I know that many people are thrilled with some weight-loss when they first transition to a whole food plant-based (WFPB) diet. It’s like a light-bulb goes off, everything seems to make sense and it starts to happen effortlessly. But what if you don’t have excess weight to lose? Suddenly a little weight loss has you nervous. I’ve been hearing from some people that keeping weight ON feels hard for them after making the switch. Not to worry, I’ve got your back. In this post, we’ll talk about why weight loss is a common thing on a WFPB diet and what you can do to adjust if your goal is to maintain your weight while eating lots of nutritious plants. Let’s get to it.
Why It Happens
Why do so many people experience weight loss early on in their plant-based journey? It all comes down to caloric density. If you’re not familiar with the term, caloric density refers to the number of calories in a specific measure of food. Like calories per bite, or calories per pound.
You see, the caloric density, or calories per pound, in typical plant foods is much lower than the foods typically consumed in the standard Western diet.
To give you an idea:
Looking at the chart above, you can see that the bulk of the foods you’ll eat on a WFPB diet contain substantially fewer calories than those eaten on the typical Western diet. Meat, cheese, processed foods and oils all contain significant amounts of calories, which is why they so easily contribute to weight gain.
The nice thing about these less calorically dense foods is that they are nutrient-dense instead, which is where many people eating the Western diet fall short. Sure, they consume ample calories, but the food tends to be poor in nutrients, which is what your body needs to stay healthy.
Increasing Caloric Density
Now that you know why it happens, it will be really easy to fix. Everyone has different caloric needs based on their metabolism and activity levels. Maintaining your weight on a WFPB diet is just about adjusting your food intake to meet your body’s needs.
I’m not suggesting you count calories here. I personally find that to be a difficult habit to stick to and one that can trigger disordered eating for some. Instead, I want you to simply listen to your body. If you’re hungry, you’re going to eat more food. If you’re feeling good, you’re going to stop. Pretty easy.
This may mean increasing the caloric density of the foods you eat throughout the day. Here are some ways you can do this.
Adjust Meal Proportions
We can fight hunger and keep weight on by adjusting the proportions within your meals to increase the caloric density. If we want to look at WFPB food items only, let’s adjust that chart a bit.
There we go, all the beautiful whole plant foods for us to choose from.
When it comes to proportions, a great place to start is half of your meal as starches. Yes, I know, many of you may be fearing carbohydrates, but you don’t need to. Unrefined carbohydrates (which are the type we eat lots of on a WFPB diet) are not only satiating but beneficial to your health. If you want to read more about carbohydrates, check out this post here.
So, start with half of your plate consisting of starches. These starches include whole grains, legumes and starchy vegetables like sweet potato, squash and more. The other half of your plate should consist of non-starchy vegetables or fruit. Then, use whole food fats, like avocado, nuts and seeds as condiments.
What if this isn’t enough for you? No problem, here are some things you can adjust:
Add More Starch
If half of your meal as starch is not enough for you, simply increase it. Add some extra beans or whole grains to your meal to increase the caloric density and satiety. These starchy foods also contain good amounts of fibre, which will help fill you up and act as food for your gut bacteria, helping to promote a healthy microbiome.
You can do this in a few easy ways:
Add things like roasted potato/sweet potato, grains, beans, lentils, tofu or tempeh to your salads or buddha bowls.
Have some whole grain toast with hummus alongside your soup or salad.
Utilize whole-grain or legume-based pasta and noodles.
Add tempeh strips and hummus to your veggie wraps and sandwiches.
Add Healthy Fats
If adding some extra starch didn’t quite do it, increase the fat you have with your meal. However, I always recommend sticking to whole food fats rather than processed oils. Those oils are exceptionally calorie-dense but nutrient-poor. They also injure the lining of your blood vessels, leaving them stiff and less able to dilate or shrink to mediate blood flow. For more on why I advise against oils, check out this post here.
What do I mean by whole food fats? I mean foods that are higher in fat but still in their whole or minimally processed state. Think avocado or guacamole. Or olives instead of olive oil. Nuts and seeds also help bring up that caloric density. Nut butters (or seed butters) also make a great base for creamy dressings and sauces.
Real Food Example
Still unsure of how to increase your calorie density? Here are some examples of how to put this advice into action:
Here’s a typical healthy smoothie blend:
How can you increase the calorie density of this smoothie?
- Use plant milk as the base instead of water. They have more calories and, depending on the type you choose, may have some fat and protein as well.
- Add some hemp seeds, chia seeds or flax meal for some omega-3 fatty acids.
- Include some avocado or nut butter for healthy fats.
- Throw in some white beans or rolled oats to make it more filling.
Go for Seconds
Don’t be afraid to eat larger portions than you did when you ate animal products. As noted above, many plant foods are calorically dilute. If you make yourself a salad in a little cereal bowl, you’re not going to be satisfied for very long. Don’t be scared to go for a second helping if you’re still hungry. Eat until you’re comfortably satisfied. (Just not until you’re bursting at the seams)
Another thing people tend to do is avoid snacks. Often this is because the health food space talks more about dieting and losing weight than maintaining it. If you’re having trouble keeping weight on feel free to snack as needed. You can even make yourself some delicious calorically dense snacks like a trail mix filled with all of your favourite nuts, seeds and dried fruits.
Other great higher-calorie snacks include:
Granola and plant-based yogurt
Hummus and whole-grain crackers
Guacamole and oil-free tortilla chips
Whole grain toast with nut butter
The Bottom Line
Many people think that eating whole food plant-based (WFPB) can only be done one way and you’re out of luck if that way doesn’t work for you. I’m here to tell you that’s just not true. Don’t be afraid to adjust proportions if needed. Typically, people who have trouble keeping weight on will turn to lots of processed junk foods to get extra calories. However, this can be done in a healthier way with whole foods that will help you stay energized and reduce your risk for some of the major chronic diseases that are prevalent today.