Q and A with Advisory Panel Member Dr Simon Poole
What is your professional background
I am a family physician in the university town of Cambridge, England. I have also been involved in public health work and have roles in the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners in London. I am a founding member of the European and British Lifestyle Medicine Societies as well as a Senior International Collaborator with NNedPro – an organisation dedicated to promoting nutrition education and a Scientific Advisor to the Mediterranean Diet Foundation based in Barcelona. I am a Council Member of the True Health Initiative. My special area of interest is in communicating the benefits of the Mediterranean lifestyle with olive products central to the diet.
What drew your interest to the Med Diet and Olive Products/EVOO
During my years of practice, I have witnessed first hand the increase in chronic illnesses and diseases, many of which can be prevented through education and lifestyle changes, including making choices about the right sort of diet. Over that period, there have been numerous published studies which have demonstrated the extraordinary benefits of the Mediterranean Diet with olive products at its heart. As I have helped my patients to learn more and to adopt changes in their lifestyle, I have seen many achieve remarkable results, becoming healthier, losing weight, and even on occasions reducing or stopping medications. I now speak at conferences, food industry events and to the wider public about the powerful positive effects of the Mediterranean Diet and extra virgin olive oil, explaining the impact it can have on health and wellbeing. In contrast to much of the dietary advice in recent years, adhering to the Mediterranean Diet is an absolute pleasure, as it is not only nutritious and beneficial, but also tastes fantastic – a wonderful story to share!
How do you see the OWI working as a vehicle to drive changes in education and health across the globe?
The Mediterranean Diet is now well established as a truly evidence based recipe for good health, protecting from many diseases and even leading to improved wellbeing and increased longevity. Not only is extra virgin olive oil central to scientific descriptions and measurement of the diet, but as the single most important ingredient there is an increasing body of evidence to support the specific health contribution made by the fruits of the olive tree. A little known fact is that particular compounds from extra virgin olive oil were used as markers of compliance amongst the participants in the most widely cited randomised controlled trial on the Mediterranean Diet, demonstrating the centrality of extra virgin olive oil. As studies continue to reveal the benefits of olive products, ranging from the polyphenolic anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant compounds to the positive interactions between the fatty acids and other foods especially when prepared together, the OWI will lead the world as a trusted, evidence based repository for such emerging understanding. Health professionals and students as well as writers and commentators will be able to refer to the OWI database when teaching or communicating to the public on matters relating to the olive products and health.
What do you tell your patients about EVOO (e.g. top 3-5 most important facts)
The most important facts I communicate with patients are;
Extra virgin olive oil , as part of a plant based diet, is key to the wider Mediterranean Diet and is the common denominator in all the regional variations of the diet. It is inseparable from the Mediterranean diet and is the ubiquitous healthy fat for cooking and adding flavour and texture to meals. Most studies showing health benefits use standardised methods of measuring consumption of extra virgin olive oil benchmarking 30-50mls per day, representing approximately a litre per person per month, twelve times the quantity per capita currently consumed in northern hemisphere Europe, Australia and the USA.
Extra virgin olive oil is not only safe for cooking, it is the universal cooking medium in the Mediterranean Diet, and we are increasingly understanding the benefits of its protective effects on other foods, and how the nutritional profile of ingredients can be enhanced when cooked together with extra virgin olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is a healthy monounsaturated fat, but also contains unique anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds which have been shown to have beneficial health effects. It is these polyphenol compounds which are of particular interests to science, the understanding of which is helping to guide consumers about getting the best from their preparation of a healthy Mediterranean Diet.
Extra virgin olive oil need not be expensive. Whilst there are some wonderful tasting “finishing oils” for adding flavours such as “cut grass, herbs or pepper”, it is entirely possible to buy high quality extra virgin olive oil for everyday cooking and meal preparation.
And, finally, ENJOY, what is a most beautiful natural product, nurtured with love and care by farmers with generations of associated traditions and folklore based on the extraordinary gifts of one of the most ancient cultivated trees.
How do you suggest people choose a high quality EVOO? Any tips?
I recommend people look for quality in extra virgin olive oil by learning something of the way in which oil is produced.
Extra virginity is really important, as oils described as “olive oil” are refined and of much poorer quality. It is always reassuring to recognise the provenance of an extra virgin oil. Most producers are fiercely proud of their oils and so examples from single estates or regions, perhaps with cooperatives working with a number of farmers, will often represent excellent quality. A harvest date is sometimes provided on the label. The fresher the oil the better.
Tastes vary of course, but some “bitterness” or peppery flavour is a positive feature of an oil and represents particular compounds which have health giving antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
The key is to explore and taste different extra virgin oils and begin to recognise the different varieties of olives used and to enjoy different oils for different occasions…
What would you like to see in policy change around the world, relating to dietary guidelines and EVOO/Med diet
Although the latest US Dietary Guidelines cite the Mediterranean Diet as a specific recommended pattern of eating, many national guidelines are still focused on outdated low fat/ high carbohydrate advice. This is rather strange since the traditional Cretan diet was considered to derive 40% of calories from fat, 80% of which as olive oil. Whilst many commentators argue about the merits of macronutrients, it would be far wiser to discuss the health profiles of foods, which are complex combinations of nutrients. Indeed, it would be even better to discuss meals rather than foods since the compounds of foods often interact with each other, with our gut microbiome, and even effect our gene expression. Extra virgin olive oil is a food case in point. It is a fat, but its calories do not have a tendency to cause weight gain, it has been shown to increase satiety, it interacts with carbohydrates by decreasing the glycaemic load of a meal and it increases insulin sensitivity. It has a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels and contributes to healthy gut flora diversity. As part of the Mediterranean Diet, it contributes to a sustainable environment. If it is produced with care in that context, the higher quality extra virgin oils have an even more powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect, conferring maximum health benefits.
Can you tell us some more about your Olive Oil Book?
The Olive Oil Diet, co-authored with food writer and olive oil expert Judy Ridgway tells the story of extra virgin olive oil at the heart of the Mediterranean Diet.
We were delighted and honoured to receive the Gourmand Best in World Dun Gifford Prize for the book. It is to be translated into Spanish later this year.
The first section of the book makes sense of the emerging science and explains why olive oil is a fat that is good for you. In the second part of the book we outline the effects that factors, such as the grade of oil, the olive variety, cultivation techniques and processing methods have on the health characteristics of different oils and go on to show how these factors can point to the extra virgin olive oils which are likely to be the healthiest. The third section of the book explains the Seven Pillars of the Olive Oil Diet, seven groups of ingredients with a base of olive oil and contains a practical guide to producing great food. It shows how extra virgin olive oil can be used to give character and flavour to food and, at the same time, enhance the health qualities of the other ingredients in the dish. The final section of the book includes over a hundred suggestions and recipes which start with olive oil and build up with a wide range of other healthy ingredients. These recipes are arranged around the modern lifestyle with plenty of ideas for fast food at home, healthy snacks and packed lunches. There are also recipes to make when more time is available including baked foods and desserts.