A Vegan Diet Saved His Life. Now He Wants to Save Yours

Diagnosed as a diabetic, Borough President Eric Adams embraced a new regime. Can he make Brooklyn a healthier place?

The borough president does some shopping at the farmer's market on the plaza in front of Borough Hall (Photo by Erica Sherman/Brooklyn Borough President's Office)

When Borough President Eric Adams talks about one subject in particular, he gets deadly serious. “I need for you to hear me,” he told an audience last week. “I need for you to turn off your phones, tune in and be present in this moment,” he said to members of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, as if they were restless schoolkids. The subject is health, and Adams knows the dangers of inattentiveness because it almost killed him before he started his own personal health crusade last year.

With the zeal of a convert, Adams now wants to tell the rest of the borough about the benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle, one slice at a time. Speaking to the assembled business leaders, he compared the focus on health to the city’s war on crime in the 1990s. “That’s my message to you, Chamber,” he said. “We’re in the right place to do the right thing. This is 1993 again. And just as we protected the streets of this city and made it a place where we can raise healthy children and families, let’s regain our lives and our family members and our loved ones.”

Before Adams went into politics, he was a New York City police officer for more than two decades, starting as a rookie in 1984 when the city was in the depths of murder and mayhem. He sees today’s health situation, especially the rise in heart disease, as the same kind of epic challenge. “One out of every ten Brooklynites suffers from heart disease. Forty percent of you are either diabetic or pre-diabetic,” he said. “The direct and indirect costs of diagnosed diabetes in the U.S. in 2012 was $245 billion,” including lost productivity among diabetic workers. “The economic impact of our health is going to cripple our country.”

In the Chamber of Commerce speech last week, Adams showed one of the books that he says changed his life (Photo by Steve Koepp)

Adams appealed to the self-interest of business. “Particularly those of you who are self-insured, healthcare is going to bankrupt your company if we do not start figuring out how we ensure our employees are healthy, by creating an environment where they are healthy enough to produce the product that you’re looking for.”

So how healthy is Brooklyn? Traditionally, the borough is more famous for cheesecake and hot dogs than for green vegetables. The farm-to-table movement has inspired healthier restaurant cuisine, but low-income neighborhoods are often starved for healthy, affordable food choices. And while bike lanes have proliferated, a new study shows the New York metropolitan area in the bottom 20% of communities for fitness, ranked according to how often residents get regular exercise. (The fittest city was Boulder, Colo.) It’s clear where Adams stands: “I am horrified at what we are feeding our children every day,” he said last week.

Adams’s own conversion is becoming an instant Brooklyn legend, which he recounted last week in candid detail. In April 2016, he was on trip to Israel when he suddenly felt stricken. “I was having a sharp pain in my stomach,” he said, “and I thought it was colon cancer because I just lost a friend to colon cancer.”

When he returned to the U.S., he went to see a doctor who conducted an endoscopy and a colonoscopy. “When I came back from under sedation, the doctor said ‘Eric, your colon is fine, you have a small ulcer,'” but that was the least of it, the doctor told him.”‘Your [blood] sugar is through the roof. I’m surprised you are not in a coma right now. I can’t let you leave my office without giving you insulin.”

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Adams, now 57, was diagnosed with diabetes type 2, which explained some other symptoms he was feeling. “My hands and fingers were tingling. I learned later it was the beginning of permanent nerve damage,” he said. “I was losing all my senses.” But Adams decided he didn’t want a quick, pharmaceutical fix. “I told the doctor, hold on, I don’t want any medicine. I’ve been reading all of this stuff about the amazing ability of the body to heal itself, and now it’s time for me to try it. The body is a healing machine, if we would just get out of its way.”

To create his own health regime, Adams consulted several nutrition-oriented physicians, including one who he calls “the LeBron James of health”: Dr. Michael Greger, author of the bestselling How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease. After just three months on a vegan diet, Adams says, his symptoms were indeed reversed, which made him a believer. Earlier this month, Greger came to Borough Hall at Adams’s invitation to give a talk on nutrition and its connection to health. “Over five hundred people lined up around the block to hear him,” said Adams. “Americans are tired of being sick. They’re tired of being in pain. They’re tired of waking up every day injecting themselves.”

Adams has turned Borough Hall into a citadel of health, starting with his own food-prep area. “At breakfast, I do my own cereal of flax, hemp and chia seeds, with fruit and unsweetened soy milk,” he recently told Edible Brooklyn. “For lunch, I do kale, broccoli, mushrooms and spices–I’m big on spices, and I don’t use salt at all. Dinner is the same. I just try to be creative,” he said. “I never used to cook before, and now I have about 40 or 50 different recipes.” As he said in his speech last week, “All this stuff that used to be hippie stuff, is real stuff.”

Adams, on board a Citi Bike, wants to lead Brooklyn into a healthier era (Photo by Erica Sherman/Brooklyn Borough President’s Office)

He extends the healthy-lifestyle message to his colleagues. “Effective management must redefine productivity in a way that takes into account the health of the employees,” Adams said. “That’s why over at Borough Hall, I allow my employees to meditate. I allow them to do yoga. Allow them to take care of their families.”

To put some programs behind his principles, Adams has pursued initiatives like the Brooklyn Healthy Workplace Challenge, in which companies will compete according to measures like the food and beverage choices they offer in the workplace. Adams would like to see changes in the healthcare industry as well, which he feels is dominated by pharmaceutical fixes rather than attention to diet and lifestyle. Medical schools fail to educate doctors in the importance of nutrition, Adams said, “so all doctors know how to do is to treat your symptoms, and not treat your underlying cause.”

To remedy this on a citywide level, Adams said he had asked Mayor de Blasio to compel the city’s public health-care system, which treats 1 million people a year, to make a deeper commitment to nutrition-oriented therapy. “My call to the mayor,” he said, “is to have all of our hospitals have a bureau inside the hospital that has a plant-based treatment. You can do the traditional treatment with medicine that will stabilize your condition, and hide the symptoms of your condition, or you can go over to the bureau where we have a plant-based treatment. Give the patient the option.”

The next test case for Adams is his mother, who he described as “an average southern woman in her late 70s” with cardiovascular issues. At his urging, she’s taking up a vegan diet. “Watch what happens in three months,” he said.

Steve Koepp is the editor of The Bridge. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time.