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Irja Haapala

Irja Haapala 130x180I was born in Helsinki, Finland, to a family of seven, counting my Karelian grandmother, who lived with us and who left me with appreciation of the strength and wisdom of older women. My grandparents were born in Eastern Finland and Karelia at a time when Finland was still under Russian rule. They saw the first days of independence in 1917, the civil war of 1918, and, on my father’s side, the pain of refugee status in the Second World War. They had to start again from scratch in a different part of Finland, and the capital city of Helsinki was the destination for most of the non-farming population. That is where my parents met, and the family struggled to make ends meet in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. During my first nine years we moved six times in search for work. Today I am struggling to see the point in overpopulating cities worldwide at the expense of people’s health and of the environment.

I did not think of studying nutrition when I graduated from high school; although I found out for myself what poor nutritional status can do when aged 18 I was hit by tuberculosis of the lungs. Too little food can kill us through weakened immune response, as as a teenager I went and tested with for myself. Up until then I had worked for nine years alongside my three siblings and grandmother to help my parents run their café-bar-restaurant. Food – preparing it, serving it, cleaning it up after late night closing times – became my enemy number 1. This was to change as soon as I left home and Finland.

Early on I had decided to study at a university, but as soon as I was able I travelled and went to work at the US embassy in Moscow. I then lived in the US and worked for the Living Foods Institute in Boston, where we tried to promote the use of natural and uncooked foods to prevent – and cure – disease.

I went back to Finland and began to study clinical nutrition and nutritional therapy in the newly established faculty at Kuopio University, where I founded the nutrition students’ association. I also became involved in sports nutrition, was a member of the Finnish water polo team, began teaching nutrition to parents, coaches and young athletes, and wrote the Finnish Swimming Association’s nutritional guidelines. As soon as I gained my clinical nutritionist registration, I set up my own consultancy and business, i-Diet Ltd, around improving nutrition education.

To follow up my interest in nutrition education and increasing dissemination and understanding of good nutrition I completed a year’s postgraduate course in education. At Penn State University, helped by a Fulbright scholarship, I achieved a PhD in nutrition with a principal interest in developing interactive, computer-based nutrition education materials and learning environments, targeting especially girls and women in an era in which ‘computers were not for girls’.

My interest in different cultures and languages, my experience in interactive computer technology, and my desire to improve nutrition education, have created exciting work opportunities and fascinating links with international networks. Perhaps it is my everlasting wish to enjoy everything I do and to keep changing and improving myself and the world around me that keeps me moving. Thus I have for example worked at the US embassy Moscow, USSR; Biggs Army airfield, El Paso, Texas; The Living Foods Institute in Boston; The University of Kuopio, Finland; Pennsylvania State University; the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm; King’s College London; the Higher Education Academy, London; the University of Eastern Finland; and the National Ageing Research Institute, Melbourne, Australia.

My projects have included teaching young athletes and pupils how to eat healthily, guiding international exchange students, researching the first ever mobile phone weight loss programme Weight Balance, in Finland; coordinating the European Masters in public health nutrition between 2001 and 2010; teacher exchange periods at the Universities of Southampton, Keele, Gran Canaria, Vienna and the Karolinska Institutet; work with the UK low-income nutrition and dietary intake study and the longitudinal study of ageing women in Finland; and serving as special issues editor for the journal Public Health Nutrition.

The more time has passed and the more I have travelled, the more shocked I have become at the increasing gap between the extremes of poverty and wealth and how this is reflected in food consumption and availability and the states of health that ensue. More than ever we are in need of innovative nutrition education which empowers people to take action to secure good nutrition not only for themselves but for all.