My undergraduate training was in food science, nutrition and physiology. My graduate experience included physiological studies on membrane calcium transport and physical factors controlling blood flow. One night in my laboratory I noticed that I had to wait longer for blood to clot when experimental animals were fed a high fibre diet, and my interest in the influence of nutrition on haemostasis was born.
This interest led to research on physiological effects of dietary fibre and a DSc in physiology. The work of Alexander Walker and Denis Burkitt on the relationships between dietary intakes and risk of non-communicable diseases was an inspiration. In the late 1980s I started to train Ph.D. students in Nutrition at Potchefstroom, with the help of two UK scientists, John Cummings in Cambridge and Jim Mann in Oxford.
We later did our nutrition research as part of the Africa Unit for Transdisciplinary Health Research (AUTHeR) of which I was director from 1998 to 2008. In 2008 the North-West University awarded us a Centre of Excellence for Nutrition at the Potchefstroom Campus.
The co-existence and double burden of under- and over-nutrition in South Africa, exacerbated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, motivated us to focus our research on public health nutrition problems. We are looking for solutions to these problems, using systems thinking in which a holistic conceptual framework and a research approach ‘from molecules to society’ are integrated.
Because of our unique population structure, our social and political history, as well as the rapid demographic and epidemiological transitions taking place, South Africa offers great opportunities and challenges for research in public health nutrition. We believe that a better understanding of the basic, underlying molecular and genetic mechanisms of how diets, foods and nutrients influence health and disease will help us to design more innovative solutions for public health nutrition problems, especially for populations in transition from traditional to modern ways of life.