only ones looking to maintain or gain on a vegan diet. Below, I share my own story of maintaining weight while going vegan and tips on gaining from a vegan weightlifter.
How to Maintain Your Weight on a Vegan Diet
For a lot of new vegans, the focus tends to be on cutting foods out, so it makes sense that you’d lose weight. If you just stop eating the cheese, butter, meat and eggs without replacing the fat, protein and calories, you’re probably going to lose some weight. But you don’t have to.
When I went vegan 11 years ago, I was riding my bike 10 miles a day and was already at a healthy weight. I wasn’t looking to lose weight when I cut out animal products for good, so when I started dropping pounds, I had to figure out how to maintain my weight while eating vegan.
The trick for me was finding ways to make up those lost calories. These are some of the calorically-dense foods I add to my meals to help make them filling and maintain my weight:
- Avocado – Slice it into salads, soups or stews. Mash it onto your sandwiches or make guacamole.
- Potatoes – Baked, boiled or mashed, potatoes are an affordable way to add calories to any meal. And they’re a lot healthier than they get credit for being!
- Nuts and seeds – A handful of nuts are a great snack, but you can also add nuts or seeds to salads or buddha bowls for some extra calories, protein and fat. I even top soups and stews with nuts, where they sort of work like healthier croutons!
- Beans – You can use beans to make so much more than beans and rice. Puree them into dips, add them to soups and salads, or bake them into veggie burgers or loaves.
- Homemade energy bites – These nut-and-seed bites are a great grab-and-go snack, so you don’t go hungry on the go.
- Dried fruit – Plain ol’ dried fruit is an easy snack, and it keeps well. Stash some in your bag, so you’ll have a snack any time you need it.
Basically, the foods above are the ones I use to make sure I’m getting enough calories each day, even when I’m very busy. They may seem like no-brainers if you’ve been vegan for a long time, but many new vegans don’t yet know how to round out a meal or snack without animal products. These foods are a great starting point.
How to Gain Weight on a Vegan Diet
To get some tips on how to gain weight on a vegan diet, I talked to my friend, Chris Moultrie, who is an avid weight trainer. He has been vegan for a decade. As his exercise regimen has shifted more and more toward gaining strength and muscle, he’s had to also shift his eating patterns to accommodate.
Chris explained that, “to build muscle, you need to be in what lifters term a calorie surplus. This means that you’re taking in more than you’re using, so that your body can efficiently build muscle, your calories aren’t competing for current/future energy and muscle building, you have enough for all of them.”
To build that calorie surplus, Chris had to move away from the idea of simply replacing the meat and dairy he used to eat with enough veggies to feel full. That wasn’t providing him with enough calories. To gain on a vegan diet, you have to change how you think about eating. He says there are really two ways to gain on a vegan diet:
- Eat vegan junk food all the time. Obviously, this isn’t ideal. Vegan hot dogs and bags of frozen tater tots are delicious, but they’re not doing your body any long-term favors.
- Focus on whole foods that are more calorically-dense. Chris says he much prefers this method, and he walked me through a typical meal that he uses to gain weight healthily on a vegan diet.
A typical meal for Chris looks like this:
- Start with a piece of fruit.
- Add a vegetable. This is not your chance to eat fries or tots! When he says a vegetable, he means a beautiful, colorful, healthy veggie of your choice. Think steamed broccoli or cauliflower or a big salad.
- Choose a protein. Chris says that he loves brown lentils, seitan, tofu or Beyond Meat strips. You can choose one or multiple proteins, depending on your own goals.
- Add a carb. For carbs, he goes for potatoes, whole grains or beans. You might think of beans as protein, but they’re also a great source of complex carbohydrates and fiber, so eat your beans at every meal!
- Sauce it up. Chris calls the sauce his secret ingredient. A good sauce adds healthy fat and sometimes even protein to your meal. He suggests tahini sauce, lentil gravy or avocado pureed with lime and a little bit of salt. A good sauce makes your veggies more exciting and spices up your protein and carb options, so you won’t get bored.
He also explains that the order you’re eating matters, if you want to have healthy vegan gains. “You can eat the protein and carb together, just make sure you eat your fruit and veg first, it’ll make you feel a bit fuller and ensures you don’t fill up on other things and accidentally not eat them.”
It’s All About those Calories
Whether you’re trying to gain or maintain your weight on a vegan diet, it’s all about getting enough calories each day. As Chris pointed out, “No one really mentions that when you switch to a vegan diet, you’re now lush with fiber. Fiber makes you feel full, full means you’ll eat less, now you’re losing weight.”
If you’re losing weight or not gaining as quickly as you’d like, he suggests using a calorie-tracking tool to log what you’re eating for a few days. Chances are, you’ll discover that you’re not eating as much as you think. This is where those calorie-rich sauces and toppings can help. Bring on the sauces, cashews and avocado!
Resources for Gaining or Maintaining Your Weight on a Vegan Diet
There are tons of resources out there for losing weight on a vegan diet, and that can make it hard to find good information on gaining or maintaining. Here are some places to start:
- Veganomicon – Chris recommends this cookbook’s mix and match section. It’s a good tool for building meals with plenty of delicious variety.
- The LoseIt App or My Fitness Pal – LoseIt is a weight loss app, but Chris says it’s also great for tracking calories and nutrients to see where he needs to fill in the blanks. I used My Fitness Pal in a similar way when I was pregnant, to track calories, protein and iron. You can even tell My Fitness Pal if you want to gain weight and at what rate per week.
- The Vegan RD – Ginny Messina is an excellent source for vegan nutrition advice in general—she’s one of my go-tos when I’m researching anything about plant-based nutrition. Chris says she also has “great tips and tricks about how to eat for an athlete’s workload, plus a bunch of other great information about how to be healthy as a vegan.”
- Robert Cheeke’s book Vegan Bodybuilding and Fitness – This book inspired Chris to focus more on gaining strength by showing how doable it was. It includes meal plans, which can be a big help when you’re not sure what to eat.
Armed with the right foods, it’s easy to go vegan without losing weight or even gain on a vegan diet. Like any other life change, it just takes some planning and education.
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All images via Thinkstock.