How the Brooklyn Borough President Turned His Diabetes around by Becoming Vegan
Food is powerful. For those who are on the border of developing a noncommunicable disease like diabetes, or are living with diabetes, food has the ability to change the trajectory of the progression of the disease. The statistics are staggering: according to the American Diabetes Association, 34.2 million Americans are living with diabetes. This means that more than 10% of the nation's population is struggling to manage a condition that in many cases can be modified with diet and lifestyle changes.
One morning after waking up with significant and distressing symptoms, Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams was diagnosed with diabetes. Adams was presented with two prognosis options: take medication and hope to maintain his current quality of life, or skip medication and likely regress further, to expect greater vision loss, amputations and chronic pain. Both options allowed him to live, but at what cost to his quality of life? Throughout his recent book, Healthy at Last, Adams outlines his personal journey, climbing out of the hole of chronic disease to his complete and total health transformation by changing the foods he placed on the tip of his fork.
The power of food was clear to Adams as he searched for the answer for how to improve his quality of life, be independent of medications and reverse his diabetes. A whole-food, plant-based diet was the foundation for his incredible transformation. Plants and lots of them, in their whole and minimally processed form, are at the center of Adams' day to day.
When asked about his journey, Adams said, "I like to say desperation brings us to inspiration, and it's amazing sometimes when you are in a dark place, you make a decision if you're going to be buried or planted. If you're planted, you have to decide what's going to be the fruits of your harvest."
Adams woke up one March morning in 2016, blind. After stumbling to his doctor with severe stomach pain, he was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer and an A1C of 17%. The A1C is a three-month retrospective look at a person's average blood sugar levels. According to the CDC, a result of 6.5% or above is indicative of diabetes. That 17% was a signal that Adams was walking around with dangerously high blood sugars and was at risk for a number of complications.
His doctor prescribed him insulin, to help his body manage the high blood sugars. In addition to the myriad of other medications prescribed, his doctor told him that this isn't uncommon for African Americans to have diabetes and be dependent on medication—and to get used to this new lifestyle. After these harsh words, Adams was inspired, rather than defeated. "I just said you know, wait a minute, this is not my script, I refuse to believe that this is who I am." It was around this time that he came across research from Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D., FACS, who is known and respected for his work treating heart disease with the prescription of a whole-food, plant-based diet. The outcomes were nothing short of extraordinary.
Related: How to Start a Plant-Based Diet
Plants are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients that confer so many benefits on the body. Across the nation, Black and brown people experience disproportionate disease burden and limited access to safe, affordable nutritious foods. Studies tell us that Black neighborhoods experience disparities in terms of access to affordable healthy foods. Articles have examined how fast-food chains supersized inequality by bringing ultra-processed pro-inflammatory foods to the doorsteps of the most marginalized communities.
Adams explains that these systemic inequities are further complicated by the reality for many people living in Black and brown communities, that their current food practices are rooted in heritage. He notes the cultural roots of soul food, dating back hundreds of years to when his enslaved ancestors turned the leftover, most undesirable parts of animals into edible and energy-yielding meals. Even though these staple eating patterns have been carried on for hundreds of years, Adams argues that we are not honoring our heritage by choosing to eat foods that are making us sicker. The fast and processed food versions of today are a subpar distant version of the heritage foods consumed years ago. Today's options are pumped with added sugars, refined grains, added salts and synthetic fats, all of which can increase the risk of poor health outcomes.
Adams' book, Healthy at Last, leads readers through personal anecdotes of his own, as well as from members of his community who chose to embrace the whole-food, plant-based approach. Not only has Adams lowered his A1C to less than 6% and reversed his diabetes, many of his family members and loved ones, friends and co-workers have made meaningful and impactful changes to modify the trajectory of their own chronic conditions. In addition to the personal anecdotes, he includes evidence-based research and recommendations in an effort to present the reader with indisputable evidence of the benefits of plant-based eating.
Adams eloquently discusses the origins of our favorite soul foods and shares the truth that for Black and brown communities honoring our heritage means honoring our health. And the Standard American Diet (SAD) of fast and processed foods does not do this for us. Finally, Adams equips his readers with the practices necessary to take their own health into their hands, and to not rely on the Band-Aid that is modern pharmaceuticals. With over 50 plant-based recipes included, there is no question about what he implores readers to do. Adams emphatically shares, "I'm hoping that the book receives you when you are ready to be receptive. It will be there."
Adams leaves us with three main pieces of advice, especially valuable for those touched by chronic illness and disease:
- Become knowledgeable about what you are eating. This means educating yourself about your condition and the diet and lifestyle modifications you can make to support optimal health outcomes.
- Lean into alternatives. We all have flavors and tastes that are our favorites. Adams says to look for the taste that you want. There is no one way to be healthy, and cultural foodways can and should include a variety of foods, textures and flavors. Adams shares that his three-ingredient ice cream is the best—frozen banana, peanut butter, cacao powder—and you can't tell him it's not Häagen-Dazs! (Sounds like he would love these dairy-free "nice" creams made with frozen fruit.)
- Don't go it alone. "Surround yourself with people who are going to support you and not destroy you" as you learn and solidify new health-related behaviors, says Adams. He further explains, "This is a moment of redefining our circles. It's really evolving at your pace but at a steady pace."
Adams reminds us that at the center of this conversation are members of BIPOC communities who routinely experience limited access to quality health care and affordable and nutritious foods. He says, "The cards are stacked against us." Adams is at the forefront of addressing and challenging the broken systems and institutionalized inequities that have brought so many Black and brown people to the brink and over in terms of health. As we move into the coming months, he reminds us: "Nothing impacts us more than health and nothing destroys health more than unhealthy food. So this is our moment." He believes that his legacy is going to allow people in the city in general, but specifically Black and brown people, to stay healthy at last.