Vegetarian weight gain may be intentional or unintentional, but it is possible. You can lose, maintain or gain weight on a meatless diet. The fluctuations in your weight may be directly related to your diet — calories consumed — or external factors.
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Though the word "vegetarian" invokes feelings of eating nothing but vegetables, that is far from the truth. Vegetarian and vegan bodybuilders get plenty of protein and calories from some of the best vegan weight gainers, such as high-calorie nut butters.
If you are trying to gain weight and build muscle on a more plant-based diet, your meal plan will look a lot different than someone who is trying to avoid vegetarian weight gain. Being mindful of the reasons why people gain weight on a vegetarian diet will help you in your fitness efforts.
1. Eating at a Calorie Surplus
There are a lot of factors that can lead to weight loss or weight gain. In simple terms, however, weight gain is attributed to consuming more calories than you burn through your daily activities and exercise. This means you may be eating at a caloric surplus, resulting in increased body weight.
As a vegetarian, it is easy to over-consume foods that seem healthy and wholesome. For example, vegetarians are often told to consume protein powder to meet their protein needs. However, protein powder is one of the best vegan weight gainers because too much protein can lead to weight gain. This is good news for people who want to build muscle, but not if your goal is weight loss.
According to Mayo Clinic, the average American consumes twice the amount of protein they actually need. Since the body does not store protein for later use, extra protein intake leads to weight gain. This is not unique to just protein — excess calories from any food source will be gained as fat.
To combat the vegetarian weight gain due to increased calorie consumption, calculate your calorie intake based on your goals.
Read more: Pros & Cons of a Vegetarian Diet
2. Increasing Dietary Fat
Many vegetarian foods are naturally high in fat. Vegetarians consume some animal products, including dairy and eggs. Both of these foods are not only dense sources of calories, they are also naturally high in fat.
When switching to a vegetarian diet, people may increase their consumption of eggs, yogurt and cheese for the protein content. According to the USDA, a small 1-ounce serving of cheddar cheese accounts for 115 calories and 27 percent of your daily saturated fat. For reference, the FDA recommends no more than 10% of total calories coming from saturated fat. The American Heart Association is even more strict with a recommendation of no more than 6 percent of calories from saturated fat for heart health reasons.
It is well-known that dietary fat alone does not cause weight gain — you need fat to function. However, MedlinePlus highlights that fat contains more than twice the amount of calories as protein and carbohydrates. Consuming more high-fat foods automatically increases your overall calorie consumption. It is recommended to limit your saturated fat consumption to decrease the risk of heart disease and weight gain.
Read more: What Makes You Fat: Carbs or Calories?
3. Consuming Processed Vegetarian Foods
Before there was a grocery chain called Whole Foods, the phrase "whole foods" referred to foods in their unprocessed forms. For example, potatoes and tomatoes are whole foods, and they are not considered weight gain vegetables. Potato chips and ketchup are made from these whole ingredients, respectively, but they undergo extensive processing with many added ingredients.
With the increase in vegetarians and vegans in America, the food industry has responded with hundreds of vegetarian-friendly products. Some vegan foods are actually marketed as being healthy options, but they are processed and can lead to vegetarian weight gain. Some of these foods include meat alternatives, pastries and packaged snacks.
A small July 2019 study with just 20 participants published in Cell Metabolism shows the drastic effects of consuming processed foods. In just two weeks on a high processed foods diet, half of the participants consumed approximately 500 extra calories per day, which led to an average weight gain of 2 pounds. Participants who ate an unprocessed diet lost a similar amount of weight.
To achieve weight loss on a vegetarian diet, opt for whole foods instead of packaged goods. Making mashed potatoes from scratch requires more time and effort, but they are probably lower in calories and fat than the processed mashed potatoes you find in the freezer aisle.
4. Being Less Physically Active
When you switch to a vegetarian diet, you may feel as though you are doing something good for your long-term health. After all, cutting out meat has its proven health benefits — positively affecting your cholesterol levels and lowering your risk of cardiovascular conditions. However, some vegetarians have a sedentary lifestyle, which can have negative health consequences.
Regardless of diet, not getting enough exercise is a recipe for weight gain. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, approximately 80 percent of adults and adolescents are not active enough. This increases your chance of consuming more calories than you burn since you do not burn many calories through movement.
A January 2018 study published in Obesity concludes that a sedentary lifestyle contributes to the obesity epidemic in America. Researchers suggest that the lack of activity in occupational settings is a contributing factor. However, increased energy intake is also a factor.
Switching to a vegetarian diet does not protect you from potential weight gain from being less physically active. To prevent weight gain, be mindful of your calories consumed through diet and calories burned through movement.
5. Cooking Food in Vegetable Oils
Weight loss vegetables can quickly become weight gain vegetables once they are doused and fried in oil or butter. This is because vegetable oils like corn oil and butter are potent sources of calories and trans fat.
The Mayo Clinic warns that trans fat is among the worst types of dietary fat you could eat. Trans fat raises your LDL cholesterol while lowering your HDL cholesterol, which is the opposite of what you want. Because of this, trans fats are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, heart attacks, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
Many partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, shortenings and margerines — and the foods made with them — are high in trans fat. Vegans and vegetarians who consume processed foods should be cautious of the extra trans fat and calories, especially in baked goods, chips, popcorn, fried food, dough and non-dairy coffee creamer.
These foods can contribute to weight gain because they add a concentrated amount of calories in a very small serving size. Multiple servings throughout the day can easily add hundreds of calories to your overall intake, thereby leading to weight gain.
6. Ordering Take-Out Food
Fast food restaurants are convenient, affordable and delicious. However, take-out food menus typically have very few healthy options. Even the veggie burgers, salads and smoothies have hundreds of calories and are sky-high in fat, sugar and sodium.
The high sodium content of take-out food is especially relevant to weight gain on a vegetarian diet because it can lead to water retention. With new meatless options entering the market every year, fast food sales of vegetarian and vegan menu items are soaring. However, so is the scale for many vegetarians who order take-out food regularly.
Like processed food, take-out food is another example that "meatless" does not automatically equate to "healthy." According to a February 2014 study published in Bulletin of the World Health Organization, fast food consumption is directly related to increased BMI. Vegetarians are no exception to this trend as vegetarian fast food options become increasingly more accessible.
Preventing Vegetarian Weight Gain
The key to preventing weight gain on a vegetarian diet is not avoiding weight gain vegetables or adopting a fad diet — it is consistently getting enough exercise and making mindful food choices. As a vegetarian or meat eater, it is easy to over consume the foods you love.
With vegetarian versions of classic comfort foods, such as meatless fast-food burgers, vegetarian weight gain is not surprising. However, it is something you can reverse through appropriate caloric intake and increased physical activity.
Gaining weight seems easy when your goal is the opposite. For vegetarians who want to increase body weight, consider some of the best vegan weight gainers. Once you have reached your target weight, you can maintain with diet and exercise.
- Mayo Clinic: “Are You Getting Too Much Protein?”
- MyFoodData: “Nutrition Facts for Cheddar Cheese”
- American Heart Association: “Saturated Fat”
- MedlinePlus: “Facts About Saturated Fat”
- Cell Metabolism: “Ultra-Processed Diets Cause Excess Calorie Intake and Weight Gain: An Inpatient Randomized Controlled Trial of Ad Libitum Food Intake.”
- Nutrients: “Beyond Meatless, the Health Effects of Vegan Diets: Findings From the Adventist Cohorts.”
- JAMA: “The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans”
- Mayo Clinic: “Trans Fat is Double Trouble for Your Heart Health”
- Bulletin of the World Health Organization: “The Influence of Market Deregulation on Fast Food Consumption and Body Mass Index: A Cross-National Time Series Analysis”
- Obesity: "The Obesity Epidemic: A Consequence of Reduced Energy Expenditure and the Uncoupling of Energy Intake?"