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How to actually pull off Veganuary, according to dieticians

As tradition shows, the start of a new year is commonly viewed as a chance to kick off a fresh routine and step out of your comfort zone. Those who imbibed a bit too much for comfort over the holidays ditch the booze and embark on a Dry January, for example. People feeling uninspired with their stale workouts give a new style of sweating a shot for the month. And omnivores curious about plant-based diets become vegan eaters for 31 days — a challenge known as Veganuary.

The last experiment sounds like an exciting way to spice up your meals, but how do you actually give up meat, eggs, dairy, and more without feeling totally overwhelmed? Here, plant-based dietitians give the ultimate game plan for a successful Veganuary — and what to do when those 31 days are up.

What is Veganuary?

Created by the UK-based charity Veganuary, the eponymous annual challenge involves trying a vegan diet throughout the month of January. Refresher: Vegan eaters steer clear of all animal-derived products, including meat, dairy, fish, eggs, honey, and gelatin, says Anja Grommons, MA, RDN, a plant-based registered dietitian.

Instead, they’ll solely eat plant foods, including fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and soy products.

The ultimate goal of Veganuary — and, in turn, how one might participate in it — differs from person to person, says Alex Caspero, MA, RD, a registered dietitian and plant-based chef. Some folks may want to transition into veganism due to their personal and ethical beliefs, and they may stick with a strictly vegan diet throughout Veganuary because of that, she says.

For others, Veganuary may look like an opportunity to change their current eating habits and simply increase the amount of nutrient-rich plant foods they eat — and that means some animal-derived foods may still have a place on their plate, she says.

“I think for a lot of people, this idea of being vegan or strictly plant-based is really daunting, and I don’t think that needs to be the goal,” says Caspero. “I think the goal needs to be: Can we eat more predominantly plant-based, plant-rich foods?”

veganuary
Image: Courtesy Anna Pelzer/Unsplash

That’s right: You can participate in Veganuary without going totally vegan.

If the idea of skipping the scrambled eggs you eat every morning seriously stresses you out, try going vegetarian for the month, which entails eating mainly plant foods and some eggs and dairy and avoiding animal proteins, including meat and seafood. Or if you can’t live without your Sunday roast, opt for more of a plant-focused eating style, reducing your serving size when you consume animal-based products or increasing the number of plant-based meals you eat throughout the week.

Simply put, find a plant-centric eating style that makes the most sense for you, says Catherine Perez, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian and plant-based eater. “The all-or-none mentality can make it super challenging for some,” she says. “Veganism isn’t about perfection, but rather doing our best to reduce the harm and impact we place on animals and the planet.”

Why You Should Consider Trying Veganuary

While switching up your eating habits for the month may seem more stressful than it’s worth, giving a vegan diet a shot can have major payoffs. Generally speaking, nixing meat from your plate and eating a balanced vegan diet will lead you to increase the amount of plant foods you eat, says Perez.

In turn, “you will be increasing the amount of fibre, plant-based proteins, vitamins, and minerals you consume,” she says. And if you decide to stick with it, the diet can have a significant impact on your health in the long run. “In general, those following plant-based diets demonstrate a decreased risk of [coronary] heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers,” adds Grommons.

Not to mention, a vegan diet can improve the health of planet Earth, too. In general, animal products require more resources to produce and create higher emissions than plant-based alternatives.

And a global shift toward plant-based diets could reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions — which trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming — by up to 70 percent, according to research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. (The best eating style for your health and the environment’s? The planetary health diet.)

How to Have a Successful Veganuary

Focus On the Naturally Vegan Foods You Already Enjoy

Chances are, a good chunk of your diet is already made of innately vegan foods, and concentrating on those ingredients and meals can make your Veganuary a bit less stressful, says Grommons.

For example, apple slices dipped in peanut butter, whole-grain toast smeared with mashed avocado and cherry tomatoes, pita bread paired with hummus, pasta coated in pesto, and black bean burritos are all vegan as is — and may already be in your kitchen.

Veganise Your Favorite Meals

While learning how to make a killer tempeh bánh mì or seitan tacos can push you outside of your comfort zone and introduce you to tasty new dishes, overhauling your plate isn’t absolutely necessary. “For a successful Veganuary, don’t reinvent the wheel,” says Grommons.

Instead, she recommends swapping your animal-derived food products with plant-based alternatives. “If you like burgers now, try a vegan-friendly patty,” she suggests. “If you like cream in your coffee, sub in a plant-based coffee creamer or non-dairy milk.”

Have Fun with It

Walk into any supermarket right now, and you’re bound to encounter dozens of plant-based and vegan products, including faux burgers and chicken tenders and non-dairy milks, cheeses, and yoghurts. By exploring and taste-testing all the plant-based foods on the market, trying new recipes, and having fun with it all, your Veganuary is much less likely to feel boring or difficult, says Caspero.

“The more that you can make any behaviour change enjoyable and something that you look forward to, I think that’s the key to making it not feel like a chore,” she says. “When people try it, challenge themselves, and have fun with it for, let’s say, a month, then hopefully a lot of [those habits] leak out to the rest of the year.”

Stock Up On Plant-Based Staples

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Image: Courtesy dhanya purohit/Unsplash

When you’re ready to kick off your Veganuary, stock up on plant-based essentials to make meals as stress-free as possible. Start by adding these RD-approved items to your shopping list.

  • Canned or dried beans and legumes, such as black beans, chickpeas, lentils, navy beans
  • Whole grains, such as oats, farro, quinoa, and barley.
  • Sources of healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds, avocado, and oils
  • Plant-based proteins including soy products (eg tofu, tempeh), seitan, and meat alternatives
  • Your favourite fruits and vegetables, whether they’re fresh, frozen, or canned
  • Sauces to easily make vegan meals more flavourful (think: BBQ sauce, simmer sauces)
  • Spices, herbs, and nutritional yeast for a cheesy tang (“Think about how you’d flavour meat before,” says Perez. “You should aim to flavour your plant-based meals the same way.”)

Focus On the Ingredient Lists — Not the Certifications

While vegan certifications, such as vegan.org’s Certified Vegan or The Vegan Society’s Vegan Trademark, can make grocery shopping during your Veganuary less time-consuming, they often come with a higher price tag than their non-certified counterparts, says Grommons.

Save yourself some cash by focusing on naturally vegan foods, such as fruits and veggies, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds, she suggests. If you’re purchasing a pre-packaged food, give the ingredient list a once-over. “You can start by scanning the allergen statement for milk, egg, and fish ingredients — this doesn’t capture all non-vegan ingredients, but it can be a good place to start,” says Grommons.

“If the product appears free from those animal-based allergens, scan the ingredient list for other additives like meat, honey, and gelatin to name a few.”

Build Your Plate with Intention

In every meal, aim to include a muscle-building plant-based protein, a source of fueling healthy fats, and a source of energising carbohydrates (eg whole grains), all paired with a variety of fruits and veggies, says Perez.

Even with that well-balanced plate, some folks may find it challenging to score enough iron, a mineral that’s used to make proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen from the lungs throughout the body and to muscles, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The reason: The body doesn’t absorb the type of iron found in plant foods as efficiently as the type found in animal foods, which is why the NIH recommends vegetarians and vegans consume nearly twice as much iron (amounting to 36 milligrams per day) as omnivores.

To get your fill, nosh on iron-rich vegan foods such as white beans, lentils, tofu, and spinach, and consider pairing them with others that are packed with vitamin C (eg peppers, oranges, broccoli, and strawberries), which boosts iron absorption, according to the NIH.

Similarly, calcium and vitamin D — nutrients that support bone health — are primarily found in animal-based products such as milk, yoghurt, and cheese, which can make it tough to hit the daily recommended dietary allowances of 100 milligrams and 600 micrograms, respectively.

To stop yourself from falling short, choose non-dairy milks and yoghurts that are fortified with (meaning, added) calcium and vitamin D, Kelly Springer, MS, RD, CDN, previously told Shape.

Consider Supplements

Some nutrients are a bit tougher to come by, and you may benefit from taking a supplement while participating in Veganuary. For example, vitamin B12 — a nutrient that helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy — is primarily found in animal foods (eg meat, dairy, and eggs) and is added to some cereals and nutritional yeast, per the NIH.

In order to get the recommended daily allowance of 2.4 micrograms, Perez recommends vegan eaters take a vitamin B12 supplement and not shy away from those fortified foods. (FTR, the US Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate supplements as heavily as drugs, so talk it over with your doc for specific recommendations on the best dosage and type of supplement for you.)

Turn to Tech

Let’s be real, you’re probably not going to cook every meal, every day for the entire month. To ensure your restaurant pick for Friday night offers plenty of plant-based options, the Veganuary organisation suggests downloading the HappyCow app, which lists vegetarian and vegan food options at more than 156,000 restaurants, cafés, and grocery stores around the world.

Don’t Overthink It

If you start feeling overwhelmed with your Veganuary diet, take a deep breath and go back to the basics, suggests Perez. When you notice you’re constantly overthinking your meals, write down three dish ideas for breakfast, three for lunch, and three for dinner and place that list somewhere you can see in a jiff (think: on your fridge door). “When you don’t know what to eat for a meal, take a look at those options to help guide you,” she says.

Meeting yourself where you’re at is also key. If highly processed foods are a staple in your diet before you start the challenge, you probably won’t become a 100-percent plant-based eater throughout Veganuary without feeling panicky and stressed, says Caspero. “No goal should feel like it’s too daunting,” she says. “If that’s the case, break it up into smaller chunks. Make it attainable and make it achievable.”

Seek Support If You Need It

Due to the somewhat restrictive nature of Veganuary, some folks may struggle to get enough nutrients or calories, which can lead to fatigue, says Perez. In those cases, take a good look at what you’re adding to your plate — and what you’re leaving out. “Ask yourself if what you are doing is balanced,” says Perez.

“Have you focused on replacing animal products with plant-based ones? For example, I see a lot of people just take out the meat and not replace it with plant-based proteins like beans, soy, or meat alternatives or healthy fats. People will be overly restrictive and not get enough calories, which oftentimes makes them feel worse.”

And at any point, don’t be afraid to meet with a registered dietitian, particularly one with a background in plant-based eating, to go over your eating style and ensure you’re not falling short on any key nutrients, says Perez. “If you need social support, join groups, attend potlucks, and engage with online groups that support veganism, as well,” she adds.

What Should You Do Once Veganuary Ends?

Once your month of veganism comes to a close, it’s time to get introspective. Write down your favourite recipes and restaurants to have on hand, assess how you’re feeling after eating plant-based for those four weeks, and think about the benefits and challenges that came with your Veganuary, suggests Perez. “For the challenges, note if there are any legitimate things you could [have done] differently to see more change,” she says. “Oftentimes, not addressing those challenges will make someone stop being vegan.”

Then, decide how you want to move forward. If you enjoyed noshing on a vegan diet but experienced a few hiccups, consider how you might prevent them down the line and keep on trucking with your current eating habits. If it didn’t work for you, that’s okay, too.

At the end of the day, what’s most important is using your learnings — and hopefully, your new enjoyment of vegan meals — to shift the ratio of animals to plants on your plate, says Caspero. “Most people eat way too much red meat, chicken, dairy, eggs, and cheese and not enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and seeds,” she adds. If you can get to the point where “70, 80 percent of [your diet is] plant foods, you can fill in the rest with whatever you want.”

This story first appeared on www.shape.com.

(Main and Feature Image Credit: Getty Images)

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