If January is near, it must be resolution time! And there’s nothing like a 31-day health challenge to kick off the new year.
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The challenge involves avoiding all animal products for the month. It’s been gaining momentum since its creation in 2014 by a U.K.-based nonprofit organization named Veganuary. In 2022, more than 620,000 people participated.
“Veganuary is a way for you to start paying attention to the type of foods you eat and how your diet impacts the environment,” says dietitian Nancy Geib, RD, LDN.
If you’re up for the Veganuary challenge, here’s what you need to know:
Health benefits of Veganuary
Living a vegan lifestyle benefits animal welfare and the environment and can save you money on groceries. But it also impacts your health by lowering your risk of life-threatening chronic diseases.
“Eating vegan, even for a month, provides important health benefits,” Geib says. “How much physical change you see in one month can depend on your diet before Veganuary. But pay attention to how you feel — you’ll notice the difference there.”
The Veganuary challenge can help you:
Lower your blood pressure and cholesterol
Eating plant-based foods can benefit your heart health, and those benefits grow when you remove animal products. Research finds that people who eat a vegetarian diet are 24% less likely to die from heart disease than people who eat meat.
One reason is that plant-based protein sources don’t contain cholesterol, a fatty substance that can build up in your blood vessels and affect your blood flow. Lower cholesterol levels can decrease your risk of heart attack, heart failure and peripheral artery disease.
A vegan diet also helps your blood pressure. Fruits and vegetables are low in sodium (salt) — consuming too much sodium is a risk factor for high blood pressure (hypertension). “But not all vegan food is created equal,” warns Geib, “especially if it’s processed.” Some vegan meat substitutes and processed vegan food can contain as much or even more sodium than animal products.
Reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes
Studies show that people who eat a mostly plant-based diet have a 23% lower risk of Type 2 diabetes than those who only eat some plant-based food. That’s because a vegan diet impacts two significant risk factors for Type 2 diabetes, Geib says. A vegan lifestyle can help you:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Improve how your body processes insulin — the hormone that controls your blood sugar (glucose) level.
“If you have diabetes or prediabetes, you will see improvement in how your body processes insulin during the 31 days of Veganuary,” she adds. When your body handles insulin efficiently, your blood sugar levels stay stable, and stable blood sugar helps your body burn fat.
The positive effect on your blood sugar isn’t the only way a vegan diet can help you lose weight. Many people also eat fewer calories when they eat a healthy vegan diet.
“Anytime you eliminate heavily processed foods and add more vegetables and whole foods, you’re likely consuming fewer calories,” Geib notes. But to see a difference in your weight, try to avoid processed vegan foods, too. “A vegan cookie is still a cookie. There are still calories, sugar and unhealthy ingredients in there.”
Improve your digestion
“The more high-fiber whole foods you eat, the more you’re helping your gut and improving your digestion,” Geib says. “High-fiber foods act as prebiotics and encourage the growth of good bacteria in your gut.” Fiber also helps with digestion and keeps you feeling regular. It bulks up and softens your stool, making it easier to pass.
How to do Veganuary (and succeed)
If you don’t eat a primarily plant-based diet now, changing to a vegan diet for a month may feel overwhelming. But taking some simple steps before you start can lead you to success.
1. Plan early
Planning is critical when it comes to any diet, says Geib. You’re more likely to succeed with the right food and tools.
Geib recommends starting to prepare in December. “Sign up for the challenge early, so the commitment is in place,” she says. “Then, start thinking about what you’ll eat and how you’ll stock your kitchen. Otherwise, January 1st will be here, and you won’t be ready.”
2. Think about the nutrients you need
“When you start eating vegan, the biggest challenge may be figuring out how to incorporate the nutrients you’ve typically gotten from animal-based products,” Geib says. Get your nutrients from whole foods and not supplements whenever possible:
- Calcium: If you typically get your calcium from dairy, try eating nuts, beans and dark leafy greens to get what you need.
- Iron: Iron-rich foods include spinach, edamame and broccoli. Make sure to eat plant-based iron with foods high in vitamin C (such as bell peppers, spinach and sweet potatoes) — it helps with absorption.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Find these unsaturated fats in avocados, nuts and leafy green vegetables.
- Protein: You may already have many plant-based protein sources in your kitchen. Good options are edamame, tofu, nut butter, beans, oats and quinoa.
3. Use available vegan resources
When you sign-up for the Veganuary challenge, you’ll have access to recipes, meal plans, nutrition guides and coaching emails that’ll help you get started and support you along the way. But there are plenty of other vegan resources available, too.
Geib suggests heading online, where you’ll find vegan blogs, family-friendly vegan dinner ideas and nutrition information. Some of Geib’s favorites are frommybowl.com, veganyackattack.com and thebuddhistchef.com. Worried about missing your favorite dishes? Try these Veganuary recipes for mac ‘n’ cheese, stuffed peppers and tacos.
4. Enlist a partner
Participating in any challenge is more fun when you’re doing it with a friend, coworker or family member. “If your spouse or partner participates, it will make your meals much easier,” Geib encourages. “But if your family isn’t willing to eat healthier, even having a supportive friend or extended family member can make a big difference.”
When Veganuary is over…
Veganuary is a month-long challenge, but if you’re feeling good and enjoying the change, consider continuing with a vegan lifestyle. And even if a vegan diet isn’t for you, you can still benefit from plant-based eating.
“Maybe you don’t want to eat vegan full-time,” Geib says. “But what about two or three days a week? What about two or three meals a week? Even making small dietary changes can have a big impact long term.”