January has traditionally been a month of promise. With our New Year's resolutions still fresh, we could imagine this really is the year we're finally, actually going to take up meditation/lose 10 pounds/clean out the garage.


Recent years have seen the rise of 30-day challenges, many of them food-related. Drynuary, a month of abstaining from drinking, is popular. The Whole30 program (no booze, dairy, grains, legumes or sugar for a month) is another regime that gets pushed in the first month of the year, when many of us are looking for a detox from the gravy-and-cookie diet that carried us through the holidays.


Now there's a new entrant vying to be the thing that makes you obsess over what you're putting in your face for an entire month: Veganuary, a campaign to promote vegan eating that began in the United Kingdom, is launching a stateside push. Organizers ask participants to sign an online pledge promising that for the month of January, they will stick to a vegan diet — that is, no meat or animal products.


The Veganuary program might be all about getting the vegan-curious to try out a plant-based diet for a limited time, but its aims are actually more long-term. "We think people will choose to stay with it beyond January," says Wendy Matthews, the project's U.S. director. She says that last year, nearly half of participants said they would continue to eat vegan throughout the year, even after their pledge elapsed.


Like Hulu or your neighborhood gym offering 30-day trials in the hopes that you'll like what you're getting, the Veganuary team thinks people might discover within a few weeks that a vegan diet is sustainable for them. The initial pledge is followed by regular emails offering participants recipes and tips for their vegan lifestyle, as well as information about new vegan options at their supermarket and at chain restaurants.


But are monthlong dietary challenges even effective?


Traci Mann, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who studies the psychology of food, is vehemently anti-diet and suspicious of most food-related monthlong challenges. Many are based on denial or restriction, which she says ultimately dooms them. "In general, denying yourself something makes you want to eat it more — and then eat it more," she said.


She once tried a no-sugar February, which "was followed by lots-of-sugar March."


New Year's resolutions are usually a bust by February, Mann notes. That's particularly true for ones aimed at weight loss, she says, but she has a less pessimistic view of an experiment that doesn't cut calories. "You can keep up a vegan lifestyle if you allow for a normal amount of calories," she says. "As long as you are non-restricting, it could be a great idea."


Matthews says the program is hoping to increase participation - and getting people to stick with it past January and over the long haul - by pushing not the health benefits of a vegan diet, but its environmental impacts.


In 2019, she said, 46% of people signed up for health reasons, with 34% citing animal cruelty and only 12% climate issues. But for 2020, the program is shifting focus. "This year, the environmental message is leading," she says. "Research shows that the single biggest thing we can do for the environment is to go vegan, so that's a lot of the framing we're doing."


And the creators of Veganuary think that even if people just stick to the month they pledged, that's a start. Last year, almost half a million people signed up, and this year, they are aiming for 350,000. So far they have around 65,000 participants, a number they hope will spike in the week leading up to the new year.


"We're aware that we won't save the planet in 31 days," Matthews says. "But with hundreds of thousands of people [participating], we will have some impact."