Within the first five minutes of our interview, Charles Mattocks tells me he sees himself as “the Malcom X or the Mahatma Gandhi of diabetes.”
“Diabetes needs a shot in the arm,” he says fiercely. “It’s a pandemic.”
The numbers are there to support him: Twenty-nine million people in the United States have diabetes, up from 26 million since 2010. It’s a leading cause of blindness and amputations and is the seventh leading cause of death in America, according to the American Diabetes Association.
So Mattocks has made it his life’s mission to provide that shot in the arm, and he’s doing it in some very unconventional ways. Over the course of his lifetime, he’s been a celebrity chef, an entrepreneur, a documentary filmmaker, a TV producer, a children’s book author, an Emmy-nominated actor, and a motivational speaker. And Mattocks is just getting started.
“Scared to death”
Before he became an advocate for diabetes education and awareness, Mattocks was no stranger to the spotlight. He’s the nephew of the late reggae singer Bob Marley and had a short but successful career as an actor, earning an Emmy nomination for the title role in the film The Summer of Ben Tyler.
Inspired by his struggle to create affordable yet nutritious meals for his son, the single dad became known as The Poor Chef, specializing in easy, healthy meals on a dime. He became a regular on national media outlets and penned his first cookbook, Eat Cheap But Eat Well.
Then, in 2011, he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes at age 38. Mattocks’ entire world view changed.
“I was scared to death,” he confesses.
Frustrated, he left the doctor’s office with more questions than answers. “I had to Google, ‘What can I eat? What can I drink?’”
But as Mattocks learned more about his condition, he was shocked at just how little the general population knew about it.
In an attempt to spread awareness, he decided to chronicle his own quest for answers about the disease. What began as a short film imagined for local television bloomed into a full-length feature documentary, The Diabetic You. The film took three years to shoot, and Mattocks says he’s still tinkering with it, planning to add footage from a recent Bahrain conference on diabetes at which he was a guest speaker. The film is projected to be released in late 2016.
The documentary was just the beginning. Since his diagnosis, he’s been a TEDx speaker, developed several diabetes cookbooks, and was named a dLife Champion in 2015 and a Diabetes Federation Blue Circle Champion in 2014. He’s created the Charles Bar, a low-glycemic chocolate snack bar designed to be a wholesome snack option for diabetics.
And a new show, scheduled to air throughout the Caribbean and North America, takes Mattocks into the homes and kitchens of sports and entertainment stars in the Caribbean. Based in Jamaica and filmed on different islands, Conversations in the Kitchen interviews these individuals as they prepare healthy meals.
He also co-wrote a children’s book, Diabetes and Healthy Eating, designed to be “a book that kids can relate to and understand.”
“At 38, I had no idea about diabetes,” Mattocks says. “When we’re young, we never think anything is going to happen to us. We never think we’re going to get sick.”
Mattocks speaks in schools and believes students should have a minimum of one 30–40 minute presentation on diabetes and healthy eating a year. “They need this. Bad,” he says.
Reaching the masses
Going to schools isn’t the only way Mattocks is getting his message out. In 2013, he launched a national RV diabetes testing tour in partnership with pharmaceutical company Shire. The RV bus was staffed with diabetes educators and medical professionals who offered free blood tests, foot checks and information on living with the disease. Mattocks also gave cooking demonstrations and shared healthy recipes. (Give Mattocks’ Avocado Summer Soup, Fiesta Fish Tacos, and Bountiful Harvest Vegetable Salad a try.)
Being on the tour and helping educate people with Type 2 diabetes, Mattocks saw firsthand just how little people understood about a condition some had lived with for years. But he was frustrated at how his message was limited to just the hundreds of people who came to each stop on the tour. He needed a way to reach the masses. And where do you reach people? “In front of their TVs,” he says.
Thus was inspired Reversed, the first reality show about people with diabetes. Mattocks invited seven contestants living with diabetes to his home and locked them in — sans phones, sans snacks — with doctors, nutritionists, personal trainers, and therapists determined to help the contestants reverse their unhealthy habits. With any luck, viewers will be inspired to change their habits too. (The show has not yet been picked up by a network, but Mattocks is actively looking for a buyer.)
From cookbooks to documentaries to boots-on-the-ground outreach, Mattocks is trying his hardest to educate people with diabetes about their condition. And there’s still work to be done, he says.
He’s currently wrapping up a short documentary on Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS), and after that, it’s back to work on a national diabetes campaign, possibly with another RV tour.
“I still think the RV or the bus is something that needs to be out there, so I’d love to get that back out on the road,” he says.
Before I let Mattocks return to his world of constant emails and phone calls with the team he relies on to keep all his projects in line and on schedule, I ask him if there’s anything he wants to tell our readers, the ones living with the same condition he’s fighting for. He thinks for a moment, and then he says, with the deep-seated conviction and fire of a revolutionary:
“I want to say that food is a drug. It can be used for good and for bad. I think that people really need to understand that….You have only one body, and you really need to almost look at everything that goes into your mouth and understand what it can do to you. And is it worth it? Food needs to be taken really seriously, because it can help you or harm you.”
He promises to send mindful, healthy recipes. Then I hear a car door opening, and he’s off again, planning his next move.