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Vegan Nutrition with Dina Aronson, M.S. R.D.

Dina AronsonDina Aronson, MS, RD is a vegan dietitian whose specialties include chronic disease prevention, vegetarian/vegan nutrition, and lifestyle management. She is the founder and director of VeganRD.com, a nutrition consulting company. Active in many vegetarian nutrition organizations, Dina was the recipient of the American Dietetic Association's Recognized Young Dietitian of the Year Award in 2002.

Weight Gain Tips

I am writing you because I need some serious advice from a serious experienced person on Veganism and nutrition counseling. Due to major family losses I had these past two years (mom got cancer, three grandparents died within months of each other, parents separated, and very very close friend died. Seems impossible but it is true) I developed issues with bodyweight. I have always been a thin girl but am now too thin. I am 26 years old, 5 feet 4inches and weigh 80 pounds. I would love to get to 95 pounds (maximum I ever weighed even before going vegan was 97 pounds). I still feel strong, but have no periods and am scared. I want to put on weight, therefore enrolled in a gym where I have a training program that I do twice a week (can't afford a trainer though) and also do "BodyPump" classes twice a week. But I need serious advice on a diet plan. I live in Portugal and there are no informed people on Veganism here. I want to put on weight without giving up the vegan lifestyle and I know it is possible, I just don't know how! Could you help me, please? I would really appreciate.

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I'm sorry to hear about all the losses you've had to endure recently. Certainly stress like this has a significant effect on your appetite as well as your body image.

Weight loss as you describe is rarely due just to stress and low appetite. Of course no one can diagnose you over the internet, but from what you write, you either are suffering from, or are at significant risk for, an eating disorder. Thus, the most important first step is to get help from a licensed professional who you can visit face-to-face. Please find a therapist who specializes in eating disorders to help you reestablish a healthy relationship with food, and to help you through your grieving and stress. It is not of the utmost importance whether this therapist knows about vegan diets: it is most important for you to be OK with eating and gaining weight in general.

As you know, you are currently at a dangerously low weight, and this is very hazardous to your health and well-being. Ultra-low weight (for height) puts you at risk for nutrient deficiencies, anemia and other mineral imbalances, bone loss, muscle wasting, irregular heartbeat, immune system problems, hormonal imbalances, and, if severe enough, organ failure.

It is quite possible to have too little fat on your body; fat is essential for carrying the fat-soluble vitamins to the tissues where they are needed; for maintaining healthy cell membranes; for optimal endocrine function (ie hormone synthesis and transport); for normal blood pressure; for normal blood clotting; and for normal metabolism. It is also important for healthy skin, hair, and nails.

It is good that you feel strong, and that you are concerned enough to write your letter; you have the energy and determination to make the changes you need to in order to bring your body to a healthy weight. Once you've established a relationship with a therapist, please work with a nutrition professional who is open to plant-based diets; your therapist might be ale to help you find one.

Until then, the first recommendation I have is to, alter your 4-times-a-week exercise regimen to include more gentle exercises, such as stretching, in favor of very high-intensity aerobic and training activities. It is great for your mental and physical health that you exercise regularly, and in the long term, these activities are wonderful, but you need to put your body into "gain" mode, and if you continue to burn calories at this fast rate, it will be much more difficult to reach your goal and attain optimal health.

Secondly, it is important that you consume plenty of nutrient-rich, high protein and high fat foods each day. (When you eventually work with a nutritionist in your area, please combine his or her recommendations with these so that you can reach your goals and still follow a vegan diet.) Since I have no idea what, how, or how much you currently eat (or what is available to you in Portugal), it is impossible for me to provide a meal plan. But I can provide some general guidelines. Please be liberal with foods such as nuts, nut butters, coconut, seeds, seed butters, avocado, olives, and full-fat soy products. If you find it difficult to eat more than a few bites at a time, eat 6 small meals per day. Set your watch, computer, or alarm clock to remind you of mealtimes.

You may be able to get help finding healthful vegan foods from the European Vegetarian Union; they list resources specific to Portugal here: http://www.euroveg.eu/lang/en/about/countries/portugal.php.

Breakfast ideas: - Smoothie with 1/4 cup peanut butter, a frozen banana, and a cup of juice - Oatmeal with seeds, nuts, and dried fruit - Granola or other cold cereal with fruit and soy milk or soy yogurt

Lunch/Dinner ideas: - Sauteed tofu and whole grains, with a green salad dressed with 2 tbsp olive oil and vinegar to taste - Mock meat with a cashew- or almond-based gravy (there are plenty of simple recipes online), rice, and vegetables - Burrito made with beans, tofu, vegetables, and rice - A curry made with coconut milk mixed with a bit of curry paste or curry powder, over tempeh or seitan plus your favorite vegetables and grains - Pizza with your favorite vegetable toppings and vegan cheese (if available) - A stir fry with your favorite vegetables, grains, legumes and sauce (such as peanut sauce or Asian flavored sauce)

Snack/Mini-Meal ideas: - Blender beverage made with soy or nut milk, some flax oil or nut butter, a scoop or protein powder (you can get soy, hemp, or rice protein online), and a little sweetener (This would take the place of the "liquid supplements," such as Ensure, that many nutritionists recommend for weight gain -- a nutritionist can help you devise a recipe that meets your calorie, fat, and protein needs) - Mash an avocado with some lemon or lime juice and enjoy with seed crackers - Coconut-date bars - Sandwich or wrap with hummus or other bean dip (made with tahini or oil) - Tortilla chips dipped in guacamole or other dip - Trail mix made with nuts, seeds, and dried fruits - Baked fruit with granola topping - Sweets/desserts (in moderation) such as nondairy ice cream, dark chocolate, baked goods, coconut-based sweets

These should help you slowly gain weight -- both muscle and fat -- as you maintain health. When you reach a healthy weight, scale back a bit on the richer ingredients, and focus on maintaining your weight with a more standard vegan diet.

You are an intelligent, compassionate young woman with years of joy, love, and friendships ahead of you. Please seek help in your area and remember that your health is the most important thing: you can only be effective in your life and your goals if you take care of yourself. Best of luck to you.

Disclaimer: The advice given here is for eductional purposes only. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified health care provider.

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