What is Veganuary? How to go vegan: Campaign asks people to try plant-based diet

The newest January challenge asks people to go vegan for a month.
Healthy Vegan Snack Board Pink Grapefruit
A rainbow of colors and textures awaits people who try the vegan diet.Enrique D?az / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

First, there was Dry January, a month-long break from alcohol after the excesses of the holidays. Now, here comes “Veganuary,” a campaign to get people to try a plant-based diet in the new year.

The goal is to go vegan “for January and beyond,” according to the British non-profit organization behind the effort. Launched in the UK in 2014, the challenge has spread to the U.S. and other countries, with more than 250,000 people taking the movement’s pledge in 2019.

High-profile Veganuary supporters include actors Joaquin Phoenix and Mayim Bialik, the campaign said. Phoenix reportedly lobbied for the first all-vegan menu at the Golden Globes on Sunday. "It's a very bold move, making tonight plant-based," the "Joker" star said.

What is a vegan diet?

The eating regimen means omitting all animal products including meat, fish, poultry, dairy, eggs and even honey.

Instead, vegans load up on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and soy like tofu, edamame and tempeh.

Studies have found a vegan diet could lead to weight loss, boost psychological well-being and potentially improve most people’s health. Many vegans also follow the regimen because of concerns about animal welfare and the environment.

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What do experts think of Veganuary?

Nutritionists were fans of people exploring a plant-based diet, but skeptical of just diving into the vegan lifestyle for a month without much preparation or modification.

The name is catchy, but Veganuary is not a realistic goal for most people, said NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor Madelyn Fernstrom.

“It’s very rigid, and while it can be healthy, the interested-but-uneducated consumer is at risk for nutritional deficiencies,” Fernstrom told TODAY.

“The risk of vitamin B12 deficiency is high, along with calcium and sometimes adequate protein intake. A strictly vegan diet takes a lot of preplanning and wide selection of plant based foods.”

Going this extreme all at once can actually turn people off, so making just a few changes may be better, said Beth Kitchin, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“A vegan diet can be very healthy, but it’s not easy. Easing into it may give you better long-term benefits, because you might get frustrated if you just jump in full force,” Kitchin said.

Still, Veganuary is worth a try if you want to test-drive this lifestyle, added Ashley Gearhardt, an associate psychology professor at the University of Michigan and director of its Food and Addiction Science & Treatment Lab.

A 30-day trial run can change people's behavior, Gearhardt noted, but she was concerned most would replace meat and cheese with “ultra-processed vegan junk food” filled with sugar, fat and salt, and think they were eating healthy.

“Spending all month eating vegan hot dogs, vegan ice cream and vegan french fries is not going to improve health,” Gearhardt warned.

How to try the vegan diet:

All of the experts advised easing into it, rather than going all in all at once. If a totally plant-based diet feels too restrictive and you are deprived, you won’t stick with it.

Popular modifications include:

  • Start with “meatless Mondays” and see how that feels, Kitchin recommended.
  • Consider a “Vegetarian January” that omits meat, but still includes eggs and dairy, Gearhardt said.
  • Try going vegan three days a week, and eat a mostly plant-based diet on the other days, including fish, eggs and dairy, Fernstrom noted. Or cut out red meat and focus on fish.
  • Eat vegan before 6 p.m., then eat a more diverse dinner, which Mark Bittman advised in his book “VB6.”

The vegan diet may not be right for people with a history of eating disorders because the restrictions could trigger old symptoms.

How to stay healthy and not feel deprived on a vegan diet:

Some nutrient needs are harder to meet for vegans, so it’s a good idea to talk with a registered dietitian, especially if you want to adopt this diet as a long-term lifestyle.

Look for healthy tips on websites like eatright.org, which is maintained by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Vitamin B12 is often deficient without animal proteins, for example, and it takes almost three cups of broccoli or seven cups of arugula to match the calcium in one cup of milk, Fernstrom said: “Sometimes supplements must be added, so pay attention to your needs.”

Nutrient-rich plant sources of protein include tofu, beans, quinoa, almonds and pumpkin seeds. Avoid the mistake of choosing foods only because they are plant-based — rather, look for nutrient value like proteins, fiber, heart healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals, Fernstrom noted.

The good news is a vegan diet can be very filling because it can be very high in fiber, Kitchin said. Many favorites like peanut butter, hummus and air-popped popcorn are naturally vegan. Restaurants are also increasingly offering vegan options.

Gearhardt’s research has found people who shift to a healthier diet can initially experience withdrawal-like symptoms, including irritability, cravings and headaches. They often go away within two weeks.

“It might take a little bit of time for your taste buds to adjust to not getting unnaturally high hits of sugar, fat and salt, but eventually you'll be surprised by how much pleasure you can get from these foods,” Gearhardt said.

“It’s easier to make these new changes a less effortful habit the longer you do it.”