How Weightlifters Are Bulking Up on a Vegan Diet

Putting on weight can be a common complaint among vegan athletes and weightlifters aiming to increase their muscle mass. Weightlifters and powerlifters in particular can require huge daily caloric intakes, upwards of 4000 calories, and at times packing in enough food can feel more grueling than the weight training itself. This level of food consumption can be especially challenging on a plant-based diet, where the staple ingredients are far from calorically dense, containing a large volume of water and fiber.

Despite this challenge, there are several vegan weightlifters and strongman/woman competitors that are able to consume enough energy to support their sport. Let's take a look at some strategies for increasing calories, while maintaining a reasonably healthy diet that can aid in recovery time.

Eat Larger Meals

This one may seem obvious, but it can be somewhat daunting to smaller individuals who want to pack on some muscle. For someone who is used to eating smaller meals, it can be quite challenging to start increasing portions, and sometimes a little uncomfortable. The trick here is to take it slowly, increasing portion sizes by a small amount over time. This gives your stomach time to adjust, allowing you to feel more comfortable consuming a larger amount of food at one meal.

Another strategy is to eat with larger plates, bowls and silverware  the opposite of the common recommendation for those trying to lose weight.

Add an Extra Meal With a Smoothie

One of the easiest ways by far to increase your daily calorie intake is to consume them in liquid form. It's modestly popular among non-vegan weightlifters to follow a GOMAD (Gallon of Milk a Day) diet to meet their calorie goals, drinking down a gallon of milk throughout the day along with everything else they're eating. Perhaps that sounds more than a little gross, but let's think about why this is effective.

When you're eating four or five meals a day, it can become time consuming to prepare and eat everything in between the rest of your busy schedule. Drinking some of your calories with a smoothie can be a big time saver both with preparation and eating  forget about all that chewing for one of your meals. And to top it off, the lack of chewing actually causes the meal to be less satiating, which is a big plus when trying to keep your appetite going throughout the day.

The trick here is to load up your blender to pack in as many calories as possible: oats, nut butters, seeds, fruits and berries, plant milks or juice, and anything else that you'll enjoy. I've even heard of people rinsing a can of beans and throwing that in for extra calories and protein  white beans being the best choice for a neutral flavor. This can end up being 30-40 ounces, but your stomach will eventually adjust to the point where you can comfortably drink the whole thing in a couple minutes.

You can easily add 1000+ calories in 15 minutes of prep, eating and cleaning. For those of you who have a less powerful blender, it can help to soak tougher ingredients like oats or seeds for a few minutes before blending.

Time Your Meals (and Prep Them, Too)

Some people struggle with making a habit of eating throughout the day, sometimes forgetting an entire meal while the day slips by. The key here is to create a routine for your meals, eating each one at a similar time from day to day. Figure out what works best for you  whether it's eating lots of small meals, eating a few large meals, or snacking, etc.  and try your best to stick with that. Some people will set timers on their phone as a reminder to take a break and eat their next meal.

One way to make it easier to stick with your schedule is to prep some of your meals. This way your meal is ready to go as soon as you're ready to eat it, taking potential laziness out of the equation. Prepping your meals can also be a time saver, as you can cook larger batches of food to prep several meals in almost the same amount of time it would take to prepare a single meal.

Focus on Calorically Dense Foods

This can be the hardest part for athletes who are transitioning to a plant-based diet  and often for non-athletes going through the same transition. When people think of a plant-based diet, they think about a lot of vegetables and fruits. While fruits & veggies are an excellent part of any diet, and are necessary for a strong recovery from grueling workouts, they are not the most efficient foods in terms of consuming enough calories before feeling too full.

So don't ditch all that leafy, juicy goodness, but do start increasing your focus on calorically dense foods. This includes foods higher in fat  nuts, seeds, avocados, and oils  because they're much denser in calories. This also includes grains  oats, rice, quinoa, and whole wheat  because they're less satiating, allowing you to eat larger quantities before feeling full. Of course you should continue eating a reasonably balanced diet, but for weightlifters and other athletes it's necessary to increase the priority of calorie-dense foods.

If you're wondering where protein fits into this equation, let me put it this way: when you're eating 3000-5000 calories, made up primarily of whole grains, nuts & seeds and legumes, you're easily consuming between 120 and 200+ grams of protein from whole foods. My understanding is that the upper protein recommendation for athletes is 1.6-2 grams of protein per kg of body weight. This translates to a 200 pound athlete needing between 145 and 180 grams of protein per day at most.

If you're not getting there with whole foods, you can think about adding some vegan protein powder to your smoothie. Don't take any flack for relying on protein powder to add convenience to your diet; protein supplements are very popular among non-vegans  if they weren't whey protein would have gone out of business.

Give Yourself Some Wiggle Room

Finally, I want to remind anyone who is struggling to consume enough calories on a vegan diet: cut yourself a little slack with the health foods. Veganism could be synonymous with health. This causes some vegans to go a little overboard, becoming hyper-focused on what they're putting into their bodies, making sure every meal is made up of healthy, whole ingredients. If you're feeling amazing eating vegetable and fruit dishes, cutting out all those unhealthy sugars, oils and salt, that's great.

It's good to develop a healthy relationship with food, and to make sure the food you're eating is leaving you feeling good long after you've finished eating, but if you're struggling to meet your energy needs to support your activity levels, you need to think about finding a balance between eating healthfully and eating enough.

Most competitive weightlifters and especially powerlifters are more concerned with bulking up than they are with eating a healthy diet. They will eat whatever they can to bulk up and recover so that they can continue adding as much weight to the barbell as possible  that's their sport, so that's their priority. This may be a little extreme, and it's not totally necessary for most people. As long as you have a solid meal plan (emphasis on plan), you should be able to consume at least 70% of your calories from healthy, whole foods, making sure you're still getting your fruits and vegetables.

When your whole foods are falling short of your daily calorie needs, that's where it helps to give yourself a little wiggle room. It's okay to have some extra snacks and sides to your meals even if they don't fit the category of "health foods." It's all about balancing your priorities.

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