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Maria Daniel Vaz de Almeida

Maria Daniel Vaz de Almeida 130x180My first contacts with human nutrition had more to do with food hygiene than with nutrition itself. My father, a medical doctor, specialised in hygiene and tropical medicine, and my mother, a biology teacher, got married and migrated to Africa to start their life as a family. So my sister I were both born and raised in Angola (Benguela and Luanda), and issues like food and water-borne transmissible diseases were central to our daily life. My memories are of happy and active childhood and adolescence in which the sea and swimming are always present.

In those days Angola was still a Portuguese colony and although officially denied, there was indeed race and class discrimination. At school, among hundreds of students, only a few were of African origin, which was against the values and sense of justice that we were taught at home. The colonial war began in the 1960s with the various African liberation movements fighting for independence in the African Portuguese colonies.

Portugal had been under a dictatorship since 1926, which had kept the country in poverty and backwardness for nearly half a century. The colonial war and its severe consequences was one of the causes of the military uprising that took place in April 1974. This peaceful rebellion became a revolution when the people joined the soldiers in the streets. Political, social, economic and cultural changes took place at a very fast pace. This was a time of dreams becoming real, of engagement, active and genuine participation of the Portuguese people. After 1974 the population’s living conditions improved dramatically.

I moved to Oporto, Portugal, when I was 17, shortly after the revolution. I did my university degree in nutrition just by chance! In fact, I enrolled at the Porto medical school in 1975/76 but after the first year, I joined the newly created university course in human nutrition that was about to start. The course mentor, Emílio Peres, was our inspiration. Soon all students were highly motivated and committed to nutrition! This endocrinologist was the heart and soul behind the idea of starting the first university degree in nutrition in Portugal. He is therefore responsible for the birth of a new profession in our country, very much inspired by WHO recommendations and by Latin American examples like Brazil.

My professional career has mostly been developed within the academic field with strong links to the community. I have been involved in the training of nutritionists since 1979 as a junior lecturer, followed by more demanding positions, especially after obtaining my PhD in 1989. My work on the effects of migration in food habits, nutrition and health was inspired by Jane Thomas, my supervisor at King’s College London. I have always been interested in community nutrition, but working with migrant women and children in the Lisbon slums reinforced my views on the central role of food and food habits in social cohesion.

Upon my return to the university, I had the chance to share the coordination of a project in nutrition policy in Guinea-Bissau. Funded by the World Bank and carried out by a Portuguese non-government organisation, it aimed to assess the populations’ food consumption and nutritional status, as a basis for the country’s nutrition policy. This integrated approach meant collecting data from sectors involved in the food chain and disseminating information, as well as a national food consumption survey.

Since 1995 I have participated in several international research projects, as Portuguese coordinator. I have also been involved in the development and supervision of postgraduate courses at MSc and PhD level

What drives us to choose the foods we eat, the immense richness of food patterns, and the influence of eating habits in our lives, have always interested me. I consider myself fortunate to work in such an inspiring and challenging area as community nutrition and public health nutrition. We live in times of great inequality and social setbacks but I believe that each of us, each tiny wheat grain, has the right and the duty to contribute to a better world.