M.E.T.I.'s new location, Samoans urged to change diet

By Sapeer Mayron 23 April 2020, 6:00PM

The Matuaileoo Environment Trust Incorporated (M.E.T.I.) Clinic has new premises in Government House No. 51 in Moto'otua and wants to welcome new people to what they claim as life-changing lifestyle workshops.

In the wake of the coronavirus COVID-19 proving more damaging for people with non-communicable diseases like diabetes and hypertension, the Trust’s founder Dr. Walter Vermeulen is urging more people to take up the whole-foods, plant-based (W.F.P.B.) diet.

He believes for many overweight and unhealthy people, the changes to immunity and overall health are rapid and will help Samoans stand a chance against the virus should it arrive on Samoa’s shores.

So far, Samoa is one of just a handful of countries that has not had an outbreak of the new coronavirus, majority of which are in the Pacific or Africa. 

Dr. Vermeulen said now that his organisation has moved into a brand new facility, M.E.T.I. is ready to see anyone interested in changing their life for the better.

“Now more than anything Samoa should become serious about following whole food plant based nutrition,” he said.

A core tenet of the W.F.P.B. died that that eating more fruit and vegetable, and cutting animal products out of your diet will rapidly improve your immune system and help reverse the damaging effects of non-communicable diseases.

Before the measles epidemic in 2019, M.E.T.I. worked out of the old Acute 7 Ward in the Tupua Tamasese Meaole Hospital. But as the urgent needs of the epidemic took over, the Trust was moved, suspended its activities and only recently relocated into a new space.'

Dr. Vermeulen said he is excited to continue the Trust’s work, helping reverse the effects of non-communicable diseases and giving people control of their lives back. 

He said the rate of diabetes in Samoa, and the subsequent rate of limb amputations resulting from the disease needs to come down.

“You know that we are amputating 100 Samoans a year? Legs, feet… In Fiji they are amputating every eight hours, and it should not be like that.

“It is all related to the immune system, where if you are diabetic and you have a small cut and it gets infected, the infection creeps up and you have to amputate.”

One major success in the last year has been a one year village educator programme, where a person the villages of Letogo, Fuailolo’o, Vaiafai and Samalaeulu in Savaii are responsible for looking out for diabetics and people with hypertension in their village and helping them stay motivated to eat well.

Those workers are trained by M.E.T.I. to help people cook their 50 recipe cookbook of traditionally inspired, locally made up meals that can help manage diabetes and hypertension, as well as help patients manage their condition. 

Samalaeulu has proven to be the greatest success story, Dr. Vermeulen said, with 93 per cent of participants with diabetes radically reversing their symptoms.

Senior presenter Fagalima Faasoi, who is largely responsible for delivering the seminars and workshops in Samoan said while some people are shocked at the strict requirements of a W.F.P.B. diet, people who come to METI are open minded and want to make a change.

Dr. Vermeulen said because people hear about the organisation have learned about it through word of mouth, including in many cases their own family or friend’s success stories, they come knowing what the possibilities could be. 

“Now, when we hold our programmes we have people from neighbouring villages come in to listen and also participate. There is a big demand for our programme,” he said. 

They have also forged a growing relationship with Leituala Dr. Ben Matalavea who runs the National Kidney Foundation and has been calling for more work to prevent diabetes nationally.

This month University of Sydney researcher Dr. Penny Farrell published her work on how accessible nutritious food is for Samoans, in her thesis ‘the power to choose: proximal determinants of access to nutritious food in the Pacific region.’

She found that above all, Samoans will choose what they eat based on price and convenience and that more often than not the cheapest and easiest options are the least healthy.

People who spend their day out of their home are more likely to rely on their immediate surroundings for food, and what cost the least, was practically available and tasted good was what would be on the menu. 

Interviewees rarely if ever would take a packed lunch from home which would potentially be more nutritious. Dr. Farrell said while she did not interview people specifically on this choice, she suspects taking meals from home would usually be less convenient and more expensive.

“People who had the means, or access to a vehicle could maybe travel to a supermarket and buy in bulk and that might [make it] easier to prepare food at home but sometimes that is quite difficult to do, to prepare a few days ahead.”

Her key policy recommendations from the research include making healthy food more affordable through taxes on unhealthy foods and subsidies on healthy options.

Affordability also relates to household income, and Dr. Farrell writes that indirect approaches to increasing income and ensuring more equal incomes across the country would help access to healthier food options too. 

She recommends supporting national and regional food systems, and ensuring agriculture priorities align with public health priorities, and help reduce a reliance on imported starchy staples like rice and flour.

“There is the potential for government (or other, for example philanthropic) funding of farmers to be financially incentivised to produce products that support the health and nutrition of the domestic population. This is a complex issue and funding needs to be sustainable.

“No one policy is likely to be effective if implemented alone, but rather, diet policies should mutually reinforce each other,” she said.

Earlier this year, Dr. Vermeulen earned a Diploma from the International Board of Lifestyle Medicine, making him a certified lifestyle physician. 

Before the state of emergency, he travelled to Fiji to speak at the first ever meeting of the South Pacific Society of Lifestyle Medicine (S.P.S.L.M.) on his organisation’s experience over the last six years.

After his presentation, he was made an Honorary Fellow a member on the Executive Committee of the society to represent Samoa.

A certified lifestyle physician is a doctor which treats disease by focusing on behaviours and diets in conjunction with pharmaceuticals where necessary.

Dr. Vermeulen said its more about coaching patients to eat well, exercise, sleep enough, quit smoking and control alcohol consumption and even manage the level of stress in life.

Anyone can approach M.E.T.I. to request a seminar for their village or community and the group runs a 5:30pm session in English daily for people who can only attend outside of office hours. They ask for small donations for the out-of-hours sessions but all other sessions are free. 


By Sapeer Mayron 23 April 2020, 6:00PM

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