Sherri Shepherd on Diabetes and Weight Loss
How the actress lost 30 pounds and met her diabetes goals
Sherri Shepherd thought it was a joke. A line of swimwear called Swimsuits for All wanted to feature her in an ad campaign that involved running on a beach alongside Sports Illustrated swimsuit models Tara Lynn and Ashley Graham. The stand-up comic, actress, and former cohost of The View, who has built a career on making people laugh, found the idea, well, laughable.
“I’ve got big boobs, no hips, no butt,” says Shepherd, 52. “I’m knock-kneed, and I’ve got stretch marks from having my son.” And although the offer came on the heels of a 30-pound weight loss, she couldn’t quite see herself posing in revealing one-pieces with women who make a living doing that sort of thing. But on a sunny day in Anguilla last year, that’s exactly what she did.
“My mantra in life is always ‘run toward the thing that you fear,’ ” says Shepherd. “Once I got over the [shock] that they were actually talking about Sherri Shepherd and not another actress, I said, ‘Absolutely!’ They knew who they were getting. They asked for me, not a size 2.”
For a woman who had spent years struggling with her weight and relying on a collection of girdles to get dressed every day, the whole experience was a little surreal. “It used to take me hours in the closet trying to find something that looked like I had casually put it together, something that covered up my arms, covered up my stomach,” she says. “It was hard trying to hide behind the smile and be really, really funny so maybe no one would notice the other stuff.”
It took the birth of her son, two divorces, at least that many professional setbacks, and, ultimately, a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes to get to that photo shoot in Anguilla. “When I was first diagnosed with diabetes, the people at church told me they were praying [for God] to take it away,” she says. “I said, ‘Don’t take it away!’ Diabetes has been a blessing, not a burden.”
(Re)committing to Change
Shepherd was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2007, days before she began what would be a seven-year stint as cohost of ABC’s daytime talk show The View. Her diagnosis was the nudge she needed to begin taking charge of her health. “I began looking at what I put in my mouth,” she says. “I quit eating the white foods: pasta, cereal, rice, sugar.” A year later, the results were undeniable. She went from a size 16 to size 4; and, less obvious to the viewers watching every day, her blood glucose went down and she was able to stop taking metformin.
Two years ago, however, Shepherd found her A1C creeping back up, along with the numbers on the scale. She had recently moved from New York to Los Angeles with her then 13-year-old son, Jeffrey, and was in the middle of a complicated divorce that was playing itself out in the tabloids. “I was going through a really stressful time, and old habits kicked in,” says Shepherd. “I started numbing myself with sugar again.”
Sweets had always been her go-to pain reliever. Her mother’s homemade peach cobbler and pineapple upside-down cake helped her get over childhood scraped knees. Years later, a stash of chocolate treated grown-up stresses. But that changed in 2018.
“I was in the car eating a candy bar, and my son said to me with urgency in his voice, ‘Mommy, if you die, who’s going to be my bodyguard?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I was irritable because that’s what sugar does after the high goes away. He said, ‘If you die, who’s going to take care of me?’
“That’s when it kicked in for me,” she says. “My son was born at 5½ months weighing 1 pound, 10 ounces, and he has unique challenges. I thought, ‘If I’m not here, who’s going to take care of him?’ ”
In that instant, she recommitted to her health, swearing off sugar and adopting a ketogenic diet (an ultra-low-carb, high-fat way of eating). To stay on track, she avoided dining out for the first 30 days (“Eating is such a social thing,” she says) and chronicled how she felt and what she ate in a journal.
She also got serious about exercise, working out regularly with a trainer and—to keep from getting bored—salsa dancing, kickboxing, even jumping on the trampoline she bought for Jeffrey.
Getting started “was brutal,”she admits. And overcoming insecurities took some time. “I go to a gym with a lot of beautiful people, but I don’t look at them. The only person I look at is me,” she says. “I realized something about all those beautiful people: When they see how committed you are, they high-five you.”
Something she never anticipated happened, too. Doors that had long been locked were suddenly opening. “Because I stopped eating sugar, I had more energy and focus, and my creativity went through the roof,” she says. “Opportunities just started coming to me.” She’s talking about her first dramatic role, in the 2019 film Brian Banks, her starring role in the Netflix series Mr. Iglesias, and being cohost of Best Ever Trivia Show. She’s also a spokesperson for HealthyWage, a wellness program that uses financial incentives to help people reach their weight-loss goals.
“Whenever I want to go back to eating the way I used to, I think about why I got off sugar,” she says. “You have to remember the why. And it’s got to be stronger than wanting to fit into size 6 jeans. That’s not strong enough. My son is my why.”
All in the Family
Growing up, Shepherd got an up-close look at what can happen when you have type 2 diabetes but live as though you don’t. The disease runs in her family, but she never worried about getting it herself, mostly because she “didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” she says. “It had a cute name—we called it ‘the sugar,’ not ‘diabetes.’ Uncle Otis, who’s sitting in a wheelchair with one leg, is sweet because he just ate a bunch of macaroni and cheese.”
By the time she was diagnosed with prediabetes at age 37, Shepherd had already lost her mother to diabetes-related complications. Yet she was still in denial. “Does this mean I have diabetes?” she asked her doctor. No, the doctor reassured Shepherd. Her reaction: “Then I’m going to keep eating what I want.”
For years, she says, “I tried to make people think I was OK, that I was accepting of my body when I really didn’t like it. It was hard for me to get up the stairs without breathing hard. I felt bad after I ate anything that made me feel bloated. It was only when I got my diagnosis of diabetes that I started committing to my health and becoming more aware of what I put in my mouth.”
Even she’s disbelieving that those foods now include veggies such as brussels sprouts, beets, and zucchini; almonds and cashews in place of M&Ms; cauliflower-crust pizza with pesto and vegetables; and seltzer with fresh lemon juice instead of wine. “When you stop feeding your body the bad stuff and feed it the good stuff, it wants the good stuff,” says Shepherd, multitasking during a phone call on a recent weeknight. She’s whipping up a second batch of fried cauliflower “rice” with crumbled salmon because her dog jumped up on the counter and ate the first.
“I would never have gotten that a few years ago,” she says, back to her point about conditioning your body to want good-for-you things. “I would’ve said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m going to get a latte and a piece of cake.’ ”
Not anymore. She’s in a new comfort zone now.