Few words have entered the international lexicon as rapidly as the portmanteau "veganuary". This inelegant blending of the words vegan and January has undoubtedly caught the popular imagination. A quick glance at Google trends confirms this. The number of searches containing the phrase veganuary has grown exponentially over the past 5 years, with Jan 2020 showing an all-time high. Ironically, the location searching the term most frequently is the Channel Island of Jersey, famous for its eponymous dairy cattle.
The idea of going vegan for January and beyond was first popularised by a UK non-profit organisation called Veganuary back in 2014. Since then, increasing numbers or restaurants and even airlines have joined the meat-free merriment, offering or launching vegan options during the vegan month.
Around the same time Veganuary was being popularised, my daughter, then 13, formally announced her veganism. I shrugged at the time, suspecting it was a passing phase. However, five years later, the vegan diet has taken firm root and, to some extent, influenced the rest of the family.
This shift to a more plant-based lifestyle has been made easier by the proliferation of vegan options in supermarkets and restaurants. A few years ago, in many places, cow's milk was the only show in town. Today, beverages derived from almonds, coconuts, cashews, hazelnuts and soybeans all vie for space on the milk aisle.
While I still occasionally consume meat, fish and dairy, I have developed a preference for many of the vegan alternatives. I would always choose almond milk over cow’s milk as I slowly feel myself becoming vegan.
Beyond personal preferences, however, the environmental impact of a person opting for a plant-based diet is significantly smaller than that of their non-vegan counterparts.
A study by a research team from the University of Oxford, published in the peer-review journal Science in 2018, supports this claim. One of the conclusions was that a vegan diet is the best way to reduce our individual environmental impact. This goes above and beyond driving electric cars and opting not to fly. Choosing a plant-based diet reduces greenhouse gases, global acidification, and our use of land and water.
From a physical health perspective, well-planned vegan diets get a big thumbs-up too, being associated as they are with a lower risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes – the biggest lifestyle-related health complaints.
From a psychological perspective, we are only just beginning to appreciate the massive role that diet can play on mental health. Our gut or gastrointestinal tract is home to trillions of microbes, collectively known as the microbiome. A review article published in 2019 in the peer-reviewed journal Hormones and Behavior suggests that the microbiome talks directly to the brain, a link which scientists have named the gut-brain-connection. It seems likely then that well-planned vegan diets might also help promote our mental health too.
In addition to the possible gut-brain benefits of a vegan diet, it might also contribute to our well-being in the form of reduced levels of guilt. The idea that our lifestyle choices are part of a solution to the unprecedented fires in Australia and Iceland's vanishing glaciers might spare us from a deep sense of eco-guilt. Research at the University of Chicago found that eco-guilt was lowest when individuals felt they should be engaging in pro-environmental behaviour and did so.
Overall, the vegan diet is good for mind, body and planet. There are, unfortunately, those who adopt vegan diets as part of an extreme weight-loss regimen. Driven more by body image aspirations than health and environmental concerns, some individuals use a vegan-diet as a smokescreen to mask an eating disorder. In the US, for example, vegans and vegetarians make up about 13 per cent of the general population. Among anorexia patients, the rate is between 45 to 54 per cent. Disentangling motivations for a vegan diet can be complicated.
In the middle of veganuary, I hope those following the meat-free month, do so out of compassion for animals and concern for health, well-being and our environment. I would hate for it to become a gateway to vegorexia nervosa.
Justin Thomas is a psychology professor at Zayed University