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T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies
Go From Underweight to Healthy Weight With These Plant-Based Tips

Although many people adopting a plant-based diet see weight loss as a benefit, others find themselves dropping a few too many pounds. This can be especially troubling for those who are trying to build muscle or who are already underweight when making the transition.

According to Brenda Davis, RD, some evidence suggests vegans may have a higher incidence of being underweight than omnivores. Being underweight is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 or less, or being 15 to 20 percent under the ideal weight for your height.

Unfortunately, most popular weight gain diets include animal foods and involve unhealthy tactics, such as drinking an entire gallon of milk a day or loading up on shakes made with processed protein powders. The good news is you can gain weight eating whole, plant-based foods if you take the right approach.

Getting in the Weight Gain Mindset

With the obesity epidemic so prominently in the news, it can be hard to get away from weight loss tips and strategies. The weight loss mindset says:

  • Eat less, burn more
  • Don’t snack between meals
  • Don’t drink your calories
  • Eat more slowly
  • Serve food on smaller plates

The first step in switching to a weight gain mindset is to turn this list of “rules” on its head. To start putting on pounds in a healthy way:

  • Eat larger portions
  • Embrace snacking
  • Don’t be afraid of smoothies
  • Break out the big plates (and bowls)!

These are just a few tips to get you started. Gena Hemshaw, author of The Full Helping, has a fantastic post about gaining weight on a plant-based diet, including how to pinpoint and overcome fears and unnecessary restrictions standing in the way of your efforts.

Caloric Density: The Trick to Eating More

Eating a diet designed for weight gain means taking in more calories than you are currently. The high fiber and water content of many plant foods can fool your body into feeling full before you can manage those extra calories, and trying to eat more of these foods is likely to leave you feeling bloated or sick.

What’s the solution? Caloric density. Take a look at how different plant foods stack up when it comes to calories per 100 grams:

  • Vegetables: 25 calories
  • Fruits, potatoes and starchy vegetables: 60 to 70 calories
  • Rice and grains: 125 calories
  • Avocado: 167 calories
  • Soy products (edamame, tempeh): 110 to 195 calories
  • Nuts: 600 calories

It’s easy to see from these numbers how chowing down on a big salad isn’t going to help you achieve your weight gain goals. Vegetables, fruits and other low-calorie foods should still be a major part of your diet, but you’ll need to balance the bulk with foods containing more calories in the same volume. Eating calorically dense foods may seem counterintuitive at first as you adjust to the weight-gain mindset, but over time, you’ll find it becomes easier to incorporate them as a regular part of your diet.

Simple Strategies for Healthy Weight Gain

Try these tips for getting started with a plant-based weight gain diet:

  • Use a food tracking app to visualize calories
  • Make salad dressings with nuts, seeds, or avocados
  • Spread nut or seed butter on fruit
  • Add ground flax seeds to oatmeal
  • Mix cooked grains into soup, stew, and chili
  • Bring food with you when running errands or traveling

Don’t worry if you can’t up your food intake very much at first. Your body may take some time to get used to the extra calories, so it’s okay to go slow. Add a little more each day or week, gradually increasing your intake until you start to see healthy weight appear.

Eating a diet designed for weight gain means taking in more calories than you are currently.

For the best results, align your lifestyle with your healthy diet choices. Adding strength training to your workout regimen encourages muscle building. Getting enough sleep gives your body a chance to repair inflammation and balance the hormones responsible for fullness and hunger. When your lifestyle is on track, your quest to gain weight is easier and more enjoyable.

Taking these steps toward healthy weight gain should help you put on the pounds you need to reach your ideal weight. Working with a dietician or other nutrition professional with a strong knowledge of plant-based diets can help you stay focused and ensure you get not only enough calories but also the right balance of nutrients to nourish your body.

If the scale still doesn’t budge even after you’ve adopted a weight-gain lifestyle, it may be time to see a doctor. You should also consult with a healthcare professional if your weight loss was sudden, unexplained, or accompanied by other symptoms. These could be signs of an illness requiring medical attention.

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