HYANNIS – The 10-week FLAVORx study measuring the impact of a whole food, plant-based diet on health, has now concluded and medical director Kumara Sidhartha, MD, MPH of Emerald Physicians is immersed in analyzing and documenting the statistical results.
But for at least one participant, the results are already crystal clear.
“It has been inspirational and transformative,” said Max Makowski of Dennis. “My cholesterol is now in the safe zone. My triglycerides have fallen dramatically. I am losing lots of weight. I have walked nearly two miles with my daughter, picking her up for half the way. I now walk my dog a mile and a half daily.”
For Makowski, the journey to a new way of eating and diet has been a long one, marked by health early in life and then a series of injuries and accidents.
In his teens and 20s, he loved to wind surf. But, over the years, his passion took a toll on his health. A succession of head and back injuries led to chronic, often debilitating pain. Doctors prescribed medications to relieve his suffering, but that only led to a dangerous over-reliance on medications like Oxycontin and Oxycodone.
Worse still, Makowski, once so athletic and conditioned, slowly, steadily gained weight, lost stamina and strength. Food became a crutch.
“I could barely put my socks on standing up. It was an aerobics exercise unto itself,” recalled Makowski, now in his mid-40s. “I couldn’t do regular errands without getting exhausted. I couldn’t even bend down to pick up my daughter to play with her. I listened to myself grunting. It was so demoralizing to hear yourself behaving like a person you didn’t want to be.”
For someone who grew up traveling the world – first with his family as a child and later as a film maker and script writer – Makowski’s world continued to shrink as his body failed him. The pain led to inactivity and inertia, the confidence fading to resignation.
Several years ago, Makowski, who once worked from Hollywood to Peru, Hong Kong and Spain, returned to his family’s home on 33 acres of conservation land in Dennis. What was planned as a short visit extended when his father died and he stayed to help his mother.
Then and there, he suffered yet another devastating setback. A can of gasoline accidentally ignited, engulfing him in flames while he was alone outside. He had the presence of mind to roll on the ground, and make a 911 call.
“I basically blew myself up,” he recalled. Dennis paramedics rushed him to a medical helicopter that flew him to Boston where he remained in ICU for more than a month undergoing surgery and skin grafts.
Today, fortunately, Makowski has few visible scars from the ordeal. “Just enough to impress the ladies,” he jokes. But 18 months of recovery, which added to his preexisting pain, left him heavier and more out of condition than ever before.
“It seemed like my body was outside of myself and I was always wearing this fat suit. I felt 10 years old than my age. I was 47 pounds overweight. My good cholesterol was too low, my bad cholesterol was borderline bad. My triglycerides were off the chart. My liver function was in jeopardy and I was in danger of a future heart attack or stroke,” recalled Makowski.
Not a good place to be.
Then, his life took two turns in the right direction.
After years of futilely seeking medical help for his pain, and dangerously close to addiction, Makowski discovered a physical therapist who in his word “miraculously” relieved his back pain. That in turn has allowed him to wean off of the medications.
Then, he received a notice from Emerald Physicians, where he is a patient. It was an invitation to be one of 18 people to participate in a randomized controlled research study funded by Cape Cod Healthcare called FLAVORx – led by Dr. Sidhartha. The program partnered with Sustainable CAPE, based in Truro, to link up with the Orleans Farmers’ Market.
After being randomly assigned to the treatment group, Makowski, for 10 weeks, was given access to more fresh fruits and vegetables. He attended cooking classes led by a certified nutritionist on how to cook vegetables, legumes for protein and whole grains and he purchased all of his food at the Orleans Farmers’ Market.
The goal of the study was to measurably prove that a prescription of fresh fruits and vegetables to increase access to fresh vegetables and fruit can in turn improve patients’ health. It included measurements of blood pressure, body weight, waist circumference, blood glucose and cholesterol levels.
A longtime advocate of the whole food, plant-based dietary treatment, Dr. Sidhartha has watched patients of his drop blood sugar levels from 417 to a more desirable reading of 100, without insulin or medications. He has seen an elderly patient with heart disease shift from having chronic heart pain after taking five steps to being pain-free after miles of walking.
With the introduction of FLAVORx, Dr. Sidhartha could more comprehensively measure impacts of the diet on people’s health.
Makowski said he is amazed by the results of the program. Even a case of psoriasis has abated since the diet began, he said.
“Suddenly, this cloud over me has lifted. I am eating for health now, not as an escape or to dampen my emotions.”
Much of what Makowski encountered over the 10 weeks – the cooking classes and shopping – was not a total revelation. He had grown up exposed to fresh produce in many of the countries he lived in.
“I was eating quinoa as a kid in Peru,” he recalled.
What was a revelation was the 10-week experience itself. The camaraderie among not only the other patients, but also the nutritionist, Nicole Cormier, and the farmers at the market.
“We were not viewed as guinea pigs. Instead, everyone was so supportive and interested in the process and outcome,” said Makowski.
Best of all, he views FLAVORx as a life-changing experience.
“This is not something temporary for me. This is the way I want to eat and lead my life going forward,” he said. “I stopped eating meat for two months and I didn’t miss it. I discovered the little marvels that come from that extra bit of ginger or garlic to spice up a dish.
“Best of all, I continue to lose weight, and I am now off all my pain medications.”
For him, this is the “new normal,” and farmers’ markets will be a staple in his life.
“Practically speaking, I learned that eating well doesn’t have to cost more,” noted Makowski. “I am so much more aware of what I am buying now. And unlike so much fast and processed food, there’s no waste. I can always cook it up differently tomorrow.
“I haven’t felt this good in 20 years,” he said, as he headed to the gym, where he just became a new member.