Disclaimer: If you are suffering from an eating disorder, please reach out to family, friends and/or health professionals. While you can recover on your own it is helpful to have support. I am not a professional and the following recommendations are what worked for me when I had to gain substantial weight to save my life and start recovery from anorexia. Gaining weight won’t cure anorexia or any other eating disorder but it will give you more mental capacity which is vital for mental recovery. Gaining weight is scary, I know, but remaining under your set point weight has many dangerous health implications. Recovery is worth it and you are so important, even if you don’t believe it. I believe in you, you can do it!
At the start of my recovery from anorexia I had to gain weight. I did this by incorporating calorie and nutrient dense foods into my meal plan. I also ate more calcium-rich foods to protect against refeeding syndrome and limited fibre and bulk to make all this food easier to digest. I am writing a blog post about this as there is a lack of helpful information online about gaining weight as a vegan. Many posts say you should avoid processed food and only eat ‘whole’ grains, pulses, nuts/seeds, fruit and vegetables. While it is possible to eat this way and gain weight this can result in a very restrictive mindset and doesn’t help sufferers from challenging fear foods and eating intuitively. Eating ‘unprocessed’ plant foods also can cause digestive issues as it is difficult to eat enough calories/ nutrients for recovery without all the bulk and fibre. Adding more processed grains, sugar, oil, meat substitutes etc can be helpful to avoid some of these issues and add variety to vegan ways of eating.
While not everyone recovering from an eating disorder needs to gain weight, for some this is a crucial step in reclaiming their health. Gaining weight can seem impossible and terrifying. I have made a list of meals/foods which can be incorporated into meal plans for those in recovery. If you have particular allergies (nuts/ wheat /soy etc) there still will be many options to pick from. While fibre can aid in digestion, too much fibre can be tough for those in recovery, as digestion issues are common. If this is the case for you, I would recommend more processed/refined foods for accessible nutrients and calories without the added fibre.
High calorie options
- Grains and starchy veg Pasta tossed in oil. White pasta has less fibre and is fortified with nutrients.
- Bread, preferably white.
- Roast starchy veg in oil, sugar/syrup or other high calorie add ons
- Granola and higher calorie fortified cereals
- Pancakes and waffles for breakfast. These can be baked in bulk then frozen for quick, hassle free breakfasts, add syrup for extra energy.
- Cookies, cakes and other baked goods made from flour, sugar and oil
- Pulses, peanuts, soy and meat alternativesTofu is rich in protein, fats and calcium. Extra firm tofu can be fried, baked or scrambled for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Silken tofu can be used to make cheesecake and be blended into smoothies
- Edamame or other pulses roasted in oil for snacks rich in protein, fat and carbohydrates as well as other vital nutrients.
- Veggie burgers, vegan sausages and other meat alternatives are often higher in calories and take up less bulk than eating pulses.
- Peanut butter is rich in calories, protein and in my opinion, tastes amazing. Add this to smoothies, porridge, toast etc.
- Nuts and seedsSprinkle nuts and seeds onto meals and snacks
- Add nuts and seed butters to smoothies, sauces, on toast or porridge.
- Create calorie dense snack bars with nuts/ seeds as a base
- Fruit and vegetablesAdd to meals
- Eat enough without filling up on them. For example, Ginny Messina RD* recommends 5 servings of non-starchy vegetables and 3 servings of fruit
- Blend into smoothies for less bulk
- Add fruits to yogurts and desserts like vegan ice cream
- Roast fruit or vegetables in oil, sugar/syrup or other high calorie dressings
- Add dried fruit to meals as they take up less bulk than fresh produce
- Add vegan wine/ alcohol to vegetable sauces to improve the flavour and increase the calories. For example red wine to tomato sauce. The alcohol burns off while you cook it.
- Calcium rich foodsAdd plant based yogurts/ milks to smoothies and sauces
- Select plant milks higher in calories for example whole bean soya milk over almond milk.
- Have plant milks and yogurts with calorie dense cereals like granola
- Add tahini or almond butter to sauces or smoothies
- Top granola, toast etc with dried figs
- Roast broccoli, kale and other calcium rich vegetables in oil
Recovering from an eating disorder takes more than just weight gain. Challenging my fears was a big part of my recovery. Everyone with an eating disorder has a different experience. Some people may fear certain foods, others fear eating in restaurants, eating in front of people, while others fear eating alone. These fears can be battled while staying vegan, by eating vegan alternatives to your fear foods or eating out in vegan restaurants. If you fear eating processed and packaged foods there are many frozen vegan meals in the supermarket to choose from. If you fear eating something you haven’t made, ask a family or friend to cook you a vegan meal and not tell you what’s in it. The key to challenging fears is to not just do it once but to do it many times so that you no longer fear it. I did this by incorporating vegan processed food into my daily meal plan. For example eating vegan cake and ice cream after dinner.
Let go of unnecessary restrictions and the dieting mentality. In my opinion, unnecessary restrictions hold you back in recovery. An unnecessary restriction to me, is any rule which isn’t based in medical reasons (eg diagnosed allergies or celiacs disease) or ethics (caring about animals, the environment or human rights). For example this could be avoiding gluten, soy or cooked food because you are afraid they will make you gain weight or/and harm your body. Ditching the diet mentality means giving up unnecessary labels. This could mean adopting a varied, fun and flexible vegan diet instead of being a raw or whole food or low carb/fat vegan. These ways of eating have their merits but generally cause more damage than good. They not only centre veganism around false claims of wellness instead of protecting animals, but they also stop you from challenging your fears in recovery. This may even lead to sufferers developing more orthorexic ways of thinking.
Clean out your social media. Unfollow any social media account or website which makes you feel bad about yourself, or your body. Instead go follow and check out more body positive and self love accounts, some which I have mentioned in my post about how to avoid relapsing in your eating disorder. Linked below. What we see and read has a large impact on how we view ourselves. Fat phobia and body shaming is rife online and can even be found in some online vegan communities. This can be extremely triggering and can feed our eating disorder thoughts. Larger bodies are no less worthy of love and respect. You can be fat, healthy and happy. Avoid following anyone who tells you otherwise.
Wear clothes that are comfortable. If your body isn’t used to eating large amounts of food, or regular food you might experience bloating. Finding clothes which are loose and cosy, even when you are bloated, is a good recommendation. Baggy clothes are also great as you may rapidly gain weight and change shape. Your shape may change a lot as your weight redistributes. There is nothing wrong with this, it is a normal part of physical recovery.
Rest more, exercise less. This can be helpful if you need to gain weight. It is also important to allow your body to recover. Eating disorders put a huge strain on your body, from your heart to your bones. Allowing yourself rest is difficult but vital. Exercising a lot in recovery may also result in exercise obsession and addiction.
In my eating disorder, like many other people, I became obsessed with food. All day everyday I would read cookbooks, bake, cook, and pin what I wanted to eat on pinterest. I found it helpful in recovery to rediscover my non-food interests. Maybe check out a hobby you left behind when you developed your eating disorder, or it could be something completely new. Learning something new is great for your self esteem and you might even expand your world a little.
Smash the scale. While you may need to be weighed by your treatment team or gp, there is no reason why you need to have a scale of your own. Knowing your weight can trap you in the dieting mindset and trigger you to want to lose more. Some people may find knowing their weight helpful, however, this depends person to person. Only you will know, truly, if knowing what you weight aids or harms your recovery.
Overall recovery is a process not perfection. It is more difficult than I can articulate but, for me, it is one of the most worthwhile decisions I have made. I myself am not fully recovered. I sometimes struggle to restrict and binge/ purge. Recovery is something I work towards everyday. It takes a lot of effort but it is a thousand times better than living with an eating disorder. If you have any questions please feel free to message me on here or contact me via my other social media. Thank you for reading this. I wish you the best in your recovery.