The Skinny Vegan’s Guide to Gaining Weight
You hear a lot about how to lose weight. Not so many of us are trying to gain it.
This article would be so much cooler if it had a headline like, “How I Gained 20 Pounds of Muscle in 30 Days (On a Vegan Diet).” And if it included dazzling before and after photos, it would probably do a lot to show people it’s possible.
That’s what I had in mind when, earlier this summer, I took a look at myself in the mirror, realized I had gotten too thin, and decided it was time to hit the gym and build some muscle.
Actually, even for a small guy like me (I was all the way down to 132 lbs when I decided it was time to start putting weight back on) a goal like 20 pounds in 30 days wasn’t as crazy as it sounds.
Twice in my life, once in college and once shortly after, I’ve gone from 140 to 160 pounds very quickly, drastically increasing my strength and staying fairly lean at the same time. The only difference now, being a plant-based athlete, would be the absence of chicken breasts and milk — two foods I absolutely relied on during any rapid muscle gain diets I did the past.
I’m fond of pointing out that getting enough protein on a plant-based diet isn’t the issue most people think it is. But for bulking up? I wasn’t so sure.
I also knew that adding weight wouldn’t be any help to me as a runner, but I was okay with that. I needed a break and a change of pace, and I didn’t like being so skinny. And if in the process I could show a bunch of people that it is possible to put on a ton of muscle really quickly on a vegan diet, then all the better.
How it really turned out
I didn’t gain 20 pounds in 30 days.
I did, however, gain 17 pounds in about 6 weeks, topping out at 149. Not exactly a strike-fear-in-the-hearts-of-enemies number, I know, but it’s a lot more than 132, and a total weight increase of almost 13%. And although the point wasn’t to gain strength but to gain mass, I got a lot stronger too, increasing my chest press from 130 to 195 pounds for a 7-rep set.
But my results could have been a lot better if not for two interruptions to my regimen:
- I traveled a lot and was not able to maintain the volume of eating I could do at home. This killed my momentum on three separate weekends. I suppose I could have been more disciplined with my eating, but a large portion of my calories came from a “fat shake” that I just couldn’t make on the road (more on the fat shake later).
- I got injured when I made a careless mistake in the gym. Six weeks after I had started, I tore a disc in my back when I inadvertently loaded more weight on one side of the barbell than the other for a deadlift and tried to lift the unbalanced load. When I learned this would keep me out for three weeks, I decided I was done with muscle gain.
Still, 17 pounds is nothing to shake a carrot at, especially for a skinny guy who has always found it harder to gain weight than to lose it. So here’s what I did, the vegan-adapted version of what I found success with the other two times I’ve succeeded at quickly putting on a bunch of muscle.
If you can’t gain weight, you’re probably making this mistake
Shortly after I got interested in fitness in college, I wanted desperately to get bigger. I drank all these Myoplex shakes, ate six meals a day, and lifted like crazy. And yet I just couldn’t get past 140 pounds.
After every trip to the gym, I’d eagerly weigh in, feeling all puffed up from my lift and sure I’d tip the scales. And every time, I’d see 140. F’ing 140.
So I did some research, and came across Anthony Ellis, a guy who went from 135 to 180, and finally discovered what was wrong:
Trying to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time is completely counterproductive.
Prior to learning this, I thought the road to muscle gain was more lean protein along with more lifting, and of course some cardio to keep the fat off. Wrong.
I made three big changes as a result, and experienced drastic, immediate muscle gain.
- I stopped running and all other forms of cardio.
- I started lifting fewer times each week, training each muscle group only once per week.
- I started eating more fat. Way more fat. Like, getting up in the middle of the night to make a peanut butter sandwich.
And I gained weight. I went from 140 to 160 pretty quickly. I don’t remember exactly how long it took, but I figure it was about six weeks.
My approach this time
Really, putting on weight is about only two things. Lifting, which is important. And eating, which is more important. I’ll explain what I did for each, started with the food.
As I wrote before: The major difference between this time and previous ones was my diet. I wasn’t vegan then, or even vegetarian. When I wanted to bulk up in the past, I just ate tons of cheese, milk, steak, and chicken breasts, and it was pretty easy.
Not that I doubted it was possible for people to get big on a vegan diet. These days, there are plenty of plant-based bodybuilders. But for me, a guy whose equilibrium size is more sapling than mature oak, I wasn’t so sure.
In looking at my diet, it was pretty clear that it was lower in both protein and fat than what had worked for me in the past. So I focused on adding those two nutrients to my current diet, without reducing carbohydrates, hence increasing total calories. (In other words, this wasn’t a vegan paleo diet.)
I also tried to eat larger portion sizes in general, and found that after just a few days this became comfortable. I did eat fewer salads and raw vegetables, since they take up a lot of room without providing many calories. (That’s just one reason why I would never stick with diet like the one described here long-term, nor recommend it for all-around health.)
Looking back at the journal I kept of my meals, I see that the protein and fat increases came primarily from protein powder, almond butter, flax and coconut oil.
Here’s what a typical day looked like (I don’t have calorie counts, because I just hate counting calories, even with mass-gaining):
- Smoothie, with an extra scoop of protein powder (11 additional grams protein) and an extra 2 tablespoons of almond butter
- 12 ounces coffee
- 1 cup brown rice with 1.5 cups yellow lentils and zucchini
- Whole wheat bagel with almond butter
- Apple juice immediately after workout
- Vegan Fat Shake (see recipe below)
- Handful of snacks, like Mary’s Gone Crackers sticks
- 2 servings of millet with kidney beans, carrots, and collard greens
- Glass of red wine
- Clif Mojo Bar, peanut butter pretzel flavor
Not a crazy amount of food, really. But way more than I usually eat, and definitely higher in fat, thanks to the “fat shake.”
Plants, by nature, are often not calorically dense foods, so it’s important to choose calorically dense options. That’s why I made this cheat sheet to help you out.
The vegan mass gainer fat shake
The fat shake is something else I got from The 4 Hour Body. Tim’s version is about as far from vegan as a shake could be, with raw milk and raw eggs as key ingredients. My version of a vegan weight-gainer was obviously lacking in the raw animal protein category, but I found it did a nice job of providing a lot of protein and fat among its roughly 1000 calories. I drank it about two hours after each workout, and also the first day after each workout.
Here’s the recipe:
- 12 ounces raw, homemade almond milk
- 2-3 tablespoons raw, homemade almond butter
- 1 tablespoon ground flax seed
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 1 tablespoon flax seed oil
- 2 tablespoons chia seeds
- 2 scoops soy-free vegan protein powder (about 22 grams of protein)
- 1 teaspoon maca powder
- 1 banana
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon wheat grass powder, just to be a granola-crunching hippie badass
Blend all ingredients together in a blender.
A healthier vegan mass gainer smoothie
While the vegan fat shake certainly does the job, it’s not exactly the type of stuff I’d want to be putting into my body every day if I were doing this long-term.
My son happens to be a talented soccer player (and a vegan, of course), and like a lot of kids, he just doesn’t eat all that much — too much else he’d rather be doing. But it’s important that he keep some weight on, so my wife and I came up with this higher-calorie (than most vegan smoothies) smoothie recipe to help him get a lot of calories, quickly, from healthier ingredients than those in the fat shake above (no oil here, for example).
- 2 brazil nuts
- 1/2 cup silken tofu, organic non-GMO
- 3 pitted dates, soaked
- 1 tablespoon cacao powder
- 1 tablespoon cacao nibs
- 1 tablespoon flax seeds
- 2 tablespoons Complement Protein Powder
- 1/8 cup peanut butter
- 1 large, very ripe frozen banana
- 3/4 cup ice
- 1 cup unsweetened almond milk
Combine all ingredients in a high-powered blender and blend until smooth. Makes 28 ounces.
I also added a few supplements, other than protein powder, in addition to the multivitamin I usually take. Each day, I added to one of my smoothies:
- 5 grams creatine
- 5 grams glutamine
- 1000 IU tablet of vegan Vitamin D3
And right before I got hurt, I realized that I was missing one thing from my earlier mass-gaining days, which was a proper post-workout carbohydrate drink. I had been using apple juice, but in hindsight I wish I would have used something that was designed to deliver quick, post-workout carbs.
For the lifting, I decided to try out Tim Ferriss’ methods from The 4-Hour Body, specifically the chapter “Occam’s Protocol I: A Minimalist Approach to Mass.”
Here, Tim proposes a lifting regimen that requires less than half an hour a week of gym time per week: just two sets of exercise each session (one each of two different lifts), performed at extremely slow cadence (5 seconds up, 5 seconds down), until utter and painful failure is reached.
And not just “I can’t get this next rep, so I’ll quit” failure, but really putting every bit of effort you have into pushing that last rep up, and then lowering it as slowly as possible. (Tim quotes a funny line from Arthur Jones: “If you’ve never vomited from doing a set of barbell curls, then you’ve never experienced outright hard work.”)
There are way more details you should know about Tim’s plan before you try it, especially about how frequently to work out and how to increase the weights.
I must admit, this was fun. An unexpected benefit was what knowing that my gym time was precious helped me get amped up for it –knowing, for example, that this one set of 7 or 8 reps is my only chance all week to do chest press certainly made it easy, almost fun, to keep going until I reached that point of true failure.
And it worked. I followed Tim’s plan to the letter for about three weeks, gaining 3-4 pounds per week, until I decided I wanted to alter the plan to include some lifts I really liked, like squats and deadlifts (in hindsight, not my best idea). But I followed the same cadence, rep scheme, and frequency of workouts, and kept getting results.
As it turns out, Tim’s approach isn’t all that different from what I had done to put on weight before. Infrequent workouts, heavy weight, and sets to all-out failure. So I knew going in it would work.
It worked. Maybe with not staggering results, although if I didn’t have any experience with gaining muscle from the past, then perhaps I would have found a 17-pound gain to be staggering. I did start to gain some fat towards the end: my overall body fat increased by 1-2% throughout the process (that’s as accurate as I can get with my cheap body fat scale), so I probably would have stopped within a few more weeks anyway had I not gotten injured.
Just to restate, I wouldn’t recommend a diet like this long-term. I’m sure consuming that many calories (and that much fat) isn’t healthy. If you’re looking to gain weight on a vegan diet, then sure, you can look at my experience as one example, but I highly recommend checking out The Vegan Strength Blueprint, and Tim Ferris’ book 4-Hour Body for the details of the lifting regimen (which I have nothing but good things to say about, with the results I got in so little gym time).
And now, three weeks after my injury, I’m happy to say that the torn disc in my back is healed. I probably won’t do deadlifts for a little while, and I’m done with weight gain for the foreseeable future. But I’ve got lots more planned, and I’m excited about what’s next.