Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams still remembers the terror he felt when he woke up four years ago and couldn’t see well enough to make out the outline of his alarm clock. He stumbled to his mirror and noticed that his right eye was bloodshot and he couldn’t see out of his left eye at all. A visit to his doctor revealed that his trouble seeing stemmed from undiagnosed type 2 diabetes, a condition associated with eye problems ranging from blurry vision to glaucoma.
The diagnosis didn’t entirely surprise the then-56-year-old. His mother has diabetes, and, as an African American, he knew that his racial group disproportionately suffers from the condition. But when his doctor told him that he would be living with diabetes for the rest of his life, Adams set out to reverse his diagnosis—and he succeeded over the course of the next few months. He cut out fast food and high-fat soul food to switch to a plant-based diet and has maintained his healthier lifestyle in the years since.
Today, he’s 35 pounds lighter, has restored his eyesight, and has blood sugar levels that put him safely out of the diabetes range. In his new book, Healthy at Last: A Plant-Based Approach to Preventing and Reversing Diabetes and Other Chronic Illnesses, which debuts October 13, Adams recounts how he made the lifestyle shifts necessary to restore his health and offers advice to readers about how they can follow suit.
Although Healthy at Last includes nutrition tips, recipes, and details about Adams’ life, it is far more than a diet guide, cookbook, or memoir. The book cites research comparing the American diet (and related illnesses) to the diets of countries in Africa and Asia. It addresses the realities of living in food swamps—neighborhoods overrun with businesses selling mostly highly processed foods and fast food. It also examines how in West Africa, leafy green vegetables, legumes, and tubers were the primary ingredients of what is known today as soul food. After slavery, however, African Americans increasingly prepared these foods with animal fats, sodium, and sugar—leading to health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Civil Eats spoke with Adams about his journey to health and the barriers to wellness that his readers, especially those in low-income areas or communities of color, bear the burden of overcoming.
Let’s start at the beginning of your journey. How was your health in 2016?
I was on the traditional American diet, where meat was the center of my diet. I really ate whatever I saw or what tasted good, and for the most part, that was food fried, processed, and filled with sugar, oil, and fat. [In addition to the eye problems] I was experiencing tingling in my hands and feet. I later learned that it was neuropathic nerve damage that can lead to amputation.
And you had no idea that you had diabetes?
The signs of [diabetes] had been there, and I was dismissing them as part of getting older, but the vision loss was just happening so rapidly. At that point, I went to see several doctors and I was told I was going to have to be on insulin for the rest of my life. That just didn’t sit well with me. Every doctor had given me pamphlets about living with diabetes, so I went to my computer and changed one word. Instead of living with diabetes, I searched for “reversing diabetes,” and that sent me down a different path.
What made you try to reverse this medical condition rather than just accept the diagnosis that tens of thousands of Black people get each year?
There was a brief moment where I said to myself, “Well, Eric, you knew this was coming. Your mother is diabetic, and your other family members are experiencing similar issues. You knew this was something that you were going to face.”
But they say there’s always a voice inside you that says something different, and often times, we ignore that voice. This time I listened to that voice, and it told me to go further. I went to see a doctor in Ohio and, for the first time, I heard someone, outside of the internet searches that I was doing, talk about a plant-based diet. That inspired me, and after embracing a plant-based diet, I returned to the doctor three months later, and my diabetes had gone into remission.
You routinely patronized KFC, Pizza Hut, and the omnipresent food carts on the streets of New York City. How did you wean yourself off those foods, which some researchers say contain addictive chemicals?
I felt like I was going through withdrawal. There was this sweating, this uncertainty, this high degree of wanting to taste those foods again. It took a week or two before that started to change. And I remember going from “why me?” to “why not me?”—and I turned my attention from what I couldn’t eat to what I could.
You discuss the need for a good support system while transitioning to a healthier life, but some people may not have that support. What’s your advice for them?
That is so important. The most you can do is have a real conversation with your loved ones and explain what you’re going through. Give them information so they can see the science [behind plant-based eating] because it’s unfortunate that we have embraced sick care as health care. Then, explain the support you need.
You cite research comparing the diet and health of people in countries such as China and South Africa to those in the U.S., pointing out that they don’t suffer from cardiovascular disease and other conditions at the same rates. Did this data surprise you?
It really was shocking. Here, we have the highest standard of living and, they say, the best medical care, but there’s no benefit of living to be 100 if we’re on respirators or dialysis. That is part of why it’s so important to look at what other countries are doing.
And then there’s a common thread that is happening throughout the entire globe, and that’s wherever the American diet goes, people go from being healthy to being ill, and that’s consistent.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the brokenness of the food system and the health divides that separate those most vulnerable to the virus from the rest of America. Are you hopeful that this pandemic results in change for the better?
Diabetes, heart disease, and other preexisting conditions account for most of the hospitalizations, and they happen in poor communities where people have poor access to food. So, it’s almost a continuation, a pipeline, to not only poor health habits but death rates. That’s why it’s imperative that we find an approach to dealing with the pandemic amidst chronic diseases that includes both intervention and prevention. After someone has it, how do we address it? And then we must have a very active prevention method to prevent people from getting [COVID-19] because it is not sustainable to continue to move in this fashion.
Since you live in a food swamp, I wanted to hear your tips for other people who live in similar environments. How can they change their habits in neighborhoods like yours?
I wanted to show people how to look at what we have available to us in local markets. There’s a lot of healthy food in front of us, but it is being hidden between the rows of bad food.
They’re as simple as dried beans and dried lentils. You can eat in a cheap way, but in a healthy way. We need to ensure that people in the inner cities have the access [to healthful foods]. There are some great programs; in the Bronx we have the Green Bronx Machine. They have been growing food in the classroom and teaching students nutritional-based education.
You can go [shopping] right in your own neighborhood and just start in a very inexpensive way to turn your life around.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Top photo credit: Erica Sherman, Brooklyn Borough President’s Office.