Going vegan: The new year fad

Nara Schoenberg
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — She misses pizza and hamburgers, and she longs for eggs.

Grocery store runs that would have taken an hour now take two, due to factors such as the need to scan labels for hidden ingredients.

But a week without meat or animal products has already yielded rewards, she says, from less puffiness under her eyes to what feels like a bit more speed in her morning run.

“I’ve always had a lot of energy, but it’s a different energy,” said Penny Shack, 37, of Lincoln Park.

“My sleep is so much better. And so far, I don’t feel hungry or miserable.”

Shack is one of tens of thousands of Americans who have signed up with the British charity Veganuary this year, agreeing to try a vegan diet free of all animal products. Participants are free to just try going vegan for a meal or two, but some — including Shack — are attempting a full January of veganism without even honey (yes, it’s an animal product.)

Worldwide, 226,000 people have signed up for Veganuary (Vee-GAN-uary) this year, up from 168,000 in 2018, according to a Veganuary spokeswoman, who said the charity does not yet have a figure for U.S. signups in 2019 but the number is up from last year.

Factors: Health, animal welfare and environmental concerns are the biggest reasons Americans go vegan, according to Veganuary U.S. trustee Seth Tibbott.

“If you were to rank them, you’d probably go health first: ‘What’s it going to do for me? Is it a healthy diet?’ And then you’d go into animal welfare, and then you’d go environmental,” said Tibbott, the founder and chairman of the Tofurky Co., which makes vegan meat substitutes.

“That said, the environmental reasons are taking a bigger and bigger piece of the pie, now that there’s all the concern about, ‘Hey, what’s the climate doing? And are we going to be able to live on this planet?’”

Veganuary, a high-profile campaign in Britain, provides information for newcomers, including recipes, tips for eating out and nutritional information. Vegan eating is different from the popular meat-free diet the Daniel Fast, which allows fewer foods and has a religious component.

Shack, a sales representative for a nutritional company, said she frequently tinkers with her diet and actually went raw vegan — or vegan without cooked foods — for about two years, starting around 2009. But that experiment didn’t go well; she gained 40 pounds and developed a thyroid problem from which she has since recovered.

She was moved to try Veganuary this year in part because her 2018 diet, heavy in fruits and vegetables with some meat and dairy, was already fairly close to vegan, and in part because she wanted to take her healthy eating to the next level.

“I think a majority of people, come January, they just want a reset. They want some sort of cleanse or detox,” she said. “I figured let’s take it up a notch.”

The struggle: She’s had cravings and feelings of missing out, she said. Vegan cooking, shopping and meal planning (including finding recipes) take an extra 30 minutes a day, and while her husband is supportive, he’s still eating meat, as is her 2-year-old son, so she has to take their diets into consideration as well.

There have been uneasy moments, such as when she was cutting up chicken for her son and, without thinking, almost put a piece in her own mouth.

“It’s harder than I thought it would be,” she said of going vegan.

But she’s excited about the challenge and about new recipes for curried lentils, and vegan lasagna soup with vegan ricotta and a tomato-based broth.

Asked if she’s going to continue as a vegan in February, she said she can see making a reservation at a steakhouse Feb. 1. On the other hand, she’s curious about the benefits of four weeks without animal products.

“Am I honestly going to feel so amazing that I’m not going to want to back?” she said. “I don’t know.”