About the Impact of plant-based Nutrition on the Body, Mind and Spirit

Dr Melanie Neumann in coversation
Photo: C. Fischer

It is said that “food and drink keep body and soul together”. Conversely, depressing news can literally hit us in the stomach. implizit talked with Dr Melanie Neumann about this connection in an interview. Among other things, she is an emotional body healing therapist and a private lecturer at the University of Witten/Herdecke, where the sociologist and medical psychologist is currently researching how a plant-based diet affects mental and physical well-being. In addition to initial findings from this qualitative study, she also reveals to our interviewer how COVID-19 has influenced our eating behaviour and why she doesn’t believe in recommendations.

Why is it that nutrition influences our state of mind and that our psyche affects our appetite?

Melanie Neumann: As human beings, we are not only a combination of body, mind and spirit, but as such, we are also closely connected to our surroundings. In other words, everything is interrelated. The American internist and psychiatrist George L. Engel already established this in the 1970s with his “biopsychosocial model”, which suggests that health and illness should not be understood purely mechanistically but as an interaction of physical, psychological, social and ambient factors. This integrative approach has been known in medicine for some time, but it is not yet widely applied in nutrition research. Here, too, there are correlations that everyone can easily understand for themselves. For example, physical exercise curbs appetite in many people, has been shown to increase the release of happiness hormones and also makes people more mentally alert. On the other hand, very concentrated mental work can lead to an increased hunger for sugar or carbohydrates and consequently to obesity. Conversely, a lighter diet or skipping meals – as in interval fasting – can make mental and physical activities come more easily.

And what impact do our surroundings have?

Melanie Neumann: A significant one. Just think, for example, of how a leisurely meal in the company of others is a completely different experience of enjoyment than gobbling something down quickly on your own. The atmosphere is missing, the special mood that is evoked by a certain environment and that, for example, makes us eat more when we are with family, but also to enjoy it more than if we are sitting at the dinner table alone. We also get this distinct feeling after returning from holiday: A culinary treat we brought home no longer tastes as good as it did on the terrace of our favourite café with a view of the Mediterranean. It isn’t because the food has suddenly changed, but due to the missing ambience and the emotions it arouses. The weather and the season are other ambient factors that can also affect our food cravings. While we tend to feel like eating a light salad and ice cream in the summer, for many, warming and hearty dishes are simply a part of winter. But the media – especially digital media – can also influence eating behaviour and, in extreme cases, even disturb it pathologically with their superfood trends and diets, which they hype almost daily.
You, yourself, have opted for a largely vegan diet and researched its impact on our mental and physical well-being. What are the advantages of doing without animal protein?

Melanie Neumann: We now know that a more plant-based diet could strengthen the self-healing powers of the Earth as well as nature, and thus automatically those of humans. Studies also show that a vegan diet – compared to omnivorous and often vegetarian diets – can have a significantly positive or preventive effect on diseases such as cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, as well as other cardiovascular conditions and even degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinson’s.

Why is that?

Melanie Neumann: Among other things, abstaining from animal proteins reduces inflammation and lowers cholesterol and acidity. Overall, less fat is absorbed and autophagy, i.e. the body’s own way of cleaning out damaged cells, is also set in motion.

What effects can that have on the psyche?

Melanie Neumann: There have only been a few quantitative international studies on the impact of a plant-based diet on mental health. However, they suggest that vegans tend to suffer less from stress, anxiety or depression and thus are more productive and enjoy a higher quality of life. Our qualitative research at UW/H has also shown that switching to a vegan diet can release many psychological resources such as self-care and self-efficacy, as well as a greater desire to be active in general – but this is very likely true for any other intrinsically motivated diet as well.  

In your opinion, why is a conscious approach to the topic of “nutrition” so important?

Melanie Neumann: Nowadays, we live very much on the outside and pay less and less attention to our inner selves. As a result, many have forgotten to listen to themselves and perceive what their bodies actually need. At the same time, it has never been so difficult to listen to your gut feeling, your intuition, as it is in our current affluent society with its many food offerings, information and stimuli, not to mention the various flavour components. The latter are found in most finished processed foods and are responsible for the fact that we often no longer find yoghurt with real strawberries, for example, as tasty as one with artificial flavours. These enhancers can be addictive – especially when we are stressed – and can result in an unhealthy diet. Yet we humans are usually born perfectly physically “equipped” and automatically know what is good for us. A more conscious and intuitive approach to what we eat can therefore help us to regain this innate body awareness and can, for example, prevent us from using food to comfort our souls. A phenomenon, by the way, that was frequently observed during the first wave of COVID-19 and led to increased chocolate consumption and weight gain among Germans. Here again, the biopsychosocial model applies: if we lack social connections in real life as well as suffer from a professional or personal lack of meaning, many people are no longer as well nourished mentally and emotionally and try, among other things, to fill the resulting gap with something material.

What would help instead?

Melanie Neumann: Since autonomy is one of the most important basic psychological needs of humans, I feel that making recommendations is difficult and not very effective. Moreover, we are all individuals, so some currently hyped diet simply cannot suit everyone equally. Every person is different and must therefore find their own way back to feeling, to intuition and to perceiving their physical needs. For example, one person may succeed by going for a walk and becoming more aware of nature. Someone else might practice yoga, another one jog, and yet another one play or sing with their children or give their dog a big hug. Everyone has their own individual approach. For instance, I apply body healing methods, such as emotional body healing (EBH) and 5Rhythms movement. I have found that EBH meditation can help me to improve my psychical and emotional awareness. The more I experience my needs physically and feel them internally in this way, the less I run the risk of using an eating disorder, alcohol or even other drugs, for example, to deal with my feelings. Alongside this mindfulness, an essential building block in EBH is acceptance. It is not about simply wanting your sugar craving – let’s say – to go away. After all, pressure only creates counter-pressure. On the contrary, the focus of EBH is to first accept these cravings – there is a reason why they are there – in order to then find out for yourself where these cravings are actually coming from and what individual solutions might be available for them. This approach has proven successful not only with regard to nutrition and eating disorders but also in the case of psychological stress and even physical complaints in every age group.