When Dre, the character played by Anthony Anderson on the ABC comedy black•ish, was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in season four, he didn’t take it seriously.
Neither, when he faced the same situation, did Anderson.
The actor’s real-life experience inspired the sitcom’s storyline, in which Dre initially refused to change his eating and exercise habits. Just like Anderson. “Old habits are hard to break,” the Emmy-nominated star said. “After my diagnosis, the doctor said everything looked good with my numbers, so I kept eating the same things.” But also like Dre, Anderson eventually realized he had to make changes.
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While Dre experiences an It’s a Wonderful Life moment where he realizes his wife and kids are more important than that extra helping, Anderson’s realization was tied to a devastating loss about 10 years ago. His stepfather, who raised Anderson alongside his mother and whom Anderson refers to as his dad, died from a pulmonary embolism linked to diabetes. While Anderson had already been diagnosed for a few years, his father’s passing sparked major changes in the actor’s life.
“My father’s quality of life suffered greatly at the end due to complications from diabetes,” Anderson said. “He had leaking holes in the back of his calves and swollen extremities from the knees down. He was in excruciating pain, and I witnessed that. I didn’t want that for myself or my family.”
Anderson lost 50 pounds and cut most meat and meat products out of his diet. “I’m pretty determined, once I put my mind to it,” he said. “When I went vegan, I got rid of everything in the cabinets. I stayed vegan for six months, and I didn’t miss anything, but it didn’t have much of an impact on the disease, unfortunately. I looked and felt great, but my blood sugar was all over the place.” After eight years of only taking oral diabetes medication, he began taking insulin. It worked. “Looking back, it’s like, ‘No, taking insulin isn’t a death sentence.’ It helps you live a healthier life,” said Anderson.
He’s since focused on a sensible diet and exercise, and he developed a new passion: Informing what he refers to as his community, African-American women and especially men, about the disease and encouraging them to see a doctor. He said black men in particular often avoid visiting a physician, and he’s seen up close the toll that can take.
“Like most men, my dad never went to the doctor, never went to get his regular checkup,” Anderson said. “Going back as a child, a young teen, I look at my father and what he was going through, he was probably diabetic for 20 years without getting diagnosed.”
Anderson has gone from feeling uncomfortable taking insulin to discussing diabetes openly on television — he’s an executive producer on black•ish and asked the writers to give Dre the disease to open a dialogue about African-American health. His hope with the episode, and with his own diagnosis, is to show others that “I have a disease, not a death sentence.”
Anderson has sought out ways to engage with his community and encourage people to address their health. “My mother was diagnosed with diabetes after me. I have friends who’ve had to have toes amputated,” he said. “The fact is, it’s beyond an epidemic; it’s more like a pandemic in our community.”
African-Americans are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes as non-Hispanic whites. When Anderson speaks at events, he encourages black men to see a doctor. He was diagnosed after making an emergency visit to his doc, after he drank 5 gallons of water in a two-and-a-half-hour period and still felt parched.
The onetime Law & Order star visited the physician the next morning, and the office ran some tests. Anderson, who at first chalked up the health scare to stress over tackling his first TV project, got a call from the doctor’s office on his way back home — his blood sugar was around 240. He had type 2 diabetes. He suspects many others have experienced similar episodes but didn’t follow up with the doctor.
“I speak to the black community about the importance of going to a doctor and getting a biyearly checkup,” he said. He compares preventative care to owning a car. “People take their cars in to have their oil changed every 3,000 miles so they don’t die on us in the middle of the highway,” Anderson tells his audiences. “So why not take that same attitude about your life? Why not get your dipstick checked so you don’t die in the middle of the road?”
He has connected with many who, he said, visit a doctor after hearing his testimony. And he’s widened his platform to reach people nationwide.
A couple years ago, Anderson reached out to Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical company that sells insulin, about forming a partnership. Together, they launched the campaign Get Real About Diabetes, through which Anderson, a paid spokesperson, documents his life with diabetes, sharing personal stories, recipes and exercise tips. Novo Nordisk also sponsored the black•ish episode in which Dre receives his diabetes diagnosis. Since then, the disease has become just another facet of Dre’s character on the show — a welcome reassurance for those worried about stigma attached to diabetes.
During a break from promoting his show for local ABC stations, Anderson spoke to Diabetes Self-Management about how he manages his diabetes on the black•ish set, his family’s role in his diabetes self-care, and why he began taking insulin.
DSM: How do you handle your diabetes on the set of black•ish?
Anderson: I prepare for it. I take my medicine in the morning. I wake up, give myself a shot of insulin. It’s full-acting, so it lasts throughout the day and evening, and that’s how I deal with it on set.
DSM: How do you get your family involved in living healthier?
Anderson: My family is all healthy. I’m the sloth. My daughter’s vegan, my wife’s vegetarian, my son’s a young athlete — they’ve always been athletic, I’ve always been the one out of shape and overweight, and they’ve inspired me.
DSM: How would you describe your general approach to eating and exercise?
Anderson: My approach to a healthier lifestyle is I want to do it so I’m able to spend as much time and as many years as I possibly can continuing to bring joy and laughter on the big and small screen. That is why I have the approach I do. I want to be around and live a healthy life, and to be an inspiration to other people who have the disease.
DSM: You have mentioned once feeling uncomfortable about taking insulin shots. How do we work toward a point when people won’t feel that way about diabetes?
Anderson: The thing is, you always think you can do it on your own. I was getting worse over time, and my endocrinologist wanted me to take insulin. I said, “No, hold on, wait a minute, let me see if I can handle it myself, give me one more month.”
He said, “One more month isn’t going to help you.” So I started insulin, and it’s helped me live a healthier life. It’s only there to help me. I have to continue to do my part — exercising, eating healthier foods and not being a glutton.
DSM: You famously lost 50 pounds after your diagnosis. How did you manage to maintain the discipline to do that? As so many people know, it is not easy to lose weight.
Anderson: Losing weight was actually kind of the easy part. Unfortunately, it was kind of disheartening. I lost 50 pounds, but I wasn’t just fine, I still had diabetes.
DSM: Did you give a lot of thought to your health before you were diagnosed with diabetes?
Anderson: No. That’s probably why I’d become diabetic. I never really gave much thought to it, I always thought I was healthy even though I was unhealthy in terms of weight.
(Main image: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com)