When New Scientist magazine approached our team to get involved with their small Veganuary ‘experiment’ I was excited! Their idea was to ‘self-experiment’ and for some of their staff to try a vegan diet for a week. It seemed a great opportunity to work with the lovely people at New Scientist and to apply some of the research we’ve been doing in LEAP, so that people could learn more about the health and environmental impacts that the dietary changes could lead to.
What is Veganuary?
I’m sure many of you have heard of, or even taken part in, Veganuary. This social campaign, led by a non-profit organisation, started in 2014 and encourages people all over the globe to try veganism for a month. In 2019, more than a quarter of a million people took the pledge to go vegan for January, and the numbers are picking up year on year.
What did we do with New Scientist?
Nineteen of the New Scientist staff (13 meat-eaters, 3 pescetarians and 3 vegetarians) went vegan for one week to explore what effect, if any, this had on their health and the environment. All participants kept food diaries on My Fitness Pal for two weeks: the first week they ate their usual diets and the second week they tried to go 100% plant based. Analysing their diaries is where my colleagues at LEAP and I, come in.
So… did their health blossom with the new diet?
I looked at how the nutritional composition of their diets changed when following a vegan diet. The results were pretty interesting and similar to changes our researchers are seeing in long-term vegans.
When eating all things plant-based, on average, participants consumed significantly fewer calories per day. They also consumed significantly less fat, saturated fat and protein while consuming more carbohydrates. Although their protein intake decreased, they were still reaching the Reference Nutrient Intake of 50g. Participants’ average daily intake of fibre also significantly increased, though the calcium in their diet decreased.
Unfortunately, My Fitness Pal didn’t measure some key nutrients, such as Vitamin B12, iodine and selenium, which are likely to decrease when you reduce consumption of animal products. That’s why long-term vegans are encouraged to take a B12 supplement.
We know that there is an increasing body of evidence indicating high intakes of red and processed meat are associated with some adverse health effects, such as an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and some forms of cancer. The nutritional changes seen in this trial are mostly very positive, but being vegan for only one week isn’t enough to make a significant change in the chances of developing obesity or diet-related disease, such as cardiovascular disease or cancer, which reflects our dietary habits over a lifetime.