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Published on May 31, 2018

Don’t let this suppress your protective genesDon’t let this suppress your protective genes

The best way to promote good health is to eat a whole food, plant-based diet, according to internal medicine physician Miguel Prieto, MD, with Emerald Physicians in Bourne.

“There was a study that was published in JAMA recently that noticed that vegan diets tend to be better than even the American Heart Association-recommended diet for preventing heart disease,” he said. “We need bigger studies, but there are a multitude of studies showing that whole food, plant-based diets certainly reverse inflammation, and not just manage diseases, but have the potential to reverse the damage that has already taken place.”

When a person has a lot of inflammation, it is usually associated with insulin peaks. Processed foods cause inflammation and that is why they are suspected of causing cancer, Dr. Prieto said.

“It’s not necessarily a direct toxin, otherwise the number of people with cancer would be much higher, But when you create this insulin peak with sugar, the insulin-like growth factors affect cells too and promote changes in the DNA,” he said.

The changes in the DNA tend to suppress the protective genes that fight cancer. Other areas that are expressed are associated with insulin resistance, which is associated with increased cancer rates.

Dr. Prieto pointed to the fact that people who use high doses of insulin to combat hard-to-control diabetes also have higher incidence of cancer. It’s not the insulin itself, but the growth factor in it that promotes cells to grow without any checks or controls, he said.

When people switch to a whole food, plant-based diet, their blood numbers change dramatically. Their ESR (erythrocyte sedimentation rate), which indicates inflammation, goes down. Lipids also get better. Insulin resistance goes away and sleep apnea reverses.

“A plant-based diet has to do with prolonging life and prolonging it in a manner that you are active and able to do things,” he said. “It basically slows down the aging process.”

Just switching to a plant-based diet is not the whole picture, Dr. Prieto cautioned. He sees a lot of people who try to eat a plant-based diet but substitute things like fake sausages and meat, which are highly processed and contain chemicals.

Dr. Prieto recommends that people be polite when dining out with friends and family. If the food that is offered is not fully compliant with a plant-based diet, it’s not a big problem to occasionally stray. He also tells his patients to keep things in perspective.

“If you only eat grass three times a day and you exercise 10 hours a day, you’re still going to die one day and you will be miserable to top it off,” he said. “You have to put it in a balance. The whole point is that you are able to do things and be happy.”

If patients don’t want to give up animal sources of food, he recommends that they try something similar to the MIND diet, which emphasizes fish, seafood, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds and healthy oils. Dr. Prieto cautions to avoid red meats and poultry, which are a known cause of inflammation. He also advises people to avoid eating too many of the big fishes like tuna and swordfish because they contain mercury. Additionally, cured meat like bacon and beef jerky are very unhealthy.

A bonus of eating a whole food, plant-based diet is that you will lose weight. That isn’t the point for Dr. Prieto, but he points out that when you eat mostly plants, you can eat a lot more food and still lose weight. Dr. Prieto began eating a whole food, plant-based diet last September and he not only lost weight, but reports that he feels much better.

“I read the evidence and it was so compelling I decided to give it a try,” he said. “I’ll be honest what I miss the most is not necessarily meat. It’s cheese. That was very tough. I had cravings for cheese and sometimes I still have them. If the cravings are bad, I have it, but not often.”

A Plant-Based Sample Menu

Breakfast: Oatmeal with fruit is a good choice for breakfast, but for those who are overweight, Dr. Prieto recommends avoiding bananas, pineapple and watermelon because they are very high in sugar. An alternative is avocado toast made with homemade bread. Homemade bread is minimally processed and contains no preservatives. Toast a slice of it and spread it with mashed avocado and sliced tomatoes for a delicious meal. Or make a little breakfast casserole with diced sweet potatoes, diced tempeh, onions and peppers baked or fried with no or very little oil.

Lunch: A soup made with lentils, chickpeas, red, white or black beans and vegetables is one of Dr. Prieto’s favorite lunches. He also likes green salads and cut up veggies with either hummus or guacamole for a dip.

Dinner: If you don’t eat a legume-based soup for lunch, it’s also a great option for dinner. Dr. Prieto and his wife also eat a lot of stir-fried vegetables with peanuts, almonds or cashews for added protein. They serve it with a bed of greens – spinach, arugula or watercress are favorites.

Dessert: For a “happy ending,” Dr. Prieto recommends grilled peaches or nectarines with crushed nuts or sunflower seeds. For special occasions, he enjoys baked strawberries with dark chocolate sauce.

Note: As of 5/1/2019, Emerald Physicians joined Medical Affiliates of Cape Cod (MACC), a division of primary and specialty care physicians from Cape Cod Healthcare.