It is possible to eat WFPB to gain weight. It just takes planning.
Recovering while whole-food plant-based (WFPB), or on a diet emphasizing unprocessed food, can be difficult if one sticks to the least calorically dense foods. The WFPB diet traditionally is used by people wanting to lose weight. People trying to gain weight on WFPB need to eat more calorically-dense, slightly more processed foods. People who are severely underweight with very compromised digestion may need to consider adding some oil to their diets.
My top 3 tips for WFPB weight gain. Eat:
High fat foods. These are the most calorically dense. Oil is not WFPB but when one needs to gain a lot of weight, it can be very useful to intake. People who are anorexic almost paradoxically have higher cholesterol levels than those who are not.
More processed food. You don't have to eat corn syrup and sugars at all. Just more processed food like date and nut bars, vs. having to chew through whole dates and nuts separately, is helpful for weight gain.
Liquid calories. Easier on stomach.
This is all to increase caloric density and decrease the amount of food volume and energy needed to digest food.
To gain weight, one must increase caloric intake and especially that of fat. One must intake more energy than one expends.
More on caloric density
Increasing calories while keeping food volume the same requires increasing caloric density.
From the above chart it's evident that someone eating a meal of fruits and veggies will be feeling much fuller than someone who eats oil. People with anorexia tend to feel full very fast. For weight restoration, increase caloric density and decrease intake of fiber and protein (which both tend to make one feel fuller).
I don't recommend some of the foods on this chart, but it does provide a helpful visual of caloric density. Always aim to eat more nut butters.
Yes, it's possible to eat too many vegetables
People who are very conscientious about health may be especially prone to over-doing vegetable intake. We only need 2-3 cups daily (and remember, starches are also vegetables!). There are harms to overdoing raw vegetables especially. Research shows the oxalates from raw spinach, chard, and beet greens can cause kidney stones if they're eaten in especially large quantities, for example.
Gaining weight by just increasing low-calorie vegetable intake is almost impossible.
Gaining weight trying to eat more raw foods is also very hard on the stomach.
The way one eats during anorexia recovery is not the way one must eat for life. Don't stress over temporarily eating only cooked food and more processed and high-fat food. These foods are healthy and healing to you during recovery.
To gain weight, I reversed all weight loss advice
Again, many plant-based eaters, and especially WFPB eaters, are trying to lose weight. I read books like How Not to Diet by Dr. Michael Greger in order to apply all the advice in reverse, to gain weight instead.
Here's how I ate on a mainly WFPB, SOS-free diet to recover. The only part of my diet not compliant with WFPB was oil, which was actually a key addition which helped me finally gain more weight. I don't believe oil is necessary to recovery but it can be extremely helpful.
I ate calorically-dense, processed, all cooked food only
In Chef AJ’s language, it was food all to the right of the red line
I ate just as much at night as during the day
From my readings of books like How Not to Diet by Dr. Michael Greger (which I read to apply the advice in reverse), I knew my body would convert more of what I’d eaten at night into fat and body mass than what I ate during the day. What people eat during the day is burned more throughout the day than stored in the body.
I limited fruit and leafy vegetable intake
I still had vegetables, at least the minimum recommended amount, but it’s very easy for an HCNC to especially overemphasize them. I’d remind HCNC’s on a WFPB diet that all the carbs they’re consuming are vegetables too (like potatoes)
Before I figured out the diet which finally got me to gain weight (shown above), I made the mistake of eating too many fruits and veggies. They only filled up my stomach with more water and fiber, and used up digestive energy, without giving me the caloric density and fat I needed.
Fruit is mainly water and carbs didn’t help me gain weight. I ate some berries daily and otherwise did not eat much fruit.
Liquid meal replacements were helpful
I found the liquid meal replacement Nourish (made by Functional Formularies) useful. It was the one vegan whole foods liquid nutrition brand I could find. The one ingredient it has which is not 100% WFPB is flaxseed oil. Each Nourish serving is 400 cal. Functional Formularies makes a similar formula called Liquid Hope, but that has much more protein, so I didn’t choose that.
Liquid meal replacements are advantageous because they are:
Both aspects are key. Reducing channel factors (i.e. making the healthy choice convenient) makes it easy to eat well. When I was too busy or stressed to cook much, I would end up drinking lots of Nourish throughout the day to help make sure I got my calories in. I drank up to 4-5 Nourish packets daily, averaging more around 3 daily during some phases during my recovery.
I do not drink any liquid meal replacements or ingest oil now that my weight and period are stably restored. I think there's no issue with continuing to eat these, especially if one has trouble maintaining weight.
Don't let your whole-food plant-based diet wreck your health. You can eat healthy and high calorie at the same time by following the tips here. Contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you need more help or have questions!