The science of good health: Dr Simon Poole
Physician, award winning author, public speaker and broadcaster, Dr Simon Poole has been extolling the virtues of the Mediterranean Diet and the use of Extra Virgin Olive Oil in particular since the 1990s. His seminal book, The Olive Oil Diet (authored with Judy Ridgway), brought to life how easy is it to live better for longer. You can follow him on twitter @thetasteofthemed
How do you get your patients to consume more EVOO? Is extolling it’s health benefits enough or do you have more practical tips?
Firstly, I am passionate about lifestyle medicine, because perhaps 70 – 80% of chronic diseases can be prevented, and a good diet is central to a healthy lifestyle. The body of evidence supporting the Mediterranean way of life as a gold standard to protect from illness and to support a long and healthy life is now very well established and compelling. The common denominator and universal ingredient of all the regional variations of the Mediterranean Diet is extra virgin olive oil and it is a significant contributor to the Mediterranean Diet Score used by scientists to measure adherence to the diet. There is also increasing evidence that extra virgin olive oil on its own has measurable beneficial effects. It is perhaps the oldest and most convincing superfood! When I discuss eating patterns with my patients, I encourage them to adopt the Mediterranean Diet with extra virgin oil at its heart. It is not only the healthiest of diets, but it is delicious, enjoyable and sustainable.
In an interview you said that people should eat a litre of EVOO a month. Is this just condiment oil (over salads, pasta, meats etc) or even frying and cooking?
A litre of EVOO a month is equivalent to the quantities measured on the dietary scores by researchers in most studies describing the benefits and positive health outcomes of the Mediterranean Diet and EVOO. In most northern European countries and the USA consumption would need to increase ten fold to achieve this. I recommend that people use EVOO in the way that the peoples of the Mediterranean use it for cooking, food preparation and as a condiment. It is the ubiquitous fat and features in all meals and cooking. It is also a fundamental part of the history and culture in these regions.
Which would be your number one life style-hack to ensure more people arrive at that litre a month.
I encourage people to buy a 3 or 5 litre can or box of affordable, good quality regional EVOO and use it every day for all food preparation and cooking. I suggest ditching other less healthy oils and fats and banish them from the kitchen. People can then choose a more premium oil for the table for flavouring and finishing dishes and can explore and enjoy the taste differences between excellent quality EVOOs.
What is the most compelling reason to exchange butter for EVOO in your diet?
There are so many reasons to exchange butter for EVOO in our diets. EVOO is fundamental to the Mediterranean Diet, is made up mostly of healthy monounsaturated fats, is plant based and is environmentally sustainable (with 10 kg of carbon “fixed” per litre produced), and has a complex range of tastes which add exquisite flavour to foods. However it is probably the unique antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds which have beneficial health effects present in the “fruit juice” of the olive which provide the most compelling reasons. These compounds called polyphenols, as well as vitamin E are critical in protecting our bodies from the damage of oxidative stress and inflammation.
From a scientific perspective what is it that makes EVOO superior choice for cooking with?
The polyphenol compounds which occur naturally in EVOO, with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties protect the fats in EVOO from breakdown, preserving the health of EVOO when used for cooking at all usual temperatures in the kitchen. This makes a good EVOO the perfect oil for cooking, roasting and frying, just as the peoples of the Mediterranean have used it since ancient times. The “smoke point” of an oil is a very poor indicator of its performance at temperature, and whilst cooking temperatures are well below the “smoke point” of EVOO, there are also additional benefits of cooking with EVOO which involves the exchange of antioxidants between vegetables and EVOO, creating an even healthier end result.
For those of us who follow the subject, there is constant new research about the health benefits coming out. Which are the most significant facts that have emerged for you in the last few years?
Probably the synergy of cooking vegetables with EVOO and the combined effects of the polyphenols is the most exciting development in recent years, making it not only entirely safe to cook with EVOO, but also desirable as a way to maximise health and to gain the most from the nutrients in vegetables. EVOO has also been shown to significantly reduce the formation of potentially harmful chemicals called heterocyclic amines when meat is cooked – the antioxidants in EVOO deterring the production of these compounds when meat is grilled for example.
What was your lightbulb moment with olive oil? When did you decide to immerse your self into the subject?
I have been interested in the health of the Mediterranean Diet for years, promoting it to my patients since the 1990s knowing the evidence for its benefits was increasing year on year. I have also enjoyed the taste and flavours of EVOOs as part of this lifestyle. However, as a doctor my lightbulb moment with EVOO came in 2012 when the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition published findings of an associated 26% reduction in death for those you consumed high levels of olive oil compared with non users for the period of study, with deaths from heart disease nearly halved. Since then there has been even more evidence of the unique role that EVOO plays in conferring the health benefits of the Mediterranean Diet.
What are the lines of current research on EVOO that excite or interest you the most?
So many chronic diseases, including heart disease but also conditions such as Alzheimers disease and other forms of dementia relate to chronic low levels of inflammation. New discoveries of the anti-inflammatory effects of EVOO are creating an understanding of how such illnesses may be prevented. Even in the last month there has been a publication demonstrating that a single meal including sofrito – the sauce with EVOO, onions, garlic and tomatoes, can very quickly and measurably reduce markers of inflammation. It is exciting to see the tangible, real world link between enjoying wonderful EVOO containing meals with an outcome that probably means a healthier body and mind.