About 10 years ago, internist Dr. Dona Cooper realized she could do more for her patients.
Those suffering from diabetes, elevated cholesterol or heart disease would continue to have complications, despite being prescribed “the best drugs for chronic diseases,” she said. “They’d continue to have renal failure, poor circulation or they come into the office with high blood sugar.”
She cited studies which blame food as the most important risk factor for chronic diseases. A long-time vegetarian, Cooper experimented on herself and adopted a plant-based diet, which she credited for helping her lose 25 pounds and improved her blood pressure.
“I realized that we’re not actually treating the cause of the problem,” she said. “This is what I needed as the number one therapeutic approach in assisting them to experience better health.”
Within the Copper Wellness Center is a room to educate people about nutrition. It is a small gym and a teaching kitchen, where patients learn about reading nutritional labels, portion control and how to substitute unhealthy foods for healthier alternatives.
Because of the popularity and impact of their meal prep program, Cooper expanded their culinary services to a restaurant open to the community, she said.
Foodamed opened last December and boasts a vegan menu that’s a “fusion of international cuisine,” Cooper said.
“Many times, people believe that vegetarian or vegan meals are bland or without taste,” said the restaurant’s manager Rolando Flores. “It’s very important that the meals have the spices and textures that will remind a meat eater that they’re possibly consuming meat when indeed they’re consuming something plant-based.”
The restaurant uses the lessons Cooper uses in her clinic. For dairy, instead of using whole milk, she recommends using soy, nut or coconut milks. Instead of red meat, they use substitutes like nuts, grains, beans, tofu. They don’t use sugar, but sweeten with agave or dry fruits.
“The difference between us and other places is that we’re offering you food that is beneficial to your health,” Flores said. “We offer a lifestyle change.”
Most of the customers coming into the 10th Street spot have heard about it through word of mouth, he said. They’re friends of friends who learned about their in-house juices, meal plans or diverse vegan menu.
Flores said he’s worked in restaurants all his life, and Foodamed is a very different kitchen. Along with no animal products or processed sugars, there is no fryer or microwave. Also, most of the ingredients are pur-chased for that day.
Popular items like pancit consist of tofu and mixed veggies in mushroom sauce, and the jalapeno burger is a patent-pending, soy-blend pattie.
Flores admitted he didn’t know much about veganism before getting the job. He didn’t know what to think about dishes like mock tuna, which is made from garbanzo beans, celery, onions and more. He said he couldn’t tell it apparent from actual tuna.
Things like in-house vegan cheese, made from cashews, potatoes, carrots and spices, taste like their less-healthy counterpart, he said.
Flores is working his way through the menu, he said, and recently tried the enchiladas.
He said they tasted identical to what you’d order at a Mexican restaurant.
“The only difference is that you’re not putting a bunch of junk in your body,” he said.
Some things on the menu have a patent pending. Cooper hopes to have these in stores one day, and a lot of the dishes originate from her cookbook.
In addition to her books, Cooper films a health TV show out of her office that is broadcast on more than 200 stations, she said.
To her, offering more paths to expose people to healthy choices is part of her “passion,” she said, “as impacting the world in such a way that being a doctor prescribing drugs can not even come close to.”
Cooper said more than 80% of the Type 2 diabetics she sees could use healthy lifestyle to reverse or treat their disease. With about a third of Americans who are prediabetic, diabetic, or diabetic and not diagnosed, she predicted healthcare costs could drop if the prevention was the priority in medicine.
She said the pharmaceutical lobby, “Big Pharma,” profits on status quo of the health industry.
“It’s very difficult fighting them, so you fight them through educating the patient,” she said. “We need to get to the patients’ thought — the mind — so that the patient knows they have their health in their hands.
“That is how we can make significant change, not just giving a pill here or there but telling them why they have the disease, what’s the cause of the disease and how to fix the disease from the inside out.”
She predicted the hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley will soon prioritize the use of food to treat patients.