Like most Argentinians, Dr. Diego Ponieman grew up thinking that a meal wasn’t a meal without meat. As he began his medical career and counseled obese and diabetic patients, he recommended a low-carb, meat-centered, and portion-controlled diet. Unfortunately, these strategies almost never worked. The vast majority of his patients didn’t lose weight. Dr. Ponieman didn’t know what to do next; like many physicians, he’d received almost no nutrition education during medical school or at medical conferences after graduation.
Dr. Ponieman himself was already on blood pressure and cholesterol medication by the time he was 30. His brother and father had the same conditions, so Dr. Ponieman assumed this was his genetic fate. But he was curious, and began combing through research to find alternatives to medication that could help him and his patients.
One day he stumbled on a study about mindfulness. He quickly realized that if he could help his patients become more mindful of the choices they were making, maybe he could help them improve their health. As he read more deeply about Buddhism and mindfulness, he also discovered the concepts of plant-based eating and kindness to animals. This began his journey towards a plant-based diet.
Dr. Ponieman started by changing his own diet. First, he dropped red meat, followed soon by chicken, and finally, fish. The more research he read, the more committed he became to the lifestyle. After one year, he went 100% whole-food, plant-based. The results were amazing: within six weeks after starting a whole-food, plant-based diet, his blood pressure and cholesterol levels dropped into the healthy range and he was able to discontinue all medication.
Dr. Ponieman decided to make mindfulness and nutrition the root of his medical practice. He’d seen for himself the amazing health improvements in his own life and felt certain he could help his patients achieve similar results. His challenge now was to find ways to motivate his patients to consider changing their lifestyles. He didn’t want another 30 years of a disappointing and unrewarding practice, where he saw the same patients year after year getting sicker and sicker.
How different his days go now! He now often sees whole families instead of individuals, because patients are so impressed with their medical improvements that they encourage spouses, children, siblings, and other relatives to start seeing him. Dr. Ponieman has found that women tend to be the best catalysts for change and are often able to get their entire family on board with plant-based eating. Gone are the feelings of burnout and frustration as he sees entire families making lifestyle changes and regaining their health.
But Dr. Ponieman didn’t stop with his own practice. He also serves as Chief Medical Officer for the nonprofit SOMOS Community Care in New York City, a network of over 2,500 physicians. Dr. Ponieman believed he could make a larger impact on his community by finding a partner for SOMOS with expertise in helping underserved communities revitalize their nutritional habits. When he read about the Oasis Jumpstart Program of the nonprofit PlantPure Communities (PPC), he knew he’d found the ideal partner. The PPC Oasis Program focuses on bringing plant-based foods and education to underserved neighborhoods across the country. In 2018 Dr. Ponieman applied to conduct the program through his practice, working with PPC to set up the first SOMOS Oasis Jumpstart. He met with Nelson Campbell, founder of PPC and PlantPure, Inc., and recognized a kindred spirit who shared his passion to help people.
Dr. Ponieman began offering Oasis 10-day Jumpstarts to his patients. Dr. Ponieman kicks off the Jumpstart with the Spanish version of PlantPure’s Health & Weight Loss Seminar, followed by 10 days of heat-and-eat meals from PlantPure. Dr. Ponieman also provides bags of dried fruit to participants so they’ll have familiar plant-based foods for snacking as they start their independent journey. One of Dr. Ponieman’s favorite things to say to patients is “give me just 10 days!”
Dr. Ponieman’s program goes beyond the Jumpstart, though. The partnership with the nonprofit PlantPure Communities includes working with independent member organizations (“Pods”) who are part of the PPC Pod Network. Members of the Pods provide coaching and cooking support to the patients. He has found that this ongoing support makes all the difference. Dr. Ponieman knows that the 10 days of Jumpstart are the easy part. Creating a lifestyle to last a lifetime is the hard part. Change is difficult, and a good support system is critical.
Dr. Ponieman believes that the plant-based nutrition movement is growing stronger by the day. Most medical conferences he attends now offer a plant-based meal and he can find a plant-based option on almost any menu in New York, even at places that serve fast food. It used to be that many of his colleagues were not supportive of his lifestyle. But now they respect what he’s doing and, in his words, “are no longer laughing.” Instead they admire his work. Dr. Ponieman says, yes, change is coming, although not always as fast as he would like!