These psychological tricks can help you go vegan this January

mariusFM77 / Ratth / WIRED

Once seen as the preserve of hippies and animal welfare activists, in 2019 veganism went mainstream. A growing awareness of the impact that our diets have on animals, our health and the environment has sent people clamouring for plant-based alternatives to meat and animal products. And fast food chains – eager to cash in on the popularity of plant-based diets – are racing to introduce meat-free versions of their flagship products.

All this means that you can expect this year’s Veganuary – the annual drive to get people to give up animal products for an entire month – to be the biggest yet. Last year, a record 250,000 signed up to Veganuary – an increase of nearly 50 per cent compared to 2018. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of vegans in the UK more than tripled, from 150,000 to 542,000 and while more up-to-date figures are hard to come by, the trend is showing no signs of abating.

Switching your diet for something more ethically and environmentally satisfying can be a challenge, however. Fortunately, psychology – sort of – can lend a helping hand. Here’s how to use the science of habit formation to stick to your goals and have an animal-free January.

Disrupt your habits

Habits can be the enemy of even the most noble intentions, explains Philippa Lally, a behavioural scientist at University College London who specialises in habit formation. “[Habits are] all to do with linking a situation and behaviour,” she says. “Over time when you encounter that situation, it generates an impulse in you to perform that behaviour – and if nothing else happens to stop you, you will just do that behaviour.”

So if every time you make a cup of tea, you find yourself reaching for a chocolate digestive, you’ll need to find a way to break that link. That might mean simply replacing chocolate digestives with a vegan alternative – bourbons, Oreos and Party Rings are all vegan – but if you live in a household with people who aren’t also vegan, you might have to be a little more creative with your habit-disrupting tactics.

Lally uses the example of switching dairy milk for a non-dairy alternative. If you’ve still got dairy milk in the house, you should consider moving it to a different shelf in the fridge, and putting your oat, soya or nut milk in its usual place. That way, when you habitually reach for milk you won’t find yourself grasping at a non-vegan version.

Get organised

Life is complex, and if we had to make conscious decisions about every little task, we’d end up taking far too long to respond to situations that require an immediate response – like taking a step back when a speeding bus passes by a little too closely. Around 50 per cent of our daily behaviours are automated in this way but that can make situations when you want to change your behaviour tricky.

Supermarkets are one place where our habits can take hold. To stop yourself from walking around in an autonomous haze and reaching for your old favourites, Lally recommends deciding where you’re going to shop, making a shopping list and sticking to it. Going online can also make things easier. “Shopping online is great because you can easily see what all the ingredients are – and when you shop online the supermarket’s algorithms learn your preferences,” Lally says.

Go for new meals, not substitutes

The last year has seen a plethora of meat substitutes hit supermarket shelves. If you’re after faux burgers, sausages, mince, chicken nuggets or duck then you won’t need to look too hard to satisfy your hunger for (fake) meat. But Ulrike Ehgartner, a researcher who studies environmental issues and social change at the University of Manchester recommends thinking beyond meat substitutes.

“We shouldn’t understand vegan food through these products only,” she says. “Start thinking more around ingredients rather than meals. If you think in terms of meals, you think that you have to replicate the meat.”

So rather than substituting the lamb in your roast dinner, think about what other dishes you could make from the ingredients in your cupboard. Many curries, for example, require no substitutions at all to be made vegan, while vegetable stews or soup are a really easy way to use up excess veg. Opting for meals that are traditionally meat free will help you re-adjust so that meat – or its absence – no longer becomes the focal point of every meal.

Don’t be so hard on yourself

Going vegan for a month isn’t easy – particularly if you’re not already vegetarian. A study from Hal Herzog at Western Carolina University in the US found that 86 per cent of vegetarians and 70 per cent of vegans eventually return to eating animals.

But if you do slip up, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. “The danger of having very strict rules is that when a person falls short of the rule they then think of that as a failure and then think ‘well i’m done. I’ve failed now, I’m just going back to meat and dairy and everything else’” Lally says. Her own research into habit formation found that one slip up did not make people significantly less likely to develop a healthy habit.

Instead of castigating yourself for every slice of cheese, be generous to yourself and remember the good you’re doing by swapping some of your meat-based meals for plants. That same study from Herzog found that if everyone in the US reduced their meat consumption by just one meal per week it would have the same impact of 4.5 million people going completely vegan. Little changes really do add up.

Remember why you’re going vegan

Although you shouldn’t judge yourself too harshly if you do slip up, you may as well give yourself as much encouragement as you can. Whatever your reason for dropping meat – whether it’s for health reasons, ethical or environmental concerns – reminding yourself of your motivation can help you stay on track.

“Remembering why you’re doing it and why it’s important is essential until the habit has formed,” says Lally. That could mean putting a motivational fact on your fridge – one study from the University of Oxford found that switching to a plant-based diet can remove the carbon footprint of your diet by up to 73 per cent, depending on where you live.

Take things slow

There’s no rush. “Making small changes to your everyday meals is one of the easiest ways to increase the amount of plant based foods in your diet,” says Dominika Piasecka from The Vegan Society. After all, cutting down your meat intake for the year – or a lifetime – will have a much bigger impact than simply going cold turkey than a month. So if you can make some small changes that you can stick with throughout the year, then you’ll have truly mastered Veganuary.

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