Healthy To A Hundred: Dr Miguel Freitas of Danone North America On 5 Things You Need To Live A Long, Healthy, & Happy Life
An Interview With Savio P. Clemente
Don’t smoke: It is well recognized that smoking affects cardiovascular health, including coronary arteries and lungs. Smokers have increased rates of several diseases, such as cancer and strokes. Although adopting as many beneficial lifestyle factors is the best plan to live a long and healthy life, many researchers say, if you had to choose one, this is it.
The term Blue Zones has been used to describe places where people live long and healthy lives. What exactly does it take to live a long and healthy life? What is the science and the secret behind longevity and life extension? In this series, we are talking to medical experts, wellness experts, and longevity experts to share “5 Things You Need To Live A Long, Healthy, & Happy Life”. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Miguel Freitas, Vice President of Scientific Affairs at Danone North America.
Through decades of experience and personal intrigue, Miguel has studied and worked on the complex interaction between probiotics, the gut and microbiota. His 20+ years at Danone has allowed him to bring his passion and expertise to this field, and as Vice President of Scientific Affairs at Danone North America, Miguel has helped the global food and beverage company translate the growing body of evidence on different probiotic strains into a range of consumer products. Miguel is also a professional member of the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) and American Society for Nutrition (ASN), an advisory board member of Future Food Tech, and a Forbes Health Advisory Board Member 2022.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
I grew up in a family of doctors and nurses in Portugal, so coming out of high school I knew exactly what I wanted to pursue: not only science, but a career in biology, genetics and biotechnology. I found the newly established program in Food Engineering at the Oporto College of Biotechnology, which set me up for a life of research.
After receiving my master’s degree in food studies, I was introduced to a wide range of academic institutions and industries dedicated to food microbiology and biotechnology. Once I conducted my thesis on lactic acid bacteria and probiotics, I pursued my Ph.D. at the National Institute of Health in Paris, which I finished in 2001.
The academic rigor of these programs and my innate passion for the world of food, microbiology and probiotics in particular set me on the path to Danone, where I’ve been able to enjoy my work and make a difference every day.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I have always worked in the field of probiotics related to the digestive system, so as a graduate student and after as a Ph.D. student, every single day, my team, and I would talk about the gut, digestive health, and other gut related topics during our lunch breaks. These conversations were not always very welcoming to our fellow dining neighbors, who often looked at us with revolting eyes. When I came to the United States this was still the case, but I think now, and especially with the launch of probiotics and Activia from Danone, it’s no longer the case. People are more used to talking about digestive health and their gut more openly.
I finished my Ph.D. in 2001, and I was fully immersed in the field of probiotics, good bacteria and gut health. My work was being done in Europe, where medically these concepts were more accepted. I first presented part of my work in the U.S. at the American Gastroenterology Association (AGA)- Digestive Disease Conference in 2003 in Orlando, Florida. I will never forget that I was approached by several medical doctors and gastroenterologists at that time asking me why I was pushing for people to consume bacteria, while the entire field was about killing bacteria. The concept of good bacteria and probiotics was not popular within gastroenterology, and I felt a bit “out of place” pushing good bacteria. Of course, after 20 years, and after many efforts and initiatives, things changed considerably, especially with the successful launch of probiotics and Activia from Danone in 2006 in the U.S. Today, AGA dedicates hundreds of educational sessions on the role of the microbiome and probiotics during its annual meeting and have created several committees given the importance this field has gained within gastroenterology.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Growing up in a family of doctors and nurses made a huge impact on me. I was surrounded by the medical world from a very young age and my interest continued to blossom throughout the years. One of the first peer-reviewed papers showing that bacteria from a healthy microbiome can communicate with the host and impact different cellular functions was published in Science in 1996 by Bry et al. This paper changed the perception that the trillions of bacteria we all have in our gut have no purpose and created a need to start exploring this complex microbiome system. Professor Jeff Gordon at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO and Professor Tore Midtvedt at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden were leading that work. That paper heavily impacted my Ph.D. topic. I had the honor to work with both of those great minds, including spending part of my Ph.D. in Sweden at the Karolinska Institute as part of Professor Midtvedt’s team. Both Professor Gordon and Midtvedt had an enormous impact on my career.
You are a successful leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I typically come back to three main character traits that are important in a scientist but also in a business context, which is how I am currently operating at Danone North America as VP of Scientific Affairs.
a. Determination — in science you need to have willpower and drive. In my case, with a topic that was new to the field and still somewhat contradictory in the late nineties, I needed to be determined to prove my hypothesis and my beliefs.
b. Attention to detail — in biology or engineering, attention to detail is critical. Whether you are in the laboratory repeating an experiment for the tenth time or writing a scientific paper reporting your results, attention to detail was decisive in achieving my goals.
c. Have a purpose — after my Ph.D., I had an option to continue an academic career or join Danone and work for one of the biggest health-focused food companies in the world. Spending time doing both applied and basic research, I quickly recognized that I wanted to have a direct impact on what people eat and make a difference in the type of healthy food we offer to consumers. My purpose was to change what people eat through probiotics research and the effect it has on health, including the microbiome.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview about health and longevity. To begin, can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fields of health, wellness, and longevity? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
My 20+ years at Danone have allowed me to bring my passion and expertise to this field and as Vice President of Scientific Affairs at Danone North America, I have helped the global food and beverage company translate the growing body of evidence on different probiotic strains into a range of consumer products. I am proud to have been a driving force behind new fermented dairy products containing both probiotics and prebiotics. I have contributed to the development of the probiotic wellness business category in the U.S. from $3 billion in 2008 to over $10 billion in 2022 by implementing multi-stakeholder campaigns targeting Key Opinion Leaders, Health Care Providers, media, and consumers, increasing awareness of probiotics from single digits in 2005 to over 90% awareness in 2022. With a Ph.D. in microbiology, nutrition and cell biology from the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in France, I have published several peer-reviewed studies on microbes and human health, and I’ve frequently spoken at scientific conferences around the world while designing research protocols for researchers worldwide.
Based on your research or experience, can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Live A Long & Healthy Life”? (Please share a story or an example for each)
- Healthy and balanced diet: We know that a healthy and balanced diet is essential to living longer. There are also some studies and data showing what diets around the world help people live longer, with the Mediterranean diet coming in at the top of the list. It’s not always easy to follow a Mediterranean diet (especially if you don’t have access to the same foods and produce), however we also know that a flexitarian diet is proving to be one of the most beneficial for health, including for our microbiome health. We know that individuals following a flexitarian diet, which is rich in plant-based foods but also includes meat and dairy products, presented some of the most diverse gut microbiomes, especially compared to individuals who consumed a standard American diet.
- Consume fermented foods and probiotics: As part of a diet, fermented products and probiotics are some of the most important foods to incorporate. This is not only how I grew up and what I studied but consumption of fermented foods and specifically probiotics can beneficially impact many functions in our bodies. Our gut is a complex system at the interface between our own physiology and the food that we ingest. When we think about good gut health, most of us think about digestive health, but that’s only part of the story because your gut is home to countless bacteria known as your gut microbiome. Your diet and lifestyle factors can play a big role in shaping your overall gut health. An unhealthy gut can impact your daily life, typically characterized by the appearance of minor digestive issues. About 50% of the general Western population frequently experiences issues related to gut health like bloating, gas, stomach rumbling and/or discomfort, all of which are uncomfortable and can negatively impact the quality of life.
- Exercise: I typically exercise every day, either just a long walk or a more intense run outside if weather permits. I aim for at least 30 minutes of activity a day. You can also try breaking it into three 10-minute bouts of activity per day — a 10-minute walk in the morning, another at lunch and a stroll after dinner.
- Sleep and Meditation: Appropriate sleep is a critical function that helps your body and your mind recover and recharge from the day. Sleep needs vary from person to person, but typically, most adults require 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. I have also started doing meditation most days of the week. There are many online tools to help you start and can even be only 10 minutes a day. Meditation and relaxed breathing have helped me enormously find a sense of calm, peace, and balance. Of course, it is especially important during thought and stressful times.
- Don’t smoke: It is well recognized that smoking affects cardiovascular health, including coronary arteries and lungs. Smokers have increased rates of several diseases, such as cancer and strokes. Although adopting as many beneficial lifestyle factors is the best plan to live a long and healthy life, many researchers say, if you had to choose one, this is it.
Can you suggest a few things needed to live a life filled with happiness, joy, and meaning?
That’s really a good question. I believe there are several things that help me feel happier and more fulfilled. For example, we should be grateful for what we have, and take time to focus on the positive. I also think it’s important to surround yourself with family and friends that can be an amazing support system, and finally practice the gift of sharing with others as much as possible.
Some argue that longevity is genetic, while others say that living a long life is simply a choice. What are your thoughts on this nature vs. nurture debate? Which is more important?
Probably both. We know that genetics unfortunately can bring some bad news, for example, with the risk of cardiovascular and other diseases. However, I am also convinced that our lifestyle behaviors can trigger our genes and help mitigate several risks that are decisive in our longevity.
Life sometimes takes us on paths that are challenging. How have you managed to bounce back from setbacks in order to cultivate physical, mental, and emotional health?
Just like most of us, I have also lived in some challenging situations, and in certain situations you realize it is indeed “a wake-up call”. You hear this phrase from many people, but you don’t think it will ever happen to you. Either because of a very stressful event in your life or because of a health scare, these are important and critical moments where one needs to act. In my case, together with a coach and some good reading, I adopted a work and personal lifestyle balance a few years ago, that to this day has helped me feel better physically and mentally when alone and when around others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I have many, but I have always been inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with one quote that has really resonated with me — “The time is always right to do what is right.” I believe it has been my principle throughout my life and my career.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I have a passion for food, science, and health, and all my life, I have tried to work and include these topics both in my career and personal life. I truly believe in the mission of Danone — “Bringing health through food to as many people as possible,” and this would be the movement that I would like people to endorse. What people eat, and the impact it has on health and disease, is part of the problem and the solution for some of the critical issues in our current society, such as an increase in diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
To stay up to date on the microbiome and probiotics research at Danone, feel free to follow me on LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.