Plant-based diets are good for you, for animals and for the environment. But the strictest of them, veganism, can be challenging to follow, especially when you need to meet a higher calorie goal. While it's true that animal-based foods typically contain more calories than plant foods, there are plenty of options for vegans looking to gain weight or build muscle. The key is to find healthy, whole-food sources rather than relying on vegan "junk food."
Focusing on calorie-dense foods such as nuts, oils and avocado can help you get enough calories on a vegan diet.
Vegan Diet Foods
If you're just starting out on your vegan diet, it's helpful to first know what foods you can and can't eat. Then you can zero in on the foods that will give you the most calorie bang for your buck.
Vegan foods fall into six general categories:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Legumes, nuts and seeds, such as chickpeas, lentils, chia seeds and almonds
- Grains, such as bread, pasta, rice, quinoa and bulgur
- Tofu, seitan and tempeh
- Plant-based dairy substitutes, such as nut and coconut milks and yogurt
- Vegan products, including meat substitutes, vegan mayo and vegan ice cream
Vegans do not eat:
- Fish and shellfish
- Dairy products
- Eggs and anything made with eggs
- Honey (bees make honey)
- White sugar (it may be processed with bone char)
- Marshmallows, gummy candies and anything else made with gelatin (derived from animal byproducts)
- Salad dressings, which may contain lecithin (an emulsifier often derived from animal tissues or egg yolks)
- Most beer (may be processed with fish gelatin, egg whites or seashells)
Read more: 12 Classic Comfort Foods Made Vegan
Calorie-Dense Vegan Foods
From that list, you can identify calorie-dense and healthy vegan foods to focus on in your diet. Here are some examples, per the USDA National Nutrient Database, and how they compare to animal foods:
- One-half avocado weighing 3.5 ounces contains 160 calories — about the same amount as a cup of whole milk.
- One ounce of walnuts provides 180 calories, which is slightly more than 1.5 ounces of cheddar cheese.
- Two tablespoons of creamy peanut butter have 190 calories — 25 calories more than a 3.5-ounce chicken breast without skin.
- One tablespoon of olive oil provides 119 calories — about the same as 3 ounces of sockeye salmon.
You can see now that there are plenty of plant foods that provide calories similar to animal foods, and in even smaller portions. Other calorie-dense foods for vegans include:
- Quinoa: 222 calories per cup cooked
- Dried fruit: 247 calories per half-cup
- Black beans: 227 calories per cup cooked
- Sweet potatoes: 180 calories per cup cooked
- Brown rice: 216 calories per up cooked
- Coconut oil: 232 calories in 2 tablespoons
High-Fat Vegan Foods
The most caloric vegan foods are high in fat, such as nuts, oils and avocado. But unlike animal fats, high-fat vegan foods contain mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. These plant fats, consumed in moderation, can actually benefit your heart, in contrast to the saturated fat found in animal foods like meat and dairy.
Both types of unsaturated fats can help lower your low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, cholesterol, according to Harvard Health Publishing. LDL is the unhealthy cholesterol that can clog or block your arteries and contribute to heart disease.
High-Protein Vegan Foods
Another misconception about a vegan diet is that it's difficult to get enough protein, especially if you're interested in building muscle. But just check out vegan competitive bodybuilders Torre Washington and Hin Chun Chui. Grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and even some vegetables are rich in healthy plant-based protein.
According to Healthline, some examples include:
- Seitan: 25 grams per 3.5 ounces
- Lentils: 18 grams per cooked cup
- Chickpeas: 15 grams per cooked cup
- Hempseed: 10 grams per ounce
- Spirulina: 8 grams per 2 tablespoons
- Green peas: 9 grams per cooked cup
- Nutritional yeast: 14 grams per ounce
As long as you plan your meals right, it's easy to eat a high-calorie, high-protein vegan diet.
High-Calorie Vegan Foods
A trap a lot of vegans fall into is relying on processed and prepared foods to get by. Just like non-vegan foods, there are good foods and bad foods. Even vegan foods can be highly processed and full of sugar and refined grains that spike your blood sugar. So it's crucial to make sure you avoid these foods, even if they're high in calories.
Meat substitutes and frozen vegan meals are go-to protein sources that taste good and are easy to prepare. But they aren't always healthy. Some brands are high in sodium and contain added sugar, additives and preservatives. They aren't terrible for you, but they are processed foods, so they don't provide a lot of nutrition.
Vegan Junk Foods
Lots of sugary, salty snacks you can find in bags and boxes in the aisles of any supermarket are vegan and high in calories. For example, many of these foods are vegan "by accident":
- Fruit snacks
- Sugary granola bars
- French fries
- Chocolate peanut butter cups
- Frozen pies
Not all brands of these foods are vegan, but many of them are. Don't attempt to add calories to your diet with these foods. You will get little nutrition, and eating too much junk food can negatively affect your energy levels, cause you to gain weight and damage your overall health.
Vegan Tips for More Calories
When you're planning your meals, make a list of all the healthy high-calorie ingredients you now know about. Then try to include some in each meal. There are lots of creative vegan recipes to try, so you shouldn't ever run out of delicious high-calorie meals. However, you may have to eat more meals during the day.
Trainer and author Karina Inkster, MA, PTS, fits in almost 4,000 vegan calories in a day by eating two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners for six meals a day. Do the math and you'll see that each of these six meals adds up to about 650 calories. Eating 650 calories every few hours is a lot easier than eating 1,000 calories at each meal.
Inkster recommends logging your food so you can see where you are at and where you need to make changes if you're not getting enough calories or enough of certain nutrients. It also keeps you accountable for making healthy choices and not falling prey to the lure of empty calories.
- Vegan Heaven: What Do Vegans Eat?
- Dr. Karen S. Lee: What Vegans Don't Eat
- Healthline: 11 High-Calorie Vegan Foods for Healthy Weight Gain
- Harvard Health Publishing: The Truth About Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the In-Between
- Forks Over Knives: How I Fuel Myself With a Plant-Based Diet as a Competitive Bodybuilder
- South China Morning Post: Vegan Hong Kong Bodybuilder Hin Chun Chui Wrestles Protein Myths and Shows You Don’t Need Meat or Dairy to Be a Winner
- Healthline: The 17 Best Protein Sources for Vegans and Vegetarians
- Sweet Earth Foods: Cauliflower Mac
- PETA: Top 20 Accidentally Vegan Foods
- Karina Inkster: Food Logging Part 4: My 3000+ Calorie per Day Vegan Diet and What, Exactly, I Eat
- Karina Inkster: Food Logging Part 1: Why You Should Log Your Food, Especially If You're Vegan
- USDA: Basic Report: 09037, Avocados, Raw, All Commercial Varieties
- USDA: Full Report (All Nutrients): 45282262, Whole Milk Vitamin D, Upc: 070784006024
- USDA: Basic Report: 12157, Nuts, Walnuts, Dry Roasted, with Salt Added
- USDA: Basic Report: 01270, Cheese, Cheddar, Sharp, Sliced
- USDA: Basic Report: 16398, Peanut Butter, Smooth Style, Without Salt
- USDA: Basic Report: 05064, Chicken, Broilers or Fryers, Breast, Meat Only, Cooked, Roasted
- USDA: Basic Report: 04053, Oil, Olive, Salad or Cooking
- USDA: Basic Report: 15085, Fish, Salmon, Sockeye, Raw