How to dodge the beef bender and keep your January detox going

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The annual month-long excision of all that is bad has come to an end, and you’ve successfully made it to the finish line. You’ve purged the booze from your system, walked into McDonald’s, looked a Big Mac square in the face and walked right out again. And while you might have found going clean for January a bit of a slog, you’ve hopefully managed to make it to the end of the month drink or cheese-free.

According to the charity Alcohol Change UK, an estimated one in ten drinkers in the UK decided to kick their drinking habit this January. And the organisers of Veganuary estimate that 350,000 people stopped eating meat, dairy and eggs for the whole month.

But while you might be tempted to celebrate your abstinence by going on that post-Jan pub crawl or hitting your local steakhouse, the positive impact you’ve already had on your liver and the environment might give you a reason to keep on going. Here’s why you should keep your detox up and how to keep some of those benefits going all the way through the year.

Extending Dry January

The health benefits of giving out booze are well-documented, but even short-term purges are likely to benefit your liver in ways you might not expect.

In 2015, researchers from University College London monitored 100 moderate-drinkers who were taking part in Dry January. After the month was up, the researchers noticed that damage to the participants’ liver had been reduced by 12.5 per cent, while resistance to insulin was down by 28 per cent. The researchers also reported that the participants had lost weight after the four weeks were finished.

“There were a lot of immediate health benefits,” says Gautam Mehta, clinical researcher at University College London’s Institute for Liver and Digestive Health, and co-author of the study. “We also looked at things like sleep quality and concentration, which seemed to improve. So, there are certainly many hard metabolic factors that improve, as well as more subjective factors.”

You’re also more likely to drink less now that you’ve finished the month-long stint. Research from the University of Sussex released in 2018 actually suggests that the likelihood of you continuing to booze after January decreases if you successfully managed to get through the whole month. In the months that followed Dry January, the number of days people drank fell from 4.3 days to 3.3 days per week, the units they consumed per day dropped from 8.6 units to 7.1 units and the frequency of participants getting drunk had reduced from 3.4 times per month to 2.1 times per month.

But what about those of you who found it a bit more difficult to stay off the alcohol? While 29 per cent of people, according to YouGov, fell off the wagon just a week into Dry January, the University of Sussex study suggests that those who failed to complete Dry January were still drinking less at a six-month follow-up, albeit in higher quantities in comparison to those who completed the whole thing.

Still, if you struggled with the short-term purge and you want to reintroduce alcohol back into your system, you should probably do it slowly and not go on an all-night bender. “I would advise people to drink moderately rather than go wild on the February 1,” says Matt Field, professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield. “People should remember to take it easy because they will have lost their tolerance for it, so it might affect them more than they expect.”

In 2014, researchers from the University of Massachusetts Medical School investigated how binge drinking affected the body. The team found that even a single alcohol binge of around eight units resulted in increased serum endotoxin levels in the body, which disturbed immune responses. These inflammatory proteins entering the blood system caused worse post-drinking symptoms, like hangovers, and the general feeling of being unwell.

Perhaps the best thing you can take from Dry January is a new relationship to alcohol. “There’s no real solid evidence that a detox period has long-term health benefits, but what we know is the detox period of Dry January resets your psychological relationship and that can certainly have long-term health benefits,” says Mehta. “It will moderate your drinking and other health patterns throughout the year, going forward.”

And if you’ve enjoyed the alcohol purge, but don’t want to continue it for the rest of your life, Field suggests having regular alcohol-free days, something that the NHS recommends for those trying to cut down on their alcohol intake.

Staying animal-free throughout 2020

Whether you’ve done it for the environment or for your love of animals, your meat, dairy and egg detox has already done wonders for the world, according to the charity behind Veganuary. The 350,000 people participating in Veganuary have saved 41,200 tonnes of carbon dioxide from being emitted into the atmosphere, which the charity estimates is the same as 450,000 flights from London to Berlin. In addition, the Vegan Society calculates that the people going vegan for January will have saved more than one million animals.

The strategies for extending your vegan stretch are broadly the same as extending your bout of sobriety. Like with Dry January, people will have already disrupted their habits, so they’re more likely to keep up the veganism past January. “It probably seems very daunting to an individual to decide that they’re going to go vegan forever,” says Chris Bryant, PhD researcher in psychology at the University of Bath. “But if they had the opportunity to try it out for a month, they’re more likely to be willing to do it forever.

And that’s what Veganuary discovered back in 2019. The charity estimates that 60 per cent of those who had signed up for Veganuary have continued it past January. Much of what Veganuary is good for, says Bryant, is changing the behaviour of people so they start picking up more vegan food. “It could seem like a drag,” he says, “You might be finding out that this isn’t vegan, and you can’t have that, but a month is enough time to basically learn how to go vegan.”

But if you’re thinking about going on a beef bender, Naveen Puri, lead physician at Bupa Health Clinics, says that, like with alcohol, it’s best to introduce the meat back into your diet slowly. “Your gut has not had to digest any animal protein for a month,” says Puri. “Your gut bacteria can start to change even after a month, so be gentle.”

If you did struggle to get through the whole month, but enjoyed having a goal to aim towards, you can continue setting yourself limits and goals to reach for. Try going vegan for an extra week, Puri adds, and then reassess how you feel the week after that. “There are apps based on kind of streaks of behaviour,” says Bryant. “That’s quite a nice way of keeping yourself motivated to continue.”

And there are other options if coconut cheese just didn’t cut it for you. If you found it difficult to get through the month without sneaking in a bite of cheese, you might want to try adapting your diet to fit. The “vegan before six” diet from the American food journalist Mark Bittman is is intended as a technique to help you cut the pounds, could also work for Veganuary alumni who don’t want to go the whole nine yards.

The diet works by restricting meat, eggs and dairy from your diet until after 6pm – hence the acronym VB6. This way you can still somewhat reduce your carbon footprint. Bittman says that if you are going to eat meat, then try to go for animal products that have been raised in a more ethical and environmentally friendly way.

Alex Lee is a writer for WIRED. He tweets from @1AlexL

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