Actor Anthony Anderson Takes on Diabetes
Anthony Anderson started out in Hollywood as a self-proclaimed "fat funny guy," appearing alongside Jim Carrey in Me, Myself & Irene, Martin Lawrence in Big Momma's House, and the eponymous marsupial in Kangaroo Jack. There was also a turn on his own short-lived sitcom, All About the Andersons. But offscreen, Anderson's weight was no laughing matter: He was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2002, at the age of 32.
It took a few years, but eventually the baby-faced comedian realized he had to get serious, and so he committed to changing his eating habits and lifestyle. Around the same time, Anderson also made a conscious decision to shift the direction of his career, focusing on darker roles in movies like Hustle & Flow and Martin Scorsese's The Departed, and costarring in television dramas like The Shield and K-Ville.
Anderson is 40 pounds lighter and has just come off a stint as Detective Kevin Bernard on the Emmy-winning Law & Order. An avid golfer, he's also hosting Golf in America on the Golf Channel. But the 40-year-old's latest and greatest role is diabetes advocate: Inspired by his family history of the disease, Anderson recently became a spokesperson for FACE Diabetes, an initiative sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly that focuses on educating and empowering the African American community.
In the midst of filming the slasher satire Scream 4 this summer, Anderson, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children, took time out to talk about why skydiving is excellent motivation for weight loss; whether or not diabetic complications can ever be funny; and how an old African proverb helped inspire his advocacy work.
Tell me about your diagnosis.
I was home in Los Angeles, close to eight years ago now. Out of the blue, I started feeling really lethargic and lazy, taking mid-afternoon naps, which is something I wouldn't just do. I chalked it up to being overworked—I just thought I was running myself ragged. But the turning point was one evening I drank, literally, a 5-gallon jug of water in the course of a couple of hours, and there was constant urination. I knew what the symptoms of diabetes were—my father was a diabetic—and I was like, "Wow, I think I need to go to the doctor and get this checked out." (Actually, my wife said that.) I went the next morning and had elevated glucose levels and he said, "You know"—ding, ding!—"you're a type 2 diabetic."
How did you start managing your condition?
I didn't change dramatically at first. Being a 32-year-old man, stubborn and all that, I was really just stuck in my ways and I thought, "I can beat this. I can handle this." But after a while it wasn't getting better. Now I've really changed my lifestyle. I'm eating differently, and I'm also incorporating exercise. I have a treadmill that was just collecting dust in my house, and I started to run 3 miles a day on it. When I get bored with that, I go outside and run around the golf course.
Recently, I met with Bob Harper from The Biggest Loser, and I said, "Bob, come on, give me a quick fix on how to lose some weight." And he laughed and said, "Anthony, you know there's no quick fix to that." So he said, "I'll give you a tip: If you don't do anything else, just cut your meal portions in half, and watch and see what happens. The weight will fall off of you." I said, "That's an easy fix," and I just cut my meals in half and the weight did come off. This is the first time I've stuck with a regimen. As a result, since January of '09 I've lost close to 40 pounds and have kept it off, and plan on keeping it off.
What was the turning point?
I want to skydive, and one place I called told me you can't weigh more than 235 pounds, because you do it in tandem, with the instructor and all the equipment. And I said, "I weigh 240 pounds. What can I do?" I was laughing over the phone, but, deadpan, the lady on the other end said, "Lose 5 pounds." I was like, "Wow, OK." Now I'm well below 235, and I'm going to jump out of a plane.
In all seriousness, I didn't have a bad episode or anything. But I thought, "If I'm going to have this for any length of time, I want to be on top of it and in control." If anything were to happen—something out of the ordinary with my blood sugar levels or the disease or me—I wanted to be able to say with a clear conscience, "I did the best I could."
Was it difficult to change your lifestyle?
Once I talked to the nutritionists and my doctor, and they said, "Anthony, everything is fine in moderation; you can still eat certain things, you just can't eat as much of them," then it was OK. Once I wrapped my mind around that, I said, "I can have short ribs every now and then, just not every weekend like I was doing over the summer, and not steak every two days like I was doing, but maybe once a month, and fried chicken once a month." I can still satisfy my cravings and urge for that. I just don't feed it like I used to.
What about the other aspects of your diabetes management?
I test my blood sugar every day, an average of three times a day: once in the morning, at midday, and once in the evening before I go to bed. In terms of cutting carbs, it's hard to completely cut them out so I try to cut them down. If I'm going to have a sandwich, I have half—that's only one piece of bread, not two slices. If I have a turkey burger or a grilled chicken sandwich, I take off the top or bottom piece of the bun. If I have pasta, I go whole wheat or multigrain; I don't do white pastas at all.
My blood sugar control—it varies. It all depends on what I'm eating and whatnot. But for the most part it's pretty good. Sometimes in the morning my numbers are a bit elevated, but they typically decrease throughout the day and usually will be within normal parameters. I'm not on insulin; I just take pills. Eventually, I can get off the medication if I continue with the lifestyle, going down the road I am with daily exercise, different food and eating habits, and that's what I'm working towards.
As a comedian with diabetes, do you think it's possible to have a sense of humor about the condition?
[Laughs.] Of course. You find humor in it as you go along. I have a bunch of diabetic friends, and we call this one guy "Nine" because he lost his big toe. When [I explain why we call him that] everybody's mouth drops, but it's not [messed] up—we have to laugh about it. If we don't laugh at these things, we cry, and so we choose to laugh. It's a coping mechanism, because what's the alternative? Nobody wants to walk around being miserable.
How have you adjusted to life as an actor with diabetes?
The illness didn't affect my work. I've never really been stressed on the job at all, just because of my beliefs and how I move in this world. In terms of eating healthy, I just had a conversation with our craft service guy and caterer on Law & Order and previous jobs before that: "This is what I need; I can't eat that. For breakfast I'm going to need mixed berries and an egg white omelet; throughout the day I need half a turkey sandwich on whole wheat or multigrain bread, and lunch is either baked or grilled fish or chicken." For my mini meals in between, snacks, my assistant always had stuff at the ready for me. It's all about preparation.
How did you get involved with FACE Diabetes?
I would watch programs—commercials and advertisements—and read literature on diabetes, and I noticed Wilfred Brimley, B.B. King, Patti LaBelle, and [others] who are diabetics, but nothing really spoke to me as a young African American male. If I were to just look at those advertisements and read that literature, I would have thought that's not my problem—that's an old person's disease. Nothing ever spoke to the youth, or really represented me. So I approached [Eli] Lilly about being a spokesperson for diabetes for that purpose alone, because statistics show that African Americans born today have a 50 percent chance of being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. FACE is an acronym for Fearless African Americans Connected and Empowered, a whole community being put together where we can come together to get information about this disease and to prevent it, to conquer it, or to live with it and not die from it.
What do you think are the unique challenges of being an African American with diabetes?
I think the main challenge is really universal: to live with diabetes and not die from it. But there's definitely been a lack of information, lack of a place or website or anything to go to get this information and to be a part of something [for African Americans]. I can only speak from my own experience—I can't speak for the whole community—but losing my father to this disease, I didn't want my kids to have to go through that, so that was a vow I made to myself and to them. You can live a productive life as a diabetic; it's all about just having the information about the disease and about what it is you can do as an individual.
Tell me more about your dad.
What my father was lacking was really the information and the education about the disease. I tried to impart to him as much as I could with the new things they had out there for diabetics, but my father was content with what he had. He was listening to his doctors, but he really wasn't changing his lifestyle the way he should have. He was a good ol' Southern boy set in his ways: He still liked his pork, his fatback, his collard greens, and ribs and all that, and unfortunately that was a detriment to his health.
My whole thing was trying to get my father as much education about this as possible. That's what I'm doing now with the FACE Diabetes initiative through Lilly—getting as much information and bringing awareness to our community and to our youth, because if we catch it early enough, this can be prevented. There's an old African proverb—"Each one, teach one"—and that's what I'm doing. That's what it's about for me.
And what about your mom?
My mom was just recently diagnosed, within the last year. I'm educating her as much as I can. A lot of people are set in their ways, but my mother knows right from wrong, good from bad. All anyone can do with anyone in that situation is give them the tools and information needed. It's up to them to apply themselves and change their lives.
You started out in the world of comedy, but recently you've been taking on more dramatic roles, both on Law & Order and in films like Hustle & Flow and The Departed. How did that happen?
It was a conscious choice, part of a plan. I had worked with some of the greats in the comedic world—Martin Lawrence, Bernie Mac, Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey, the Farrelly brothers—and I didn't want to be typecast as the fat, funny guy forever. Hollywood can be so myopic—people think if you do comedy, well, I guess that's all you can do. Well, no, there's more to me than that. Drama is something I always wanted to do; I have trained at it since I was 9 years old. I am an actor, not a comedic actor or a dramatic actor, just an actor. I knew I wanted to work to make that change, and to have people see me differently, and I did.
It's interesting that shift happened right around the same time you were changing your lifestyle at home.
It all went hand in hand. I wanted to get healthier, wanted to lose weight, to be smaller, wanted to change my look, change my appearance, and I wanted to do it on my terms. And that did aid in the process of me making a transformation, I will say that. It did help jump-start and was the spark that ignited the flame to push me to become healthier, to lose the weight, and then to make some changes in my career. I mean, I could have been the fat serious guy, but there are not too many fat leading men and I'm going for leading-man status now; that's what it's about. I'm not trying to be skinny—my head is too fat to be skinny!—but I really want to represent for the husky brothers, and be opposite Halle [Berry] as the husky, big-headed brother in the bed with her. That's next!