I am not a vegan. I have never, unless we count the occasional absent-minded swiping of a ‘Plant Kitchen’ sandwich off the supermarket shelf instead of a ham one, entertained the thought of turning vegan. In fact, I think I would be hard pressed to name more than a couple of ‘real-life’ vegans, even since arriving at university. I doubt that my position is solitary – recent YouGov research claims that between only 2-3 percent of the UK population practise veganism. Yet, despite the paltry figures, ‘Veganuary’ never fails to rear its leafy head.
A portmanteau that has found its way into several official dictionary definitions in recent years, Veganuary is pretty self-explanatory. For the month of January, people are encouraged to ditch their usual diets and follow a plant-based regime. But why? January, otherwise known as the month of the ‘new year, new me’ mantra, gives birth every so often to a host of feel-good campaigns; Dry January’s younger sibling, Veganuary, is no different. But, whilst Dry January’s intentions are steeped in genuine concern – an earnest attempt at cutting down on alcohol consumption and the risks that come along with it – can the same be said of Veganuary? Is substituting meat and dairy for plant-based products, especially over such a fleeting span of time, really as beneficial as we are led to believe?
On the one hand, it could be argued that the scheme is little more than a month-long advertisement of veganism, a temporary crutch that allows people to feel good about themselves following Christmas. Figures from The Official Veganuary 2022 Participant Survey revealed that 64 percent of the 32,522 respondents had no intention of carrying their newfound veganism into February. The same survey found that 45 percent failed to maintain a vegan diet throughout January, suggesting a large number were taking a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards the challenge. Considering this, is there any wonder that the long-term benefits of Veganuary are called into question?
Additionally, it would be dismissive of me to not mention here the age-old argument that the vegan diet isn’t a massively healthy one. Whilst this logic has largely been debunked, not least by the sheer amount of perfectly nutritious plant-based substitutes out there nowadays, there is some suggestion that veganism may be something best learned, rather than thrown head-first, into. Switching suddenly to a vegan diet, as Veganuary urges, can cause an array of issues such as bloating, headaches, sleep problems and low energy that can persist for up to two months. For those experiencing such symptoms for the duration of the challenge, it may be quite discouraging, especially in the face of the push for continued veganism.
However, this seems to be the point where evidence ceases to denounce Veganuary. It can hardly be contested that introducing healthier alternatives for fatty products such as cheese, butter and milk to your diet will do your body much harm. Of the respondents, 49 percent saw improvements to their energy levels, 48 percent saw improvements to their mood and exactly half reported improvements in their overall health. In fact, of the 76 percent that claimed they would attempt a vegan diet in the future, 20 percent chalked their reasoning up to improved health. If those who resolved to one day try their hand at full-time veganism stuck with it, they would likely see a whole host of health benefits as time wore on.
A longitudinal study conducted by EPIC-Oxford found that, over the course of eighteen years, those following vegan and vegetarian diets were at lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and kidney stones than their meat-eating counterparts. This would, of course, mean pushing through the initial unpleasant, albeit temporary, symptoms associated with turning vegan suddenly and with little warning. Despite the majority deciding that February would see them return to their previous diets, Veganuary appears to act for many as a gateway into more permanent, if only potential, veganism.
If the proposed health benefits aren’t enough, it should be noted that Veganuary poses less awkwardness than most people tend to assume. Over the years, I have heard countless friends and family members falling prey to an anti-Veganuary mindset – that it would be too difficult, they wouldn’t enjoy vegan food, that they’d miss chocolate too much, and so on and so forth. However, it may be a case of not knocking it until you try it – 20 percent of those likely to attempt a more full-time vegan approach stated that their main reason was finding it easier than expected.
This shouldn’t really be surprising; in recent years, more and more restaurants, cafes and supermarkets have begun to make changes in order to accommodate those following vegan diets. It has reached a point where most supermarkets boast specified vegan sections, whilst you’d struggle to find a cafe menu that didn’t offer at least a couple of vegan-friendly dishes. Not only this, but vegan food is nicer now than ever before – many substitutes, including chicken-based dishes, chocolate, and yoghurt, are manufactured to taste so close to the ‘real’ thing that it can be difficult to tell them apart.
Is Veganuary, then, little more than a month-long advertising campaign, or is it inspiring future change from within? It all depends upon how you choose to participate. A look at the figures suggests that, yes, Veganuary is a worthwhile cause that inspires more people than it discourages to attempt more permanent veganism, an endeavour good for the mind, body and planet. Will I be participating in Veganuary 2024? ... Maybe. We’ll see.