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“It is incredibly difficult to change our behavioural patterns”

17 February 2016 • 3 min reading time

Suzan Wopereis is researching the effect of nutrition on our health. She received the excellente onderzoeker van het jaar 2015 (excellent researcher of the year 2015) award for her work.

Even as a child, Suzan Wopereis was inspired to heal people. This passion motivated her to obtain a PhD in medical science. But this process was complicated by her father's illness during her years as a PhD student, an event that left a deep impression on the researcher. ‘My father suffered from atherosclerosis, which is a cardiovascular disease,’ explains Wopereis. ‘Before his surgery he was told that he had to walk more often. This is when I closely observed first-hand how diet and exercise can promote the self-healing capabilities of the body.'

Lifestyle and diabetes

The impact of lifestyle on health is also a central topic of Wopereis's current research. She is currently researching prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, also called adult-onset diabetes. Insufficient exercise and high-calorie diets are significant causes for this type of diabetes. But even people suffering from severe adult-onset diabetes are still able to beat the disease by making structural changes to their lifestyles. But this is not as easy as it sounds, admits Wopereis. ‘Most people are aware that a well-balanced diet and regular exercise are good for you. It is simply incredibly difficult to change our behavioural patterns.’


 

Differences

Wopereis hopes that her research will be able to help people suffering from adult-onset diabetes. She discovered that there are substantial differences between different groups of patients. ‘Different organs are affected by diabetes but not everyone experiences its effects in the same order. This means that some people will benefit more from exercise, while others can see improvement in their health by adjusting their diets.’ Wopereis is working together with a group of GPs, dieticians, and physiotherapists to give people living with adult-onset diabetes personalized advice. She hopes that this will motivate patients to start making small adjustments to their behaviour.

Different organs are affected by diabetes but not everyone experiences its effects in the same order

High-calorie milkshake

This is just one of the many projects that Wopereis is involved in. She is deeply passionate about her research and can talk about any aspect for hours. She is currently working on developing an app that can give people personalized advice on diet. Wopereis is also researching the resilience of the metabolic system and the way in which the body recovers after, for example, drinking a high-fat milkshake. What all these projects have in common is their goal to thoroughly analyse the effects of food on the body.

Energy

Wopereis's research is supported by several different institutions. She is working together with the business sector and knowledge and healthcare institutions, and collaborates with partners at large European research consortiums. Wopereis explains that this collaboration make her work even more interesting. ‘This research combines different disciplines such as food, molecular biology, biomedical technology, behavioural sciences, and ICT and data analysis. Conducting research in a field where several different disciplines come together and advancing this field energizes me. And luckily, I work with a great team here at TNO.’

This research combines different disciplines such as food, molecular biology, biomedical technology, behavioural sciences, and ICT and data analysis

Self confidence

The enthusiasm is mutual. You have to be nominated by your colleagues to become the excellent researcher of the year at TNO. ‘That was the best part of winning this award: that my closest colleagues admire what I do,’ says Wopereis. ‘It is a big honour and gives me a great deal of self confidence.’

Personal impact

Wopereis’ father has since recovered. She was able to help him to stop taking unnecessary medications when she stumbled across a scientific article that applied to his case. ‘This was the first time I used my knowledge to physically help someone recover,’ states Wopereis. ‘Our pilots also contribute to improving the health of people. Understanding the impact that your research has on people has never been more personal.’

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