December 3, 2020

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‘I wasn’t that girl who goes to the doctor’

Patti LaBelle says she didn’t seek medical care often before her diabetes diagnosis. “I wasn’t that girl who goes to the doctor. It saved my life, falling out on stage that night.” (Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images)

Patti LaBelle thought she had no symptoms leading up to her diabetes diagnosis more than 25 years ago. But when she collapsed onstage in 1994, it was a wake-up call.

“I landed on working so hard,” the Grammy Award-winning singer tells Yahoo Life. “We toured a lot and I figured I was exhausted when I fell onstage. We were singing and I passed out.”

LaBelle was in her 50s at the time and was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in the hospital. Despite a family history of diabetes — her mother had her legs amputated because of the disease and her aunt went blind from diabetes — LaBelle was shocked by her diagnosis.

Making some major changes

“Everything changed,” LaBelle, now 75, says. She started taking diabetes medication, which she says made her “feel better.” She also checks her blood sugar four times a day.

LaBelle quickly overhauled her diet too. “I realized I couldn’t eat some of the foods I loved anymore,” she says. “I stopped with cheesecake, fried chicken, those things.”  

Instead, she started steaming vegetables and sautéing chicken and fish. “I cook so well, thank God. That saved me,” says LaBelle. She relies on cooking staples like grapeseed oil, habanero and garlic to get her foods just right. “As long as it’s spicy and garlic, I can prepare it.”

For exercise, LaBelle walks her dog and works out in her basement. “On stage, I dance a lot,” she says. “Since we’re not doing tours right now, I dance in the basement.”

“I cook so darn good — for real”

LaBelle credits her cooking skills with helping to control her diabetes. “People are crazy about my food. I cook so darn good — for real,” she says. LaBelle ended up releasing a series of cookbooks, including Patti LaBelle’s Lite Cuisine, which is specifically geared toward people who want to eat well. “That was the [cookbook] for me and people like me,” she explains. “It’s about how to cook great meals that taste great without all the calories, oil, butter and all that jazz.” 

“It’s easy with diabetes,” she continues. “You just have to get out of your mind about that cheesecake and butter.” 

LaBelle has also made changes to try to eat healthy on the road. “It’s very hard for a woman who travels,” she notes. So, LaBelle travels with a frying pan and her favorite ingredients, and stocks up on perishable food she needs in each town. “I get whatever I want to prepare in my hotel room,” she says. “That way you’re sure what you’re consuming.” It also doesn’t hurt that the entertainment icon also has her own line of frozen foods called Patti’s Good Life, which includes leafy vegetables.

That doesn’t mean LaBelle won’t eat out — she’d just rather not. “I prefer to cook for myself,” she explains. “If I go to the restaurant, I have to talk to the chef and make sure he’s not putting anything in my food.” 

“It saved my life, falling out on stage that night”

LaBelle, who is currently working on a new album, says she didn’t seek medical care often before her diabetes diagnosis. “I wasn’t that girl who goes to the doctor. It saved my life, falling out on stage that night.”

Now, LaBelle talks onstage about the importance of staying on top of your health. “If you don’t go to the doctor, you’re just living every day never knowing if you don’t have diabetes,” she explains. “I say to everyone — every man, woman and child — check yourself.”

LaBelle stresses that receiving a diabetes diagnosis “isn’t a death sentence.”

“Even if you have diabetes, you can be fierce, cute and eat well,” she says. “I have diabetes; Diabetes does not have me.”