Veg out in January
The new year craze Veganuary has entered the mainstream, with Tesco introducing a vegan range this week. Aoife Carrigy has everything you need to know
December's excess makes January a perfect breeding ground for fad diets, the majority of which are abandoned before the month is out. But this year, one New Year, New Me trend is going mainstream and with the capacity to effect more long-term change than most.
This month, the Veganuary concept has seen over 150,000 people pledging online to avoid animal products for a 31-day period, and celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver are promoting vegan recipes to support the campaign.
Meanwhile, retailers like Tesco are responding to a growing demand for meat-free products. Tesco has launched an own-brand range of 100pc plant-based ready meals in Ireland and the UK. Developed by former global executive chef at Whole Foods Market, Derek Sarno, the Wicked Kitchen range includes Nana's Mushroom Bolognese, made from Derek's grandmother's recipe, and 'Smokin' Pasta and Amaze Ballz', which replaces meatballs with chickpea, vegetable and seed balls.
Restaurants are feeling the shift in consumer behaviour too. Dairine McCafferty, general manager and director of Dublin's long-running Cornucopia cafe, says they see an upsurge in interest in their vegan dishes every January. "People understand that plant-based food is very fibrous, so it really cleans out your body, which is what people need at this time of year," she says.
What is Veganuary?
Veganuary is a UK-based charity that aims to inspire consumers to try a vegan diet for January and throughout the year. Launched in 2013, its impact has surged this year, in part due to last year's development of what is now a comprehensive, engaging and resource-packed website. Its popularity also reflects and harnesses a shift towards re-assessing our traditional meat-based diet and exploring other alternatives for the sake of our health and that of the planet.
How do you do it?
Veganuary challenges people to commit to a month-long diet that is free from animal products. By signing up, participants receive daily emails containing recipes and nutritional and shopping tips. The website also contains downloadable recipes and meal plans suitable for everyone from busy families and sports people to enthusiastic cooks or those with specific dietary requirements such as nut allergies. There are also guides to reading labels and recommendations of books and films to further your education about the issues relating to the consumption of animal products.
Why do people do it?
According to research conducted in the UK by Mintel, the traditional motivation for eschewing animal products remains a concern for animal welfare, although this is being superseded in a younger generation by a central concern for the environmental impact of animal-based agriculture. For those considering reducing their meat consumption, personal health and weight management are primary motivators.
For many, it will be a mix of reasons. Blogger Nicola Betteridge of youngbrokevegan.com says that her transition from some-time vegetarian to full-time vegan began with a desire to lose weight. "I basically followed a load of fit vegans on Instagram," she writes, "and figured if I gave up cheese and chicken nuggets, I would also become fit." Her engagement with vegans opened her eyes to animal welfare and environmental issues and strengthened her resolve. "When I started seeing veganism as an ethical belief as opposed to a diet, I started to do a lot better."
What are the health benefits?
A vegan diet can, according to Veganuary.com, help to "cut out cholesterol, lower your blood pressure and reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease".
They claim that getting the right nutrition is easy, once you know where to find it.
So what would your doctor think? "I would suggest to take advice from a properly qualified dietitian to ensure the right balance of vitamins, minerals and nutrients for your individual needs," says Dublin-based GP Dr Mary Condren. Consultant dietitian Paula Mee is a member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (indi.ie). She believes that a plant-based diet has much to offer us all.
"Various indigenous groups around the world who follow plant-based diets have shown great longevity and a lowering of incidence of things like diabetes, coronary heart disease, obesity and so on," she says. "There's no doubt that a plant-based diet is the way to go and we should all be eating more plants and vegetables."
Are there any health risks?
The challenge, Mee warns, is in maintaining a balanced diet. "It's easier to miss out on things when you're on a restricted diet," she says. "Particularly in young people who may not have the resources to buy a wide range of foods to ensure they're getting all the necessary nutrients."
Key nutrients to pay attention to include vitamin D ("particularly important for the immune system - a good source is oily fish which is off the menu for vegans, so you may want to consider vitamin D supplements") and B12 ("Vegemite would be a good source of B vitamins all round").
"We would also recommend to eat a lot of sea vegetables," Mee says, "to provide things like omega 3, which is really important for a balance of fats across the diet and also as an anti-inflammatory fat."
Most supermarkets sell milled sea vegetables that can be added to soups and stews.
Mee echoes Dr Condren's advice that some individuals should seek professional advice before making long-term changes.
"If they're growing and a teenager, I'd get them to go to see a dietitian," she says. "Particularly a female who needs a lot of iron - if they cut out red meat, they'll need a little bit of extra support."
Is it worth it?
"There are a lot of advantages to getting people focused on a certain way of eating, even for a short period of time just to get people interested and engaged with their food choices," says Mee.
"What would be great is if people thought, 'you know what, I'll adopt a Meatless Monday after this' or maybe even Monday through to Wednesday."
If you're curious to experiment with a plant-based diet, this could be a great time to try it, given the practical and moral support that the Veganuary campaign offers. Whether you're convinced to become a full-time vegan or not, the experience will certainly be an education.