Are you gaining weight on a vegan diet when you expected it to be the complete opposite? Despite what other articles might say, the reason is probably not a food intolerance or gut health but something much simpler.
While veganism is an ethical posture, it also has many health benefits that people are starting to awaken to so being vegan is now associated with a healthy lifestyle and a slim figure.
Beyond the ethical and health benefits of veganism, it is not a magical recipe for weight loss or for reaching your fitness goals.
There are other important factors that affect body weight and composition and that are often the reason why you are gaining weight on a vegan diet.
Gaining Weight On Vegan Diet
How does weight gain or weight loss occurs?
The science of weight loss and weight gain is quite practical and straightforward.
- Whenever you consistently consume fewer calories than you burn each day, you lose weight.
- On the contrary, if you consistently eat more calories than you burn you’ll gain weight.
This is great news for you. It means that if you are gaining weight you are probably eating more calories than you burn and if you wish to stop it or reverse it, you need to consume fewer calories consistently.
It can sound complicated if you are unfamiliar with calories but it can also be freeing and give you control over your food and body once you learn how much you need to eat according to your goals.
Calories on a vegan diet
Calories work the same way regardless of the type of diet you eat. However, vegan diets are usually associated with weight loss because plants and less calorically dense than animal products.
To understand calories, it is important to mention that this energy unit exists in all types of foods. Carbohydrates and protein offer 4 calories per gram while fats offer 9 calories per gram.
Foods that are processed and higher in fats like meats and dairy products are usually higher in calories. On the other hand, whole foods and those that have a low percetange of fat like vegetables, grains, and legumes, are lower in calories.
Another element that influences caloric density is fiber which is why vegetables and fruits can be very filling and pack a lot of volume while being low in calories.
This explains how a vegan diet composed of mostly whole foods will be lower in calories and promote weight loss. On the contrary, a vegan diet that includes lots of processed foods and whole fats like avocados, nuts, and seeds, will be high in calories and might cause weight gain.
How do I avoid gaining weight on a vegan diet?
If you are gaining weight on a vegan diet, you are probably eating more calories than you burn.
The good news are, the solution is simple: to avoid gaining weight on a vegan diet you should reduce your calorie intake you match the number of calories you burn or reduce it further if you wish to lose weight.
Calculate your daily caloric needs
Below you will find a calculator that will help you determine exactly how much you should be eating on a daily basis to maintain or lose weight.
Note: This calculator helps you discover your TDEE which takes into consideration your daily activity levels so the result you’ll get on TDEE will be the number of calories you need to maintain your body weight consider your activity level.
Determine your goals
Now that you have discovered your TDEE, you can safely say you know how many calories to eat if you want to maintain your weight on a vegan diet.
But if you have been gaining weight involuntarily and wish to lose a few pounds, you need to create a consistent caloric deficit.
Note: The real reason why most fad diets work is not because they are magical or have a unique fat-burning secret. It is simply because they help you create a caloric deficit by cutting out or reducing certain food groups.
The optimal calorie deficit is large enough to stimulate steady weight loss, but not so large that you end up being hungry and is unsustainable.
A deficit of 300-500 calories per day is recommended depending on your appetite and how fast you wish to lose weight.
It is estimated that a total of 3,500 calories equals 1 pound of body fat so, with a consistent deficit of 500 calories per day, you would lose around 1 pound per week.
To calculate your final calorie goal, take your TDEE from the previous step, and subtract the number of calories you choose as a deficit.
For example, if your TDEE is 2000 calories per day and you wish to keep a caloric deficit of 500 calories per day you would calculate:
- 2000 calories (TDEE) – 500 Calories (deficit) = 1500 calories (daily goal)
Assess your current diet
Now that you know how much you need to avoid gaining weight on a vegan diet, it can be challenging to figure out what to eat, especially if you are not familiar with counting calories.
The best way to familiarize yourself with calories and nutrition is to start with what you already know: your current diet.
Taking a look at what you have been eating and what might have be contributing to your weight gain, can help you understand how to easily modify your diet to support your goals.
You don’t need to change your diet completely or eat foods you have never eaten before. All you need to do is make your diet work for you.
There are many tools you can use to track your meals such as MyfitnessPal or Cronometer where you list the foods you have eaten and they calculate the number of calories you’ve consumed like in the example below.
They have their own calculator for your TDEE and weight loss calories if you prefer to use it but I rather do it the way I showed above since I have noticed multiple times that the calories they suggest tend to be too low.
Once you have listed all the foods you eat on a typical day, you’ll be able to see if you were eating more calories than your body needs and which foods are higher in calories.
Note: When listing your meals, make sure to include all the ingredients especially oil and other sauces since they are high in calories and can be the reason behind unwanted weight gain. In the same way, sugar and alcohol can add up lots of calories.
Adjusting your diet to avoid weight gain
Listing all the foods you ate on a typical day out of memory won’t be perfect since you might not remember everything you ate and the exact serving sizes. Besides, it is common that we underestimate what we eat and overestimate the exercise we do.
But it serves as a starting point to understand where you might be sabotaging your own goals so you can easily change them.
Here are some common elements that increase your calories quickly and how to
Condiments and dressings:
Dressings and condiments are usually high in unwanted calories since they include high amounts of oil, sodium, sugar, and even corn syrup. It is also really easy to consume a lot of them since they are not filling and no one is really paying attention to how much they use.
Oil is another food that can easily increase the calories in your diet whether you are using it to cook or to add to your salads. Olive oil is even seen as healthy but it is actually highly processed and one of the most calorically dense foods with 130 calories per tablespoon.
Avoiding fried foods as well as drenching your salads in oil can make a huge difference in keeping your meals lower in calories while still filling you up and allowing you to consume more nutritious foods instead.
There is even a type of vegan diet called “High Carb Low Fat Vegan (HCLF)” where oil is off the table for the reasons mentioned above and other health concerns. You can find more about this type of vegan diet and its benefits on my article Low Fat Vegan Diet: The Secret To Weight Loss Or Unnecessary Trend?
In a similar way to oil, sugar has no nutritional value and is very high in calories. Plus, sugar calories don’t make you feel full so you will continue to eat other foods and add the calories from sugar on top of your normal intake.
Additionally, foods high in added sugar like sugary breakfast cereals, granola bars, candy bars, fruit juices and pastries also contain massive amounts of added sugar and low to zero nutritional value.
Highly processed foods such a fast foods, mock meats, desserts, candies, dairy substitutes, bread products, snacks, sugary drinks and alcohol are high in calories since they contain lots of sugar and oils along with many other ingredients of no nutritional value.
It is way easier to consume a lot of calories from processed foods than it’d be to consume lots of calories from vegetables or starches so if you wish to avoid gaining weight on a vegan diet, it is advisable to avoid these types of foods.
Do you need to count calories not to gain weight on a vegan diet?
If you are not familiar with tracking calories, the idea of having to track everyhting you eat might seem challenging and overwhelming so it is common to wonder if that is neccessary to avoid weight gain.
While counting calories is not essential to maintain or lose weight it is a useful tool that can help you understand what and how much to eat to support your goals.
Here are some important factors to consider when debating whether you should or shouldn’t track your calories.
- You don’t need to do it forever. Unless you are a bodybuilder or an athlete, there is no need to track your calories forever. You can use it as a way to learn about your nutritional needs and ideal serving sizes for you. Once you do it for a while, you’ll get use to eating around the same amount and it’ll become second nature without you having to count the calories.
- The whole point of calorie counting is not to micromanage everything you eat and make you obsessed with food. On the contrary, knowing that you you have the power to choose foods that align with your goals can give you freedom and allow you to enjoy your meals without worries.
- If you don’t like the idea of counting calories you can also use a meal plan that contains the number of calories you need to maintain or lose weight (depending on your goals). While some people prefer the freedom of eating whatever they want as longs as they hit their calories goals, others prefer sticking to a meal plan and forget about calories.
Other less common causes for weight gain on a vegan diet
Now that you have learned how weight gain works, you can understand why the most common cause for weight gain on a vegan diet is an excess of calories.
I believe than often people assume that because they are eating plant-based food, that means that they are inherently healthy and can’t make them gain weight whic can cause them to overeat or be less mindful than they’d usually be around their food.
Having said that, there are other less common causes for weight gain on a vegan diet that are still worth mentioning:
You are retaining water
When you switch to a drastically different diet, your body may retain much more or less water than it’s used to. Additionally, a plant-based diet tends to be higher in carbohydrates than one with animal products.
But don’t worry, carbs are not going to make you gain weight. However for each gram of carbohydrate, you store as glycogen, your body also retains about 3 grams of water which can cause you to retain some more water, especially if you had been eating a low-carb diet.
if this is your case, it shouldn’t be more than 4-5 pounds and your body will adjust over time. It is not necessary to lower your carbs since that’ll only cause you to retain more water when you go back to eating them which, by the way, you should since they are your body’s and brain’s most efficient source of energy.
You are putting on muscle
If you are follow any type of resistnace or stregnth training program, you might be gaining muscle mass. Technically, this can still be considered as gaining weight but muscle has less volume per pound so while you might be gaining weight, you might also be looking leaner.
If this is your case and it is your goals to gain muscle, do not pay attention to your body weight and focus on other signs of your progress like your strenght, how your clothes fit and your measurements.
You are eating too much fat
While the number of calories you eat is the most impactfull factor on weight gain or weight loss, it is not the only one. As I mentioned before, calories con from nutrients which can be of three diffrent types: proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
A vegan diet will naturally have lots of carbohydrates which is great because they are the most efficient source of energy for your body. But if, at the same time, you are eating lots of fats, your body will store them as fat as well.
Since you are already getting your energy from carbohydrates, your body has no need to burn the fats and turn them into energy which is a very inefficient process so it will simply store them causing you to gain weight.
Current recommendations support a wide range of fat intakes for good health, anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of daily calories. (This translates to 22 to 39 grams of fat for every 1,000 calories you eat.)
You are no eating enough protein
If you have been vegan for at least a few hours, somebody has probably wondered about your protein intake.
While it is completely possible to meet all your protein needs from plants, you might need to be more intentional at making sure to include vegan sources of protein in your meals.
Eating an adequate amount of protein is key for maintaining muscle mass, which at the same time helps keep your metabolism healthy.
One of the best ways to get enough protein is to include legumes like beans and lentils in your meals. One cup of cooked lentils contains 17 grams of protein, compared to about 8 grams in a cup of cooked quinoa or a quarter cup of almonds.
Drinking a plant-based protein powder can also boost your intake and make you feel full for longer.
Your hormones are out of balanced
While a lot less common, there are some hormone-related conditions that can cause weight gain including underactive thyroid, high levels of estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), etc.
If you have ruled out all other reasons for weight gain, you might want to consider checking with your physician to discard any hormonal imbalances.
You are stressed
Cortisol is known as ‘the stress hormone” because it rises in times of elevated tension. This hormone stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism for fast energy and stimulates insulin release and maintenance of blood sugar levels. The result is an increase in appetite and cravings for sweet, high-fat, and salty foods which can result in weight gain or difficulty losing unwanted pounds.
Cortisol not only promotes weight gain, but it can also affect where you put on the weight. Researchers have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area rather than in the hips.
You are eating too little
While it might sound contradictory, on very few occasions, the solution to weight gain is not to eat less.
If you have been eating at a caloric deficit for a long time, that might have caused your metabolism and your thyroid to slow down which would cause your weight gain.
You are not sleeping enough
Not getting enough hours of sleep, can also cause you to gain weight. Too little sleep triggers a cortisol spike whcih signals your body to conserve energy to fuel your waking hours. The result, You’re more apt to hang on to fat.
At the same time, 4 days of insufficient sleep can hamper, your body’s ability to process insulin –by more than 30%. since your body has trouble processing fats from your bloodstream, it ends up storing them as fat.
Additionally, leptin is the hormone that tells you to stop eating is low when you are sleep deprived, so you’ll be eating more while your body is more likely to store fat.
You have food sensitivities
I have left this for the end because it is less common than what the media make it sound. Being ‘gluten-free” has become a trend so people tend to attribute every issue to a food sensitivyt.
Having said that, a very small percentage of the population does have some food sensitivities to foods like gluten, soy, corn, tomatoes, nuts, and seeds that can contribute to belly bloat and hormonally-related weight gain.
If you think this is your case, it is best to ask your doctor about food allergy testing to determine which foods you are reacting to.
Gaining weight on a vegan diet FAQ
Does vegan make you gain weight?
Put simply, no. A vegan diet doesn’t necessarily make you gain weight. In fact, in most cases, people who transition to a vegan diet tend to lose weight and adult vegans are, on average, 10 to 20 pounds lighter than adult meat-eaters.
But, like any other diet, it is possible to eat more calories than what your body needs especially causing weight gain if you eat a majority of processed and high-fat foods.
Why am I so bloated on a vegan diet?
The most common reason for being bloated on a vegan diet, especially when you first transition to one, is the high amount of fiber that naturally comes woth eating lots of plants.
Fortunately, this is a temporary effect and tends to last no more than 3 weeks. Check out this article to learn more about Vgena Bloating and how to avoid it.
Why am I always hungry on a plant-based diet?
Some people can feel hungry when first transitioning to a vegan diet because plant digest faster than animal products but it is normal to feel hunger every 3-5 hours after you eat a meal.
On the other hand, meat and fish can take as long as 2 days to fully digest which is why you used to feel full for longer in comparison.
To increase your feeling of satiety try including carbs, fats, and protein or at least two of them into every meal. If you eat carbs on their own they will digest faster making you feel hungry sooner.
Witj the expcetion of a small number in which is gaining weight on a vegan diet is caused by medical factors unrelated to the foods they are eating, for the majority of people, gaining weight on a vegan diet is directly related to eating more calories than your body burns.
Follow the advice on this guide so you can asses your current diet, how it might be impacting your weight and what changes you can implement to stop gaining weight or to lose some pounds.
If you think there is another reason that can be affecting your weight, it is best to consult with your doctor so they can help you find a solution that supports your goals and overall health.