I had the chance to interview diabetes spokesperson and Hollywood A-lister, Maria Menounos, at a recent diabetes conference. Prior to the interview I was given her Entertainment Industry Foundation biography for my review. Most of the biographies that I see belong to physicians and health policy experts – so it was an interesting change to read an entertainer’s biography.
Of note, Maria is a featured reporter on The Today Show and Access Hollywood – she has directed and produced several films and was listed in People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People.” She also landed in the top five of the askmen.com poll for “the girl men most want to marry” along with Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron.
But don’t let her beauty fool you – Maria has struggled with poverty, a chronically ill father, and her own weight issues. I enjoyed getting to know her better, and to learn about why she is such a passionate advocate for diabetes awareness. Enjoy our chat!
Dr. Val: Tell me a little bit about your dad’s diabetes and how you’ve been helping him to manage it.
Maria: My dad has type 1 diabetes, and he’s quite unusual in that he is extremely compliant with medical advice and dietary restrictions. He NEVER cheats. Many years ago he was told to avoid carbohydrates and so even when he was having a low blood sugar attack he’d refuse to drink juice to bring up his levels. Unfortunately my dad’s English isn’t so good (his native language is Greek and he has quite a language barrier with doctors) and I think a lot was lost in translation when he was given advice about how to manage his disease.
As a result of growing up in a poor neighborhood and not having access to more advanced medical care (along with the language barrier), my dad’s doctors were not particularly effective at communicating what he should be doing. My mom did her very best to follow their instructions religiously – she became his personal chef and kept him from eating carbohydrates.
My dad was in and out of the hospital all the time for low blood sugar, and because of a lack of coordination of care my family never realized why this was happening or what we could do to prevent it. So we were trying harder and harder to be more strict with his diet, which was in fact making the problem worse. My dad did janitorial work and would nearly pass out on the job due to a low carbohydrate diet. But since the doctors told him not to eat sweets or bread or pasta, he believed that his sickness was due to his not being strict enough, so he’d just eat less and less until he ended up weighing 140 pounds at 6 feet tall. My family was living in constant fear of him passing out again and needing to go to the hospital. We knew every ambulance worker and every fireman in our neighborhood by name because they were always at our house.
Finally when I moved to Hollywood and had some career success I was able to get my dad to a world renowned endocrinologist, Dr. Anne Peters. Within three visits she straightened him out and explained how he did in fact need to eat some carbs. She got his blood sugars evened out and he never had to be hospitalized again.
What scares me the most is what’s happening to people who have diabetes and language barriers. They’re at incredible risk for misinformation, confusion, and poor care. Imagine how many people in this country are just like my dad – trying to follow advice they don’t fully understand? This is a real problem that we often overlook in diabetes education.
Dr. Val: As a Hollywood insider, how aware are your peers about diabetes and is there much talk amongst them about getting involved in campaigns to reduce type 2 diabetes?
Maria: I’m sure they are but I haven’t come across that many. It doesn’t come up that frequently. There haven’t been any breakthroughs in insulin therapy or any other huge scientific advances in diabetes care so the topic isn’t that newsworthy or “sexy.” It’s a real shame that it isn’t talked about more. Everyone seems to be aware that type 2 diabetes is preventable but no one seems to know how to do so. They don’t realize that you need to lose weight and exercise. But I learned about that when I had a weight problem.
Dr. Val: YOU had a weight problem?
Maria: As I said, I came from a diabetic home. We ate vegetables fresh from the garden every day and my mom was extremely careful about what we ate. We didn’t eat anything bad. My mom would buy ice cream and Doritos like, once a year when family was coming over. I didn’t even know what a bagel or a waffle was for most of my time growing up. Then I went to college and there was endless all-you-can-eat food. So over 3 or 4 years of eating pizza and I ended up gaining 40 pounds. One day I decided that I wanted to move to California and get into the business and I realized I needed to lose the weight.
I wrote down everything I ate in a week, and I realized that my problem was carbs. So I cut them back substantially and the weight just melted off. I lost about 20 pounds in several months, and then I added exercise to get the last 20 off. I’ve never looked back.
Dr. Val: How can we be more effective in getting Americans involved in their own health?
Maria: First of all, I think that we need to focus on educating children about healthy lifestyle choices. We have to get the message to them early. Kids enjoy knowing more than their parents and teaching them something new. So it’s really empowering for kids to learn about nutrition and then bring that knowledge home to their families and teach them a thing or two.
Obviously getting Americans to be more involved in their health is a very difficult challenge. Many people are struggling to get by and don’t have time to put their health first – they have to focus on work, paying their gas bill and putting food on the table. It will take a national, coordinated effort to really make a difference.