Type 2 diabetes is a complex disease that develops over years, if not decades. As it develops, it doesn’t always present obvious symptoms—in the beginning at least. Some people catch their disease during the prediabetes stage, and they might be able to make lifestyle changes to prevent diabetes from progressing.
By the time Eric Adams—the Brooklyn Borough President of New York City—was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, he was already experiencing some severe complications of diabetes. “I was experiencing some symptoms that I didn’t realize was associated with diabetes,” says Adams. “I was experiencing loss of vision in my left eye. I was experiencing tingling in my hands and feet.”
The doctor told Adams he was in a serious stage of type 2 diabetes, something his family and community were already familiar with. “What I found fascinating was how much I normalized the term diabetes,” says Adams. “My mother experienced diabetes for 15 years. She was on insulin for seven years.”
Why Diabetes Seemed Normal
Although type 2 diabetes is a serious health condition that affects quality of life and increases your risk of other conditions, such as heart disease, Adams thought it was a normal part of getting older—especially as an African American. Adams considered diabetes part of the “black experience,” saying, “We were ‘supposed’ to get diabetes.”
African Americans are 1.7 times more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than white Americans, according to the American Diabetes Association. This disparity stems from a number of factors. The “easy” answer is that African Americans tend to have more risk factors of type 2 diabetes compared to white Americans, such as high body mass index and blood pressure.
However, the more troubling answer is that diabetes risk factors may be a social justice issue. For example, U.S. counties that have a majority African American population are more likely to have high rates of food insecurity—a state of not having consistent access to nutritious meals—according to Feeding America.
African Americans also experience higher rates of unemployment, lower rates of home ownership, and lower rates of health insurance coverage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They are also more likely to smoke—a habit that research repeatedly links to chronic stress. All of these factors can inhibit healthy lifestyle habits or access to appropriate health care.
De-Normalizing Type 2 Diabetes
Adams realized type 2 diabetes didn’t have to be his fate. “I say over and over again, it had nothing to do with my DNA,” he says. “It was my dinner. That was the cause. It was the food that I was eating.”
After his diagnosis, Adams searched “reversing diabetes” online. “All of this information came up. It was in plain sight, and the only thing that continued to be revealed was food,” recalls Adams. “It was the food.”
Adams went on to make what he called “a complete transition” to a whole-food, plant-based diet. This diet embraces fresh produce, whole grains, and proteins that don’t come from animals (such as beans and soy products). It also emphasizes consuming minimally processed foods, and limiting added sugars, sodium, and oil.
“I had to clean out my cupboards and start to stock it with food that was healthy,” says Adams. The effort paid off: “Three weeks after changing my diet to a whole-food, plant-based diet, my vision cleared up. My blood pressure normalized. The ‘permanent’ nerve damage in my hands and feet went away. The sores in my stomach went away. It just was a complete change.”
Of course, Adams recognizes not everyone has the same opportunity to overhaul their lifestyle habits. That’s why one of his top initiatives in Brooklyn is to improve health literacy and increase systemic access to health care, healthy food, and health information. Learn more about how Eric Adams advocates for healthy lifestyles in Brooklyn here.