A Positive Spin on Diabetes

Former Miss Black USA Kalilah Allen-Harris shares how she keeps her body and mind in top shape­—despite diabetes.

Deborah Pike Olsen
More Sharing +
Positive Spin on Diabetes, Kalilah Allen-Harris, Miss Black USA
Photograph by Dana Fineman

Sitting in traffic is vexing for most of us, but Kalilah Allen-Harris, an actress and former Miss Black USA, takes it in stride. “One day, I was driving from Venice Beach [CA] to Los Angeles, and the traffic was terrible,” she recalls. “I decided to roll down the windows and enjoy the view.

I’ve learned to look on the positive side of things.” Kalilah, who has been living with type 1 diabetes for 15 years, says she’s discovered that life—and health—can be fragile. “When you’re young and healthy, you don’t think about it,” she says. “But I know I can get sick.”

Fortunately, Kalilah, 29, has managed to not only stay well, but to be in tip-top shape. She works out regularly and eats a diet rich in fruits and veggies. “I’ve never had a weight issue,” she says.

In 2007, she competed in the Miss Black USA pageant and chose juvenile diabetes as her platform. She won the title and a full scholarship to medical school! “I always knew I wanted to be a doctor,” she has said. “When I was diagnosed [with diabetes], I said I was going to find a cure.”

As Miss Black USA, Kalilah traveled to Gambia in West Africa to raise awareness of diabetes. Afterward, she attended Meharry Medical College in Nashville and graduated in 2011. She’s advocated for federal funding of diabetes research and served as a celebrity panelist for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) Children’s Congress, in Washington, DC. “Living with diabetes has made me realize how important it is to spread the word about the disease to increase education and encourage research,” she says.

Kalilah is also pursuing acting. She’s had roles in Tyler Perry’s TBS show Meet the Browns and the film Deceitful, and she will appear in the upcoming BET film Let the Church Say Amen. She’s still deciding what she’ll do with her medical degree. In the meantime, she’s enjoying every minute of her life. “Everything happens for a reason,” she says. “I don’t think I would be faced with diabetes if I couldn’t overcome it. When you have a chronic illness, you must be strong.” Here, Kalilah’s tips for taking charge of your health.

Lighten up. “At a recent routine checkup, I had my blood drawn,” says Kalilah. “I call one of my veins a ‘rock star vein’ because it’s easy to draw blood from. So I told the nurse, ‘Go to my rock star vein.’ Laughing with the medical staff helps you bond. When you establish a good rapport with your healthcare professionals they’ll be more eager to help, and your team will be more cohesive. The end result is you’ll be better cared for.”

Why it’s a good idea: Laughing may help lower blood sugar levels. In a study published in the journal Diabetes Care, people with diabetes had lower blood sugar levels after watching a comedy than after attending a boring lecture.

Recognize signs that you’re full. “I was raised to finish all the food on my plate,” says Kalilah. “But I’ve learned I don’t need to eat until I’m stuffed. Now I stop eating when I’m satisfied.”

Why it’s a good idea: Eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day keeps energy levels stable so you won’t be tempted to overeat later. University of Sydney researchers say these foods, high in fiber or protein, keep you full longer: whole-grain bread, apples, baked beans, cheese, eggs, popcorn, oranges and grapes.

Go natural. Kalilah recently switched to a plant-based diet. “I still eat meat, but only small portions,” she says. “I love fruit and most vegetables.”A few of her favorites are persimmons, nectarines, peaches, grapes, celery, carrots and squash. She enjoys kale salad, spaghetti with eggplant and Caesar salad.

Why it’s a good idea: Many fruits and veggies are considered diabetes “superfoods” because they don’t spike blood sugar and provide important nutrients like calcium, potassium and fiber, says the American Diabetes Association (ADA). These foods include dark green leafy vegetables like kale and spinach, citrus fruits, beans and berries.

Have extra supplies on hand. “There have been too many occasions when I’ve run out of insulin,” says Kalilah. “So I keep extra supplies in my car, my purse, in a travel bag. I always have a stash of glucose testing materials, insulin and something to treat a low, like juice.”

Find a workout you love and stick to it. Kalilah exercises three to four times a week. “It helps me keep my blood sugar in check,” she says. “I mostly lift weights, but I also do aerobic exercise.” The more she works out, the fewer variations in her blood sugar she experiences.

Why it’s a good idea: Doing an activity you love will give you motivation. Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least five days a week and strength training two to three days a week, recommends the ADA.

Put it in perspective. One day, I was getting ready to change my infusion set and my dog got wrapped up in it,” says Kalilah. “He started playing with it and ripped it off me. I could have gotten upset, but it was so cute. I thought, He’s so carefree. I should be more like that.”


February 2014