Nutrition Hotline

By Suzanne Havala-Hobbs, DrPH, MS, RD

Gaining Weight on a Vegetarian Diet

QUESTION: I recently had a conversation with a friend who is not a vegetarian. He said that one reason why he hesitates to try vegetarianism is that he is so thin and has such a high metabolism that he is afraid he would have trouble getting enough calories. I know what he means, because I was underweight before I became a vegetarian, and now that I've switched to a vegetarian diet, I've lost so much weight that my ribs show! I eat lots of nuts and seeds and it doesn't help me gain weight. I eat three or four full meals every day. Any suggestions?

DB, Maryland

ANSWER: For starters, if you're thin, you should eat according to your appetite. If you've eaten your meal and you still feel hungry, have seconds. If you get hungry between meals, have a snack.

Assuming that you have spoken to your doctor and he or she has confirmed that your loss in weight is not due to illness, if you still think that you are too thin, there are a couple of other things you can do to boost your calorie intake. First, look at the types of foods that you are eating. If your meals contain a high percentage of bulky, low-calorie foods such as green salads and raw vegetables, substitute a greater number of calorie-dense foods such as beans, grains, and starchy vegetables, including more cooked vegetables.

Next, you can add some vegetable fats to your meals. Seeds, nuts, and seed and nut butters are nutritious, and they're a concentrated source of calories. You can add pieces of avocado to a sandwich or make guacamole dip. You can brush olive oil over your cooked vegetables, toss a little with your pasta, or dip your bread into olive oil mixed with herb seasonings or hot red peppers.

All of these ideas should add calories to your diet and help you gain weight if you are too thin. Keep in mind, though, that you may just have an ectomorphic body build, and a slender look may be normal for you. You might want to contact a registered dietitian for a more individualized approach. A dietitian could determine your body fat level, assess your frame size, activity level, and caloric needs, and help you arrive at a realistic body weight goal.

Non-soy Veggie Foods Rich in Isoflavones

QUESTION: Everyone knows about the benefits of the isoflavones in soy foods, but what other foods are rich sources of this phytochemical, or at least contain some?

Via e-mail

ANSWER: According to Mark Messina, PhD, a soyfoods expert, there are noticeable amounts of isoflavones in other legumes, especially garbanzo beans (chickpeas). But these have far fewer isoflavones as compared to soybeans. It would be impossible to get the potential benefits of isoflavones by consuming any beans other than soybeans. Red clover is a good source of iso-flavones, but we don't eat it. However, you can readily find isoflavone supplements made from red clover.