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As the month of resolutions and lifestyle changes draws to an end, Nengi Etela speaks to Sarah Olowofoyeku about a decision she made last January and why she is still sticking to it

We have a responsibility to the planet and to ourselves

ON the first day of this month, more than 225,000 people made a pledge to ditch animal products and adopt a plant-based diet for Veganuary. Founded in 2013, the Veganuary charity encourages people to try out a vegan diet for the first month of the year.

‘Going vegan’ has gained momentum in recent years. The number of people signing up to Veganuary this year increased significantly from January last year, when more than 168,000 people pledged. Nengi Etela was one of them.

‘I’d wanted to do Veganuary for a couple of years, but being a keen baker and a meat and cheese lover, I thought it would be too much of a challenge,’ she says. ‘But last year I decided to try.’

Nengi was impressed by the support she received after signing up. Veganuary sent her advice about what to buy in the supermarket, information about products that are accidentally vegan and recipe ideas.

‘I’ve been cooking since I was 13 years old, and I love it. But it was nice to be out of my comfort zone again. It was as though I was relearning how to cook and I became a lot more mindful of what I was putting into my body.

‘My colleagues were commenting on how yummy my food looked at lunchtime, and they were surprised it was vegan.’

Every new year, Nengi sets herself a challenge for the month of January. But as she progressed through Veganuary, she felt as though her new diet might last longer than 31 days.

‘When I signed up, I had visions of chowing down a cheeseburger come 1 February,’ she admits. ‘But within about ten days I felt a difference. By week three I started noticing more differences. My skin cleared up and I was losing weight without trying. My personal trainer at the gym saw that I was getting stronger more quickly and recovering better after gruelling workouts. I was sleeping better too.

‘With all these health benefits, I thought it’d be silly to stop in February.’

So Nengi didn’t, and today she is still a vegan.

By participating in Veganuary, she discovered more about the other reasons why people choose veganism. However, she feels it is important to handle the subject carefully. ‘There is a lot of sensationalism around this topic,’ she admits. ‘But I’m learning how to talk about it in positive and proper ways.

‘I signed up to a lot of other vegan groups and learnt about the impact that the consumption of meat, dairy and eggs has on the environment and on animal welfare. For instance, in order for a cow to produce milk, it needs to have a calf, but the process is expedited by the dairy industry. I also learnt how, within the egg industry, male chicks are discarded at one day old. It’s now part of why I’m a vegan,’ she says. ‘Sometimes we humans have this habit of wondering how things can be useful to us as opposed to how we can be useful to the planet. But we have a responsibility to the planet. We also have a responsibility to ourselves to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be.

‘We’re living in a time of overconsumption and the instant – we want everything now, we want everything big and we want as much as we can have. Since becoming vegan, I’ve been less driven by my appetite.’

Nengi tries to better herself in some way at the start of every year. Before Veganuary, she had observed a January of meat-free Mondays, Dry January and a challenge to exercise every day. But none of those have been as significant as her decision to try veganism – except another choice that she made in January 2013.

‘Alongside the challenge, I also make a sentence-long new year’s resolution. In 2013, my resolution was “to do and be more”,’ she explains. ‘But I felt a nudge from God telling me that if I wanted to do that, I needed him in my life. I had always believed in God, but had drifted from my faith since starting my first job as a police officer.

‘So that January I googled churches and found one that felt like home straightaway. There was a big gear change in my faith then, and now it is at the core of my being. When I have a problem I turn first to God. He’s a friend.’

Although Nengi didn’t adopt veganism because of her faith, it is certainly something she feels is compatible with being a Christian. ‘Our body is one of the greatest gifts God has given us,’ she says, ‘and he cares how we look after it. I’m sure he isn’t going to say: “Nengi, put that cookie down!” But if there are things I can do to make sure I’m healthy and happy, I definitely think he’s all for that.’

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