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High-Calorie Vegetarian Foods: Perfect for Growth and Muscle Strengthening

Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD

In the world of nutrition, there is often a misconception that vegetarian diets lack calorie-dense options. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, high-calorie vegetarian foods can play a vital role in supporting growth, building muscle, and maintaining overall health.

Whether you’re a vegetarian looking to boost your calorie intake or someone interested in exploring plant-based alternatives, this blog post will serve as your comprehensive guide to high-calorie vegetarian foods.

High-calorie vegetarian foods refer to plant-based options that provide a substantial amount of energy in each serving. These foods are not only rich in calories but also offer an abundance of essential nutrients necessary for optimal health.

Contrary to popular belief, being a vegetarian doesn’t mean sacrificing taste or nutrition. In fact, there are plenty of high-calorie vegetarian foods out there that will leave you feeling satisfied and nourished.

Why High-Calorie Vegetarian Foods Matter

We hear so many diet-y things about a vegetarian diet that it can sometimes be hard to imagine someone gaining weight on a vegetarian diet. And given our culture’s relentless idealization of thinness, it can be even more difficult to imagine that some people want to gain weight.

It is true that many of the foods that are emphasized in a vegetarian diet (compared to one that includes meat) are low in calories. However, there are many options for foods that contain enough energy to promote health and weight maintenance.

We need these foods not only to allow for muscle or other weight gain but to maintain satiety, give us energy and brain power to get through our day, and make sure we have enough energy to sleep and recover properly.

So, why would someone want to gain weight or otherwise need foods that are high in calories and other nutrients? 

Some examples include:

  • Low appetite in pregnancy or cancer treatment
  • Increased nutrition needs when breastfeeding
  • Depression often leads to a dramatically reduced appetite OR ability to prepare foods
  • Older adults see a natural decline in appetite, despite a potentially higher protein need 
  • Growth in childhood
  • Strength training
  • Certain medications cause a reduction in appetite, making the individual need higher calorie options to meet their daily energy requirements.

Benefits of Incorporating High-Calorie Vegetarian Foods in your Diet

The thing about high-calorie vegetarian foods is that they often contain a bunch of other nutrients as well.

Nuts and seeds, for example, are pretty calorie dense, but those calories are full of protein, healthy fats, fiber, and a multitude of vitamins and minerals. 

When we don’t eat enough calories, we run the risk of multiple nutrient deficiencies.

Over time, this can lead to poor sleep, worsening mental health, difficulty managing and responding to stress, gastrointestinal trouble (nausea, diarrhea, constipation, bloating), brain fog, fatigue, loss of strength, and an increased risk of some chronic diseases.

An Important Note

It’s easy to look at this list of foods and think, “If these foods are good for helping someone gain weight, I should avoid all of them to lose weight.”

And I get why you would think that.

However, this logic is flawed.  In eliminating these foods, you’ll eliminate valuable nutrients that keep you healthy. You’ll also likely feel hungry much more often, meaning you’ll have to eat more and more other foods without ever feeling satisfied with your meal or snacks.

Nutrient-Rich High-Calorie Vegetarian Foods

So which foods can provide this nutritional balance to our diet?

Avocados

Avocados are high in fiber and unsaturated fat. They have many vitamins and minerals, including potassium, vitamins E and K, folate, and magnesium, as well as compounds called carotenoids.

These nutrients all make avocados (as part of a varied diet) great for heart, gut, and mental health and reducing the risk of developing diabetes.

Nuts and seeds, including peanuts

Similar to avocados, nuts and seeds also contain unsaturated fat and fiber.  However, they also contain protein, and the amount of chewing they require makes them very satiating to boot!

The nutrient makeup of nuts and seeds varies depending on which one you are eating, but you’ll usually see a good amount of magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron, calcium, and vitamin E.

Full-fat dairy

Many people often choose reduced-fat milk for various reasons. Personally, I’ve always preferred the texture of 2% milk. But full-fat dairy options, such as cheese, yogurt, and milk will keep you full and satisfied.

Those that choose skim milk are missing out on the fat that can not only help them feel fuller but also helps improve the absorption of the fat-soluble nutrients found in dairy.

Quinoa

Quinoa is a great source of protein and fiber. Sometimes used in place of rice, quinoa can be a great side dish, or serve as a base for a bowl.

In addition to protein and fiber, quinoa also has plenty of magnesium, folate, copper, zinc, iron, manganese, phosphorus, and vitamins B6 and E. That’s not even mentioning the phytochemicals it contains!

Dried Fruit

Dried fruit is a great way to add a lot of nutrients in just a few bites. Because the water has been removed from the fruit, it is a compact little bundle of fiber, fructose, and lots of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

These nutrients vary based on the fruit you are eating.

Add some dried fruit to some nuts and seeds, and you’ll get a great little snack that will keep you full until dinner time.

You can also add dried fruit to salads and oatmeal, homemade breads and muffins, homemade snack bars, or eat as a dessert on their own.

Olives

Olive oil is well known to be healthful, so it makes sense that the whole olive is as well.  Olives are full of unsaturated fat, fiber, vitamin E, iron, calcium, and copper.

Additionally, olives have many phytochemicals that act as antioxidants and can help prevent chronic conditions, such as heart disease and some cancers.

Olives as a snack or on top of a dish can add a good dose of fiber and unsaturated fat.

Cooking fats

Including fats in our meals gives our food more flavor and more staying power.  Fat is also critical in the absorption of several nutrients.

Butter, vegetable oil, olive oil, canola oil, shortening, avocado oil, coconut oil, flaxseed oil, and more all provide different flavors and nutrient profiles, with roughly the same amount of energy per gram. Try to choose fat that is liquid at room temperature more often than those that are solid.

Meal Ideas

Need some inspiration to start including these foods in your diet?  See below for lots of ideas!

Breakfast

Tofu scramble with whole-grain toast and avocado slices

Greek yogurt topped with high-protein granola and dried fruit.

Oatmeal, made with milk instead of water, topped with sliced or chopped nuts and dried fruit.

Whole grain toast, topped with smashed avocado, 1 cheesy scrambled egg, and some sesame seeds.

Lunch

Quinoa and chickpea salad with mixed vegetables and olive oil dressing

Baked potato stuffed with cheese and broccoli with a side salad topped with walnuts.

Couscous bowl topped with cucumber, tomatoes, olives, and fresh herbs

Dinner

Lentil curry with brown rice and roasted vegetables

Skillet browned halloumi sticks with quinoa pilaf and roasted veggies.

Roasted vegetable shepherd’s pie with a side salad.

Snacks

Nut butter and banana smoothie

Energy balls made with dates and nuts

Celery with peanut butter topped with raisins or sunflower seeds.

Apple slices with Greek yogurt peanut butter dip

Tips for Incorporating High-Calorie Vegetarian Foods into Daily Routine

Many of these foods are fantastic as toppings or garnishes.

Slice or cube avocados and put them on a salad, toast, or any Mexican or Southwest-inspired dishes. Sprinkle nuts and seeds on salads, soups, or oatmeal. Sliced olives can go on any Italian or Spanish-inspired dish. Sprinkle cheese on literally anything.

Dairy is good mixed into soups or turned into a dip.

The idea is to use these foods to add energy, taste, and satiety to any meal.  Depending on your needs, as determined by your dietitian, you can vary the amount of these ingredients to reach your goals.

Conclusion

High-calorie vegetarian foods are not only a viable option but an excellent choice for individuals seeking to support growth, build muscle, and enhance their overall health.

These foods provide a wealth of essential nutrients. By incorporating nutrient-dense plant-based options into your diet, you can fuel your body effectively, promote muscle growth, and achieve your fitness goals.

With a vast array of high-calorie vegetarian foods at your disposal, it’s time to embrace culinary adventure and savor the diverse flavors that plant-based eating has to offer. From protein-rich legumes to healthy fats found in avocados and nuts, the possibilities are endless.

Take this opportunity to explore new ingredients, experiment with recipes, and truly enjoy the incredible variety and taste that vegetarian cuisine brings to the table.

While this blog post serves as a valuable resource, it’s essential to recognize that individual dietary needs may vary. Consulting a registered dietitian can provide personalized guidance, taking into account your specific goals, health conditions, and preferences.

They can help you tailor a high-calorie vegetarian meal plan that caters to your unique needs, ensuring you receive the right balance of nutrients to support growth, muscle strengthening, and overall well-being.

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