GREGOR MENDEL had his pea plants. Ivan Pavlov had his dogs. At New Scientist, we have our staff, and every so often we like to experiment on ourselves – in pursuit of greater knowledge, of course.
Perhaps our most triumphant episode of self-experimentation came in November 2013, when 14 of our staff trooped into a London hospital looking unusually sober. A doctor told them: “You’re going to be very excited.”
For the previous month, they had been part of a pilot study to test whether a month off alcohol – Dry January as public health groups promote it – could really make a difference to your health. The results were surprisingly stark: scans showed that liver fat, whose build-up can damage the organ, dropped by 15 per cent on average among the 10 volunteers who gave up booze for the month, while there was no change for the four participants who drank as usual.
The study hinted that even short periods of behavioural change can have important effects, and highlighted the need for better evidence on this question of public interest. It spurred the researchers to keep on investigating.
A similar opportunity now presents itself. You may hear plenty in the coming weeks about the merits of “Veganuary”, a month without eating animal products to benefit your health and that of the planet. It is an idea we welcome. There is no doubt that dropping meat and dairy is one way that individuals can meaningfully lower their carbon footprint, and long-term observational studies do suggest that vegan diets can be a boon for your health.
“Our most triumphant experiment came when 14 of our staff trooped into a hospital looking unusually sober”
But going vegan is no cakewalk. Giving up staple foods and daily comforts like milk in your tea can be a wrench, and it can take careful planning to ensure you get all the nutrients you need. So, can short bouts of vegan eating yield any real benefits? To find out, 19 New Scientist staff gave veganism a go – with some unexpected results (see “Going vegan for January? Find out how much difference it really makes“).
In 2018, the researchers behind our Dry January study published the results of a larger version with more participants, confirming and expanding on those initial findings. We hope our modest Veganuary study might eventually prompt something similar.