Growing up in Sault Ste. Maria, Ontario with a father who worked as a butcher, Toni Vernelli loved to eat meat. But it wasn’t long before she noticed that the food she ate came from the farm animals she loved. When Vernelli was 18 years old, she made the switch to veganism.
More than 30 years of animal activism later, Vernelli is now the head of communications for Veganuary, a 31-day commitment that challenges participants to go vegan for the month of January.
The challenge gives people a chance to “dip their toes” into the lifestyle, Vernelli said.
Vegans refrain from consuming any animal products. That means not eating meat, dairy, or eggs, and for some, it extends to not wearing leather or fur or using products that are tested on animals.
People love a challenge, he said, pointing to Dry January, a month dedicated to quitting alcohol, or Stoptober, when people quit smoking in October.
Previously, promoting a plant-based diet was based on awareness, promoting vegetarianism or cold turkey veganism.
“That’s not the way humans operate,” Vernelli said.
The challenge started in 2014 in the UK when Veganuary co-founders Jane Land and Matthew Glover decided to create the pledge to go vegan.
Veganuary is now a worldwide movement with participants from all over the world. Canada is in the top 20 countries by number of participants, ranking 18th.
A 2018 Statista survey estimated that 0.85% of Canadians were vegan and another 2.3% were vegetarian.
In general, there are three main motivations for signing up for Veganuary, Vernelli said: animal protection, health benefits and environmental concerns.
Even Canadian companies have begun to recognize the monthly challenge.
Four years ago, during a business trip to the UK, Rob Felix became aware of the Veganuary campaign in various UK stores including Tesco.
“From that trip and seeing it in retail, we brought it back and had our first Veganuary event about three years ago,” London Drugs’ senior vice president of marketing said.
While initially focused on food, Felix said London Drugs has tripled the number of vegan products it sells, from cleaning products to toothpaste to baby food, in January and throughout the year.
“Throughout the year, vegan alternatives become more and more important,” he said.
Plant-based meat substitutes are forecast to fetch about $148.9 million this year in Canada, up more than $40 million since 2019. Earlier this year, the federal government invested $1.4 million in the company of plant-based proteins Big Mountain Foods Ltd.
“Plant-based foods are gaining popularity as Canadians increasingly seek options to incorporate greater variety into their diets,” Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said in a press release at the time. .
When Vernelli first went vegan 32 years ago, she said it would be hard to find vegan alternatives. For example, non-dairy milk was previously only available at an Asian grocery store or specialty coffee shops. But now, she said, it’s hard to find a cafe that doesn’t offer a number of plant-based milk alternatives.
“Thirty years ago they thought you were crazy, like ‘What do you eat? How can you survive?’
She said veganism is now much more of an aspirational goal, where people often talk about ways they’ve cut back on meat and dairy.
“Most people don’t like the idea of eating animals … but changing a lifelong habit is difficult,” Vernelli said.
By registering, Veganuary pledges will also gain access to a private Facebook group to receive support from other participants and will receive recipes and nutritional tips by email daily.
If you participate, Alyssa Fontaine, founder of Plant-Based Dietitians, recommends keeping in mind not missing out on protein and getting it from sources like soy milk, tofu, beans, and garbanzo beans.
While many vegans must substitute vitamin B12, a vitamin found predominantly in red meat, Fontaine said that for a one-month change, additional supplements outside of a multivitamin and omega-3s aren’t necessary.
To brave the cold winter weather, Fontaine said casseroles and stir-fries are easy meals that can be packed with protein.
While it seems there are more vegan substitutes than ever, she said not all plant-based meat and dairy substitutes are created equal and it’s best to stick to whole, natural foods to reap the most health benefits from Lifestyle.
For Vernelli, making the switch to a more plant-focused lifestyle starts with making manageable substitutions.
“Then you can start experimenting with fancy things like quinoa and things you may never have tried before.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on January 1, 2022
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