It’s been nearly seven years since I stopped eating meat, and I have to say that I don’t miss it (usually); this month, I’m taking on Veganuary for the first time. The initiative, launched in the UK in January 2014, encourages people to go vegan for the first month of the year, to “reduce the suffering of animals, help the planet and improve personal health.” With a website offering vegan recipes, advice and information, it takes just a few clicks to take the pledge and dive right in. But at the end of the month, how effective really is Veganuary at getting people on board with a sustainable plant-based lifestyle?
I already avoid cow’s milk, dairy spreads and yoghurts – it’s just the dreaded cheese and eggs to phase out – as well as a lax attitude when it comes to shopping and eating in restaurants.
Meanwhile, my boyfriend, a dedicated gym-goer (“there’s just so much less protein in this though…”) and semi-regular visitor to Sidwell Street KFC, is taking the slightly less drastic challenge of… Vegetarianuary? Okay, not a thing. But I’m pretty sure that the first thing he’s doing in February is heading to Co-Op for a decidedly NON veggie meal deal. Is this a widespread thing amongst those who go temporarily vegan, or vegetarian, or take on any diet or lifestyle-based challenge for January or any other month? Sober October saw me downing shots at a Halloween party as soon as the clock struck midnight, and I know I’m not the only one. Does restricting ourselves, especially if we aren’t enjoying the change, simply cause us to fall back into old habits once the month is over?
And why do we do it in the first place? Perhaps, like me, you’re thinking along the lines that eating fewer animal products is simply more sustainable and want to give veganism a go. Maybe you’re well and truly in it for the animals – either way, ethical reasons are one of the biggest motivators for sticking with the lifestyle change.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it amongst all the Veganuary hype, but I think the reason the lifestyle has never fully stuck for me before is that I’m not fully invested in the ethical reasoning behind it. Maybe I’m heartless, but the ever-cited vegan activist documentaries like Earthlings, Cowspiracy and Dominion don’t really do it for me – but I’ve heard a lot of vegans say that was what persuaded them to make the change. Whilst those documentaries are certainly hard-hitting, something about guilting people into following a certain lifestyle – especially when it’s peppered with problematic comparisons to slavery and genocide – which doesn’t sit right with me. Nonetheless, from a utilitarian perspective, I can see all the environmental benefits of avoiding animal products.
There’s no doubt that veganism can do great things for your health too, by incorporating more plant-based foods, and making you step away from the ready-meals and supermarket ingredients (as you often must, because honestly, why does everything contain milk powder?) Being more mindful of what goes into your food can give you more energy, get you cooking more creatively and even save your purse strings if you’re savvy about it.
But for a lot of us, especially those without the know-how about replacement foods and essential nutrients, it can mean being a bit hungry, dissatisfied and thanking whatever deities might be watching that Chili Heatwave Doritos don’t contain milk powder.
There’s another aspect to it which some people might not stop to consider – for those of us with a history of eating disorders, there can be a danger in choosing to follow a more restricting diet. I’ve found that one of the more challenging things about veganism so far this month, and in the past, is less that I would be missing eating animal products, but more that I’m uncomfortable with not being able to eat something. That kind of limitation has, in the past, led me to approach what I’m eating in a less than healthy way.
Perhaps the most important thing with challenges like Veganuary is that we learn from them – and it can’t be denied that the team behind the initiative is helping to spread the word. Educating yourself on environmental issues can only be a good thing and who knows; if it doesn’t stick this month, it may do one day in the future. It’s difficult to go from eating a diet completely inclusive of animal products to being fully vegan overnight. For some, it works – for others, a gradual transition is more effective.
I don’t know whether I’ll stick with being vegan once January is over. But I’m taking steps to replace cosmetic products with cruelty-free versions and in general, I do try to take small actions to make a bigger difference – like recycling, cutting down on packaging, donating unwanted clothes to charities and buying local and organic. At the end of the day, going fully vegan would be another positive step – but for me and many other Veganuary participants, it might require an extra push.