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Simon Poole is a man of many talents: doctor, author, broadcaster, noted speaker, olive oil entrepreneur, and passionate advocate of the Mediterranean Diet. Simon and I became friends in 2012 when he invited Dr. Antonia Trichopoulou and me to speak at a Mediterranean Diet Conference outside London. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and when Oldways organized our Finding Common Ground conference, I invited Simon to be one of the speakers. Most recently, he’s co-authored The Olive Oil Diet with Judy Ridgway and joined the Advisory Panel of the Olive Wellness Institute. I caught up with Simon at the July 2018 meeting of the North American Olive Oil Association and had the chance to ask him a few questions about the Institute, the Mediterranean Diet, and overall healthy eating.  

Q&A with Dr. Simon Poole
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Dr. Simon Poole

Oldways: What is the overall purpose of the Olive Wellness Institute?

Simon Poole: The Olive Wellness Institute (OWI) has been set up to be an authoritative repository for the latest scientific research into nutritional aspects of olive oil and other natural products of the olive tree. We have long known of the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet, and we are increasingly understanding the special contribution of extra virgin olive oil and olives at the heart of the diet. The Scientific Advisory Board of the Institute provides the resources to review published research and make it available at one site for the benefit of health professionals, the media, and other interested parties. 

OW: For patients who are fat-phobic, how do you help them understand that healthy fats like olive oil are actually an important part of a balanced diet?

SP: There is increasing understanding that unsaturated fats play an important role in an overall balanced diet, and that olive oil, nuts and avocado, for example, contribute to health. It is also very important to look beyond making healthy and sustainable choices about the macro-nutrients we consume—such as unsaturated fats, whole grain carbohydrates and predominantly plant-based proteins—and consider the overall benefits of natural foods. For example, many populations adhering to the Mediterranean Diet consume modest amounts of dairy products such as unprocessed cheese and natural yogurts, especially from goats and sheep, and this can be entirely consistent with a healthy lifestyle. 

 

We have long known of the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet, and we are increasingly understanding the special contribution of extra virgin olive oil and olives at the heart of the diet. 

OW: At Oldways, we focus on olive oil as part of the overall healthy Mediterranean Diet, and I know you do as a physician.  Why is it important to pay extra attention to olive oil, this one ingredient of the Mediterranean Diet?

SP: Many areas of the Mediterranean have differences in some aspects of their diet. For example, wine is enjoyed in some regions but excluded in others for religious reasons. There can be a different emphasis on herbs and spices, more fish may be consumed in coastal areas, and the varieties of fruits and vegetables will depend on local climate and geography. Whilst there is no single ingredient that can claim responsibility for the overall advantages of the Mediterranean lifestyle, it is certainly the case that extra virgin olive oil features in all expressions of the diet, and there is some interesting research which suggests its unique components confer individually measurable effects on health unlike any other oil or fat, or any other food in the diet.

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OW: What can you tell us about lifestyle medicine, and also why it is an important concept to understand?

SP: Whilst it is known that lifestyle changes can prevent perhaps as much as 70% of all chronic disease in the western world, our medical approach to illness tends to be based on offering treatments for these diseases when they present as illness rather than focusing on measures to prevent or reverse these conditions. Course curricula for health professionals often leave graduates ill-equipped to support individuals in making changes to avoid illnesses, and so in recent years leading advocates of a preventative approach have encouraged the adoption of principles of lifestyle medicine. 

OW: As a physician, I know you recommend the Mediterranean Diet to your patients. What do you tell them, and are most of your patients familiar with eating the Mediterranean way, or are they baffled?

SP: There is a misconception that the Mediterranean Diet simply consists of fruit and vegetables. I advise my patients to understand the Mediterranean Diet more fully by accessing useful websites such as Oldways, which engage people not only in a much more complete understanding, but also provide them with recipes. For example, recipes can combine the regular use of extra virgin olive oil with seasonal colored vegetables, spices, herbs, and other wonderful ingredients. People can gain a greater awareness but also enjoy the preparation of wholesome and nutritious meals. Using images such as the Oldways Mediterranean Diet Pyramid also supports them in incorporating the Mediterranean Diet in their daily busy lives.

OW: Are you optimistic—do you think more younger people are interested in healthy eating?

SP: I do feel optimistic. Younger people not only show a greater interest in eating healthily, but also are often more aware of the impact of our food systems on the environment. The Mediterranean Diet, with its focus on local, seasonal, plant-based ingredients, has been shown to be a highly sustainable dietary pattern. It will be of great importance since agriculture, and in particular meat production, contributes to a third of greenhouse gases. This figure is likely to increase as human populations place even higher demands on our systems of production. Younger people are also aware that fresh, natural ingredients are more likely to be healthful, irrespective of debates about the various merits of macro-nutrients or the tendency of ”fads” or passing dietary trends.
 

Sara Baer-Sinnott, Oldways President 


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