Since I started blogging last year, I’ve consistently been asked to write a post on how to healthily gain weight with raw and vegan foods. I’ve avoided the question so far, mostly because I think that people who have significant amounts of weight to gain or lose should be working closely with a medical doctor or an R.D. It’s not a process that should be guided by reading food blogs.

With that in mind, I thought I’d offer a few of my thoughts on ways to gain small amounts of weight with raw and vegan foods.

My experience so far has suggested that there are two groups of people who have a hard time gaining weight with vegan or raw lifestyles: the first is composed of people who simply need to eat more calories, and could use some tips on squeezing those calories in. The second includes people who are sabotaging weight gain efforts by clinging to restrictive eating patterns.

Obviously, it’s much easier to discuss the former group. If you’d like to gain some weight with vegan and raw foods (either because you’re quite slender to start with, or because you’ve lost weight since exploring veganism), the fundamental thing you need to do is eat more calories.

Weight gain is mostly a matter of calorie expenditure vs. intake. When I mention this, many people who eat plant based diets balk, and remind me that all calories are not created equal. I know this! The quality of the foods we eat contributes to weight release or storage, just as surely as caloric density does. (So eating a Big Mac will keep the pounds on far more reliably than eating six hundred calories worth of rice, beans, vegetables, and avocado.) And yet, when it comes to weight gain or loss, it’s the ratio of calories eaten versus calories burned that ultimately governs the process. How healthy a person feels will have to do with a lot more than calories–getting a high portion of vegetables, eating meals that are whole and unprocessed, etc. But if you want to gain weight, you’ll need to start eating more calories, either by increasing portion size, eating more calorically dense foods, or, ideally, both.

The goal is to do this without eating foods that are laden with sugar, low-quality fats, and simple carbs. Believe me when I say that this is far, far easier than it sounds! It’s a myth to think that weight gain necessitates junk food; it doesn’t. In fact, the following small efforts should point you in the right direction:

  • Make an effort to eat more fats. If you suspect that healthy fats make up less than 25-40% of your overall food intake for the day, you should try eating more. No, you don’t have to do this with a spreadsheet or a calculator: just do a quick mental comparison of how much fat you tend to eat (versus the whole bulk of what you eat), and see if the ratio could use a boost.
  • Seek our foods that are rich in calories, like nuts and nut butters, avocados, certain whole grains, and coconuts. These foods will easily add caloric density to your meals, making it easy to take in more energy without eating more food than you can stomach.
  • Snack on foods that are calorically dense. I recommend either a) calorie-rich snack bars (such as ProBars or Raw Revolution bars) or b) a nutrient dense smoothie. You can try making one with a banana, 2 tbsp nut butter, a smoothie infusion (such as the Vega brand), and fresh nut milk. Oatmeal is also great for tossing into smoothies! These snacks offer energy without too much bulk, and therefore make it easy to get more calories in.
  • Begin increasing the size of your meals. Try eating 50% more of each meal than you already do (so, if you typically eat a sandwich at lunch, eat a sandwich and a half; if you tend to have a cup of soup with a cup of quinoa, have one and a half cups of each). Over time, this will add up to positive results.

These tips make it easy for anyone to get more energy and nutrition in without junk foods or empty calories. You’ll simply be getting more nutrition, more of the time.

Of course, that advice is directed to men and women who are genuinely committed to weight gain. Unfortunately, many of the people who write to me about weight gain are sabotaging their own efforts, whether they mean to or not. They want to gain weight—or rather, they’ve been told they should gain weight—but they refuse to do what it takes to make it happen. Time and again, I hear from women who are “trying” to gain weight, but who seem riddled with counterproductive food phobias. They include:

  • Paranoia about eating a well balanced diet, or the exclusion of certain food groups ( e.g., “I’m scared of grains, “I’m scared of nuts,” “I don’t eat oils,” or “I can’t have any sugar”)
  • Religious adherence to food combining practices
  • Refusal to eat calorie-rich foods resulting from an imbalanced fear of “density” (I typically hear this from people who have become overly caught up in cycles of fasting or abstinence)

If any of those patterns describe you, I can only say this: weight gain isn’t likely if you’re fixated on abstinence or a terribly limited swath of foods.

Listen up kids: if you choose to be a vegan, you’re already limiting your diet more than a lot of people do. I think that my blog is a testament to the fact that eating a conscious vegan diet that includes a ton of raw food needn’t be limiting. As long as you’re making room for the major vegan food groups—veggies, legumes, grains, a bit of high-quality soy (fermented if possible), sea veggies, fruits, and nuts/seeds—you have no reason to suffer from unwanted weight loss. But if you begin slipping into a mentality wherein you fear all foods that aren’t vegetable juice, green smoothies, or avocados, you may quickly find yourself becoming thinner (or less vibrant) than you want to be.

I know plenty of high raw foodists who feel terrific eating two green salads and a smoothie each day. I’ve met lots of others who fail to thrive with those eating habits. If vegetables and juice are working well for you—if you weight is stable, your energy good, your elimination solid, and your health vibrant—well then, that’s terrific. If they aren’t working, you need to go back to the drawing board, and remind yourself that loving raw food should not mean sacrificing variety. I, for one, couldn’t get the kind of dietary balance I need if I didn’t eat grains, legumes, and a very moderate amount of soy in addition to all of the raw veggies I eat and juices I drink. Raw foods are the foundation of my lifestyle, obvi, but they don’t exclude everything else.

If you’re eating mostly raw but finding that you cannot keep your weight stable, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do I eat enough? If I were to compare my energy (kcal) intake to what’s considered normal for my weight and height, would I be close, or very far?
  • Have I crossed off a ton of food groups that I used to eat?
  • Have I self-diagnosed a food allergy that may or may not be real?
  • Have I become fixated on food combining to a point where I simply can’t fit enough bulk into a meal?
  • Do I eat often enough? Do I routinely skip meals?

If you’re answering “yes” to more than one of those questions, you may need this wake up call: weight gain and severely limited dietary habits are mutually exclusive. Period. It’s not veganism that’s the culprit here, or raw foods: it’s a fear of variety and heft. More often than not, men or women who tell me that they can’t gain weight with vegan foods have reduced either fat or carbohydrate intake drastically; if not, they’ve severely reduced their portions. And weight gain won’t happen until those habits change.

Healthy weight gain tends to come slowly, and slowly, and then it happens quickly. So if you’re at the start of a weight gain journey, remember that consistency and effort will pay off with time and with patience. If you follow some of the tips above—more fats, more caloric density, more energy-rich snacks, and bigger meals—it should ultimately prove simple.

And once again, remember that, if you have a significant amount of weight to gain, these efforts alone may not be enough. Talk to your doctor about how you can expedite the process in a healthy way.

Hope this gives many of you the answers you’ve been looking for. Veganism shouldn’t mean wasting away, and in fact I hate to ever think that it’s synonymous in the popular imagination with waifdom. Eat well, eat with balance, and remember that raw foods need not preclude a varied approach!

Before I go, I wanted to mention that speaker bios for the HLS have been posted. Check out my awesome fellow speakers! I am so excited for August.