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Student Profile – Ryan Olavarria: Health Crusader

At age seven Ryan Olavarria tried to bake a pie.

Using ingredients from the family kitchen, he set about making the semblance of a piecrust he intended to bake in his sister’s plastic play oven. “My mother saw what I was trying to do and she took that blob of pastry back into the kitchen where we made it into a pie,” he recalls. Notwithstanding pie, that simple childhood act was the beginning of a lifelong love of cooking, which culminated in a deep interest in food’s relationship to good health.

As competitive swimmer in middle school, Olavarria began thinking seriously about his eating habits. And by the time the athlete reached college, a careful reading of Michael Pollan’s books, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” inspired him to further alter his diet by eating locally-sourced, organic food. Intrigued by Pollan’s mention of polyphenols—plant chemicals that work as antioxidants—he began researching the scientific underpinning of food and its relationship to disease.

“Those books really got me to think more scientifically about my diet and also opened my eyes to the broader issues of illness,” the first-year Geisel medical student says, “which for me was a very topical issue given the number of pages the Wall Street Journal devoted to the obesity epidemic and the economics of health care at that time.”

I always try to incorporate activity into my daily life. In fact, I stand through all of my lecture classes here at Geisel."

- Ryan Olavarria '18

Viewing the changing landscape of health care and commonly treated preventable diseases from an economic perspective—Olavarria has a degree in economics and has started two small businesses—clarified for him the complex connection between food, food production, and health. Coupled with his interest in preventive medicine and a desire to raise awareness around the economics of health care he decided to become a physician.

Volunteering at an outpatient cancer center, prior to attending Geisel, further fueled his interest in food’s relationship to illness as he listened to patients talk about diet and alternative therapies while going through their treatments. Olavarria admits he was most fascinated by their comments about, and interest in, a more holistic approach to treatment rather than the standard medical interventions typically deployed.

This got him thinking about what it takes to motivate people, including physicians, to change their attitudes, behaviors, and ultimately their health. Untangling the reasons behind the dietary and lifestyle choices people make along with their correlations to behavior and health is complicated, but it’s something Olavarria is keen to understand.

Taking cues from what he learned as a small business owner—make everything clear and easily accessible—he plans to use his medical training to increase awareness about the consequences of personal food choices and to show people that making the healthy choice is the easy choice. How? By teaching us how to make good tasting healthy meals, which in turn may influence our deeply ingrained eating habits.

He also wants everyone to get moving.

Within weeks of arriving at Geisel, the energetic and optimistic Olavarria organized an early morning exercise session for students interested in running the stairs at Dartmouth’s stadium. A group of like-minded students from the Tuck School of Business were also running the stairs at 6:30 a.m. and before long the two groups joined forces. The forty-minute workout morphed to include running laps and abdominal work.

Although the group’s stadium workout is on hiatus—the stadium is undergoing renovations—Olavarria remains active. He skis with fellow Geisel classmates whenever possible and, iPad in hand so he can study, he regularly goes to the gym to workout.

“I always try to incorporate activity into my daily life. In fact, I stand through all of my lecture classes here at Geisel,” he says. “I stand in the back of the room and try to be as unobtrusive as possible, but professors often ask me if I’m standing because I have a bad back or other health issue.” He reassures them he doesn’t. He’s simply putting his beliefs into action.

That small gesture gets to the heart of what Olavarria wants to achieve—showing people that small changes in behavior are easy to make.

He also believes doctors need training in nutrition and cooking. Considering that common, expensive-to-treat diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease are linked to food and lifestyle choices, Olavarria finds this lack of training surprising. He and a small collection of Geisel classmates, all dedicated cooks, are working on a proposal to include a culinary school rotation into Geisel’s curriculum.

Brimming with ideas about how he’d like to encourage people to live healthier lives, another idea surfaces—create a television show featuring a physician/chef. “I think the time is right for that,” he observes.

Will Olavarria become television’s first physician/chef/health advocate? There’s no way to know. But if he does, he won’t be teaching us how to bake pies.