I have been devoted to public health, and in particular public health nutrition, throughout my professional life. I started being aware of public health as early as in the fourth year of my medical studies at the University of Athens. I was fortunate to be chosen by a distinguished and highly respected ‘old style’ professor of hygiene and epidemiology, to help him in the various teaching and research activities he was carrying out. One day, I dared to make some comments on the plan of work. He told to me in his deep voice: ‘For the next ten years you will listen, you will not speak’.
For bad or good, the next ten years I was listening and learning, either in the clinics or in the laboratories where I was doing my internship and later as a student in the Athens, and then the Ann Arbor, schools of public health. In the late 1960s, I decided to speak my mind on a health issue. I did not realise that this was my first step to public health nutrition. What I was asking, without getting a satisfactory answer, was: ‘Why do we recommend seed oils for better health, rather than olive oil?’ Later I realised that public health is a way of thinking that differs from clinical medicine, and I decided not to practice medicine but to be devoted to public health.
Working on lipid metabolism I was further involved with nutrition. In 1979 I became professor of nutrition and biochemistry in the National School of Public Heath in Athens. What a challenging task! No food composition tables, no surveys, no methodologies, no laboratories – and being constantly asked what the Greeks are eating, and what they should eat. Perseverance and hard work was needed for many years, under the constraint of very limited resources. But there were also rewards. I was able to see the traditional Mediterranean diet that I have been advocating since the early 1980s, become widely recognised as a health-promoting diet.
In 1980, Greece became Member of the European Union. This was a new start. I had the opportunity to meet distinguished colleagues and to collaborate and interact with them in various projects. I was given the opportunity to participate in many WHO and EU committees and thus to understand that public health nutrition is more than publishing good papers, in order to provide evidence-based arguments. It also requires one to be outspoken, even at the risk of being occasionally unpleasant. In the 1980s I also led the work that renewed interest in the Mediterranean Diet as a health promoting diet. Later, I developed a score that allows measurement of adherence to this diet, which also facilitates study of its health effects. In the early 2000s I took the lead in creating the Hellenic Health Foundation, a very active non-profit organisation which is dedicated to serving public health and high-quality related research.