Annemie Schols Annemie Schols Sacha Ruland

Leading in eating

In Society
Written by  Jos Cortenraad Wednesday, 20 February 2013 15:38
Maastricht University’s Eatwell project, designed to promote healthier lifestyles and eating habits, was launched one year ago. In addition to its large scale, this project is unique for its interfaculty character, spanning the faculties of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences, Law, Economics and Psychology. The project is the brainchild of the NUTRIM research institute, with director Annemie Schols at the helm.

The need for healthier lifestyles is beyond question. According to a recent study, half of the Dutch population is overweight. Worldwide, the WHO reports that over a billion people are overweight, describing the issue as today’s “most pressing health problem”. And rightly so, says Schols. “Being overweight can lead to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, which in turn can lead to cardiovascular problems. There is also a clear link between obesity and certain types of cancer. According to the WHO, 300,000 people die of obesity-related cancer each year. And the number of morbidly obese people, including children, continues to rise. Over 10% of these people will find themselves in the danger zone.”
The idea for the Eatwell project was conceived in 2010 at the UM School for Nutrition, Toxicology and Metabolism (NUTRIM), which conducts fundamental and applied research on the influence of nutrition and a deregulated metabolism on the development and progression of chronic diseases. “The Executive Board asked us to set up a large-scale, interfaculty research project on nutrition. Expanding our research scope by looking beyond our own walls was something we were immediately interested in.” 


Schols accepted the challenge and entered into discussions with the faculties of Health, Medicine & Life Sciences, Law, Business & Economics, and Psychology & Neuroscience. “It’s exciting. Collaboration between the faculties like this is relatively unexplored territory. We felt that nutrition could be the factor that binds us. After all, eating, drinking and health are issues that affect us all. We’re now able to link medical and health science aspects with legal, psychological and economic ones.”
The idea was well received and the faculties were keen to participate. “Eating patterns have everything to do with behaviour and therefore with psychology,” says Anita Jansen from the Faculty of Psychology & Neuroscience. “For example, why do people eat unhealthy foods? This is the kind of question our faculty focuses on, and the Eatwell project ties in with this seamlessly. Turning Eatwell into an interfaculty project was an excellent idea. All four faculties have great researchers in house. We also have top facilities in terms of laboratories and support. If we join forces, we can develop an institute with international allure. We can be the best. Maastricht University: leading in eating! I think it’s a wonderful challenge.” 


Another project enthusiast is Ellen Vos, professor of European Law at the Faculty of Law. “Naturally, our faculty focuses on the legal aspects of food production. Healthy eating and drinking is big business. Manufacturers take advantage of this by releasing health products like sugar-free sodas, fat burners and low-fat crisps, while politicians try to develop policies to match. The stakes are high. The task then falls to the government and to science to set the rules and assess the claims.”

Jos Lemmink, dean of the School of Business and Economics (SBE), is also enthusiastic about the initiative. “We’re excited to join this cross-border and cross-disciplinary research. As economists, naturally we’re interested in the business and commercial side of nutrition. Companies produce additives, develop new products and conduct research with universities and other organisations – take DSM, for example. But the bottom line is that there needs to be a solid business model. SBE works hard on this; entrepreneurship is one of our spearheads.” But there is also a higher motivation. “The ultimate goal of Eatwell is to inspire people to eat more healthily. This will help us stay healthier as we age, keeping us in the workforce longer. In turn, this will influence our pension system, life insurance policies, the labour market and the economic system as a whole.” 


On 27 March 2012, the network of the four participating faculties was officially launched under the name Eatwell. “We kicked off immediately with five research projects”, says Schols. “For example, we’re collaborating with the Kid’s University for Cooking in Venlo to develop a new type of bread that is rich in fibre and low in salt. And with the Co-eur obesity treatment centre we’re working on a new training programme to treat obesity. We’ve received many more ideas from the faculties and we hope to be able to start a new, large-scale project this year. In my opinion, Eatwell is becoming an indispensable source of information that combines nutrition, lifestyle and health. It should be given a physical spot on the Maastricht Health Campus where symposiums and workshops can be held and where we can network and share knowledge. The idea is to create an open community where knowledge is key.”  


Eatwell is funded by the MUMC+, the participating faculties and the business community. Further expansion of the project depends on the results achieved. Schols has every confidence it will succeed: “All of the parties involved are so enthusiastic. Problems and questions are approached from various perspectives. In this case, one plus one definitely equals three.”   


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