I occasionally get this question a lot, “How does one gain weight on a vegan diet?” or something similar would be “Will I be able to gain muscle if I am 100% plant based?”.
To give a little background, when I shifted to a 100% plant-based diet, I was in the middle of a muscle building program to bulk up. My coach at that time urged me to keep eating fish and whey protein as to not derail my own program by trying something new. I explained my reasons why I was going on a plant-based diet — my desire to help people combat diseases as well as ethical concern to animals and the environment.
Despite switching to a 100% plant-based diet for the first time, I was able to gain 25 lbs over a steady period. I cut down the 20 lbs again so I can compete at my weight class. In my sport which is Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, we have certain weight classes to compete in, and I normally compete in the lightweight division which is 167.5 lbs.
After the muscle building experiment, I decided to compete at a higher weight class and applied several principles that allowed me to gain 30 lbs only for only several months.
Here are 7 tips on how to gain weight and muscle on a vegan diet that I can recommend. These tips go for both males who want to gain muscle and bulk or females who want to add a little weight to their frame.
#1 Think about changing your set point.
A “set point” is your body’s fat mass or composition. This is your body’s homeostasis condition, meaning your body will attempt to defend against changes to this condition because it is comfortable at this weight.
To give you an idea, this is the weight you typically hover around, despite whatever you eat you are still stuck at the same weight range. When trying to gain muscle and weight, we need to think about changing our set point weight and the only way to do this is to maintain a certain weight for a period of time so the muscle fibers will attach to our skeletal frame. By permanently changing our set point, we won’t need to worry about always eating just to maintain our weight.
I personally eat only slightly more or almost the same amount food now that I am 195 lbs than when I was 165 lbs. This shows that I have successfully changed my set point weight, and in the event that I don’t eat enough food for several days, I won’t magically shrink back down to 165lbs, as 195 lbs is my new set point, and where my body is in homeostasis.
#2 Monitor your average weight, not your daily weight.
When trying to change body weight, we typically try to look at how much we weigh on a particular day. But the most important thing is that we should look at our weight on an average.
Our weight fluctuates day by day based on our activity, food, and water intake. We typically do not consume precisely the amount of food every day. Exercise also varies with intensity and activity, hence, the variations in body weight. To give an example, I can eat a lot of food in one day and be 3 lbs heavier but I can also forget to eat enough food for a couple of days and end up 3 lbs lighter.
What’s more important is to monitor our average weight over a period of time. When we see our average weight is rising, we know that we are changing our set point slowly. Here is a daily weight tracking I typed out on my phone daily. You can see the average change over time.
It would be best to weigh yourself the same time every day with the same weighing scale. I usually weigh myself in the morning after I wake up. The weighing scale doesn’t need to be dead precise. It just needs to show you the changes in your weight. When you see your average weight is going up on your scale, it means you are slowly changing your set point.
#3 Lift weights and eat enough calories.
For us to change our set point weight, we need to use resistance training with progressive loads to cause a specific response from our body. This response triggers it to move away from homeostasis and force adaptation.
The best way to gain weight for both men and women is to lift weights, preferably barbell weights for multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlift, press, and bench press as these are the easiest exercises to load with weight, thus eliciting the greatest hormonal response for growth since it targets the entire body.
It would be extremely hard to gain weight if I would stick to doing hundreds of push ups since fixed weighted load wouldn’t elicit hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is a term for muscle growth, and that should be the goal.
Along with exercise, we also need to consume enough calories for muscle growth. Both food and weights elicit a hormonal response for us to change our set point. The only way to gain muscle is a combination of food + weights or any other loaded training. A program where food or weights are independent of each other will not do the job.
If we consume a lot of food without weights, we just get fat. If we lift weights but don’t consume enough food, we can get strong but we won’t be able to get the muscle or gain the weight we desire.
A lot of women are afraid of being too muscular when lifting weights and my tip for them is to not worry, as this is far from the truth. When you gain muscle, your body composition will be much leaner as you would be burning more calories at rest since you are carrying more muscle.
It is also extremely difficult for women to get too bulky like a man without any hormonal testosterone supplement as women just don’t have the genetic make-up or the testosterone hormone similar to men. There’s absolutely no reason for women not to train or use the same exercises as men.
#4 Follow a training program. Focus on training rather than exercising.
It is very important to have a plan and know the difference between training and exercising. Exercise is the physical activity done for the effect it produces today. With exercise, after the workout, you are done. Training, on the other hand, is a physical activity done with a long-term goal in mind. It constitutes workouts that are specifically targeted to produce a certain goal.
If your plan is to just go to the gym to lift some weights, run the treadmill, or do some circuit training without any long term plan on how the workouts build to a specific goal, then you are just exercising.
It may seem daunting on preparing a long term workout plan but I highly recommend everyone to check out the 5/3/1 training program by Jim Wendler. It is suitable for everyone from beginner to advanced, male or female.
This specific training program allowed me to gain muscle at a steady rate and at the same time do athletic endeavors.
In my opinion, this is one of the best DIY strength and muscle building programs because it focuses on long-term gains. It focuses on adding 30 lbs on your lifts in a year rather than 30 lbs in 2 months which are commonly advertised. It focuses on training for steady gains as training is not a sprint but a marathon.
The program also takes into account variability which is one of the most important aspects of a program. It allows you to have a bad day and still be able to lift the weights prescribed.
In my opinion, a program, where you have to be on your best day to perform, is not a very good one as it does not take into account the variability of life. Everybody has bad days and not everyone is 100% when they enter the gym.
What’s best about it as well is that it can be adjusted to 1-2x or 3-4x a week training depending on your personal schedule.
#5 Establish a baseline.
It’s extremely important when trying to change our set point to establish a baseline amount of food. We need to see how much calories and the breakdown of macronutrients we are consuming in a day. For us to successfully change our set point, we need to keep the baseline constant so we can able to test certain stimulus which is exercise or manipulation of calories to see how it affects us. To give you an idea, here’s a list of food I eat in a day:
2 bananas, 1 small apple, 1 mango, greens, 3 tbsp flaxseeds plus superfoods
2 cups brown rice and ½ cup bean dish
5 bananas or other equivalent fruit
2 cups brown rice and ½ cup chickpeas
Meal before sleep:
1/4 cup avocado, ½ cup lentils, 1 beet, greens
If I were to continue to increase my weight, I would slowly add calories to this baseline amount to see the effect on my average weight. What’s important with the daily calories is not to be precise, but to be accurate, meaning we should consume more or less the same amount of calories daily.
If I also want to add calories slowly to this baseline, I should not add weight gainer shakes, even plant-based ones such as banana or nut and oil-based shakes as they tend to add a lot of calories immediately.
I highly advise against the notion of just eating more or stuffing yourself with food to gain more weight. I have a very fast metabolism and have tried just eating my way to gain muscle but I have found that it isn’t very sustainable as it doesn’t address my set point. Again, I am eating mostly the same amount of food when I was 30 lbs lighter, only slightly higher.
Top priorities in gaining weight are consistency and a baseline and training. Slow tweaks to the baseline combined with a long term training plan have been the key for me. I feel it’s more important to gain muscle and weight slowly and comfortably rather than force feeding myself.
#6 Add more plant-based food in your diet.
Okay, so what about eating 100% plant-based? Will I be able to gain muscle or weight by just eating plant-based food?
Absolutely. I’m not saying that a plant-based diet will make you bigger and stronger than a normal diet, but what I’d like to share is that you won’t be at a disadvantage. By following the same principles, you will be able to gain weight and muscle.
I personally have gained the most strength and muscle on a plant-based diet but I don’t feel that the plant-based diet is a deciding factor. The principles above are more important to understand. By applying these principles, you would be able to gain weight on a plant-based diet or a normal diet.
I have tried eating a lot of fruits to try and bulk up, however, I feel that I still need to consume an adequate amount of calories necessary to gain weight and I do this by eating a combination of starches, legumes, greens, and more fruits.
If you are switching to a 100% plant-based diet and are worried about losing weight, I suggest taking a look at what you currently eat and substitute the foods with plant-based foods of equivalent calories, to establish your baseline.
#7 Don’t forget to take “good” supplements.
I feel that supplements are not essential in gaining weight or building muscle but they do provide benefits. But remember, these supplements are not magic pills that will give your body outrageous results. I have been able to gain muscle without supplements, so I feel these aren’t really deal breakers. Here are some traditional supplements that I feel are useful to gaining weight and muscle:
Creatine Monohydrate pools the water from other parts of your body to your muscle cells, increasing its volume. A lot of people say that the creatine weight gain is just due to water but in reality, a majority of the muscle cells is actually composed of water, so by increasing its volume (despite being made of water), it can help build muscle especially through resistance exercise.
This can help us attach our new muscle fibers to our skeletal structure, hence, moving our set point forward. Creatine monohydrate which is the simplest and cheapest form of creatine has also been shown to be 100% safe and scientifically increases performance.
Plant-based protein shake after workout helps in the protein synthesis vs degradation. When we work out, our muscles are breaking down and synthesizing. The rate of synthesis minus the rate of breakdown is equal to muscle growth. We would want to try to increase the rate of protein synthesis as much as possible and stimulating it with a plant-based protein such as plant protein would help.
From a wellness perspective, I do believe that a plant-based protein helps recover faster and build muscle. In the past, I have used whey, dairy-based protein, but it usually leaves me drowsy after weight training. Dairy is also acidic to the body, increasing inflammation in muscles, making it harder for me to recover for my next training session.
Leucine has been shown to be one of the key amino acids in stimulating protein synthesis. When adding leucine to our diet, we are supplemented with the key amino acid from plant-based foods that stimulate muscle growth. Personally, I like to take leucine from Xtend during or post workout.
In closing, I would like to state that there is not a big difference with trying to gain muscle or weight on a plant-based diet vs non-plant-based diet. The basics will still be the same and will be the deciding factor on how much you progress towards your goals. Applying the principles first would be much more efficient rather than worrying about a certain amount of protein or the difference between animal and plant protein.
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