BRUSSELS - Food is our main medicine, says Dr Geneviève Moreau.
The 52-year-old, a general physician by training, used to make home visits to treat patients for throat infection or flu. She would sometimes take a peep inside the patient's fridge to get an idea of the household’s eating habits.
“It all began when my eldest was little,” recalled the mother of three. “One day, he swallowed a peanut and went into anaphylactic shock. Fortunately, I had everything that was needed to save him to hand, but I was curious to understand what was happening in his metabolism that had made him allergic.”
She went on several training courses that taught nutrition. “In all my training to become a doctor, just eight hours of teaching were dedicated to nutrition,” Dr Moreau lamented.
“Plating up health”
She began to combine her patients’ regular treatment with suggestions for vitamins to take, along with omega 3 and even entire menus.
“Nowadays, this approach can almost seem banal, but at the time, far from it. When I was growing up, people didn’t care about what they ate; we ate meat, chips, sauces full of cream,” she said.
One day, one of Dr Moreau’s patients said to her: “Your menus do me so much good, but when I go on holiday I go back to eating other foods and I get sick again. You ought to train the chefs at restaurants.”
She decided to set up the Institut-SIIN, or Scientific Institute for Intelligent Nutrition, in 2009 with the help of a scientific academy, and one of her nutrition teachers.
“In the past, we didn’t used to make a strong connection between a healthy diet and the planet. We didn’t pay attention to the environmental costs of our eating habits, nor the fact that many contemporary first world health issues are so closely linked to what we eat." she added. "Medical professionals were aware that eating habits needed to change, but they didn’t know how.”
Dr Moreau’s approach slowly began to gain recognition. Belgium’s King Baudouin Foundation awarded her a prize, and she was named a fellow of Ashoka, a leading network of social entrepreneurs, and received a three-year grant.
Finally able to pay herself a salary, she gave up her medical practice in 2016 to concentrate on her new calling.
Every consumer has the power to make a difference
Since the founding of the institute, Dr Moreau and her small team of eight have trained 3,200 professionals - health professionals and chefs – in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Canada and Britain.
Now a reference in its sector, the institute is also regularly consulted by brands that want to launch a new healthy product, or by government officials working on a new law.
“What motivates me is being able to teach consumers to make the right choices, whenever they can. To buy an industrially-farmed chicken that was badly fed and stuffed with antibiotics – harmful to both health and the planet - or an organic chicken that was raised in good conditions?
"Every one of us can be a change-maker. Agribusiness is ready to change, if the public asks for it. If consumers started to buy only healthy types of biscuit, brands wouldn’t produce any other type! Sadly, to read and understand the labels properly and develop the right habits, you virtually need a university degree!”
A Herculean task
Dr Moreau is now working on new ideas, including pushing for better labelling on healthy products, as well as working with the European Commission and Belgium’s Public Centres for Social Welfare.
“It makes no sense to have to pay more for healthy products – why should unrefined sugar cost more than refined sugar? No one should be denied the chance to make the right choice,” she said.
There will be no slowing down for her. “I’m glad I chose this path. I feel like I’ve got my first foot on the ladder, but things are not progressing as fast as they should. There’s so much more to be done to change mentalities. It’s a Herculean task.”