Tackling why she wasn't eating healthy helped Tiff McFierce, 34, get her diabetes under control.

By Corey J. Maloney
August 27, 2020
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Growing up, Tiff McFierce always felt like there was something wrong. She lived with an underlying feeling of discomfort and sadness that she couldn't explain. She also wasn't sure why she dealt with those feelings by developing disordered eating habits—which in her case meant a pattern of binging and then not eating.

“I had grown up, like we all do, being told to eat when you’re happy and eat when you’re sad, but it wasn’t until later that I realized how much I was tying my emotions to food,” McFierce, a 34-year-old DJ, tells Health.

As an adult, she fell into a cycle of shaming herself for those feelings and then shaming her body’s reaction to the unhealthy eating habits that followed. She developed body dysmorphia, a mental health condition marked by a preoccupation with how her body looked. The Bronx native, who had been a dancer her entire life, began to see signs that her health was deteriorating.

“From 2012 to 2015, my body was going through all these changes," she says, which included weight gain. "I was trying as hard as I could to keep those changes under wraps because I felt embarrassed." A doctor told her she was pre-diabetic, and her plan was to start eating better to avoid developing diabetes.

In 2016, McFierce began to experience some of the telltale signs of diabetes. She was constantly fatigued, her feet would swell, and she started fainting. Professionally, she was beginning to make a name for herself as the first black woman to become the resident DJ at Madison Square Garden in 2017.

But all the hard work she put in to make her career a success was also making it easy for her to ignore her health problems. “I was out there hustling and grinding every day, and that became my excuse to not look inside and work on how I was actually feeling," she says. "To be honest, I was probably pre-diabetic for a couple years, and just didn’t want to address it.”

Once McFierce finally went back to a doctor in 2017 when she was 31, she found out she had type 2 diabetes. To get her diabetes under control, she realized she needed a whole-body solution that would address both her physical and mental health. But when she tried to explain that to her doctor, she didn't get any encouragement.

“I was really disappointed in how my doctor treated me; she didn’t listen, and instead of helping me educate myself, she asked if I wanted a flu shot," says McFierce. "Unfortunately that sort of treatment is something a lot of underserved communities and black women in particular have to deal with. But I made the decision that day to find a new doctor, and they took the time to sit with me, help me figure out what to do for my health, and also push me to go to therapy.”

When she was diagnosed, McFierce's A1C was 9.5. After switching doctors, she set her mind on one goal: reversing her diabetes. “I’m the type of person who, when I set my mind to something I want, I get it," she says. "And I reversed my diabetes in four months. But then I went right back to all the same habits that had gotten me sick.”

The setback triggered a lot of the feelings of shame and sadness she had while growing up, which she realized stemmed from being judged by how she looked as a dancer. “As a little black girl who had a body that was changing a lot, I was internalizing a lot of the criticism, and that turned into body dysmorphia,” she explains.

McFierce had been eating her feelings, stuffing herself with food to stuff down the pain. Her goal of reversing her diabetes would be impossible, she realized, until she dealt with the root cause.

That realization began a new chapter for McFierce, and  it helped inspire her to start Look IN vs Lookin', a wellness brand aimed at providing support and guidance for healthy living. She describes it as "a safe space for people to find support within themselves to take back into their lives."

“When it comes to finding support, it’s kind of like dating. You need to try a few things to figure out what works best for you while keeping in mind you are the top person in your support group,” she says. The community she has built around Look IN has helped her make healthy choices even when she is traveling or busy with work.

“For too long, as a person who is in the public eye, I felt like I had to be put-together all time," she says. "I felt embarrassed to not look a certain way that society says I was supposed to look. I felt embarrassed to have days where I feel sad, and embarrassed to have to be dealing with diabetes."

"But I can’t live my life that way," she continues. "I’m the one who has to make the choices for my life, and having Look IN as a support system has shown me that I’m not the only one who needed that message to improve my health.”

There are still days where it’s hard for McFierce to make the right choice, especially when it comes to diet and lifestyle. “There are plenty of times where I want something greasy, like a bacon, egg, and cheese," she says. "But I’ve found most of the time I have a craving, I’m actually thirsty, so I drink some water and sit with the feelings I’m feeling instead of trying to eat them away. After a few minutes, if I am still hungry, it’s a lot easier to make a choice food-wise I can feel good about once I’ve checked in with myself.”

This process of being present and mindful is one of the biggest ways McFierce keeps her health on track. Her A1C level is now 6.6, which is on the border of reversing her diabetes again.

“I know it’s not easy to find the time. It’s not always easy for me, even though I know it is something I need," she says. "That’s been a big part of this journey: feeling worthy of those choices that will benefit my health. But I promise you, you have five minutes to sit with yourself. To be present in your own life and your own body.”

That last part, for a perfectionist like McFierce, is especially important when it comes to things like blood sugar fluctuations. But she's learned to celebrate her successes and forgive herself for the occasional slip-up.

“People, and especially people with diabetes, have to make so many choices in a day. You’re not always going to make the best choice. And it’s important for me to remember that that’s OK," she says. "One choice doesn’t define me and it doesn’t have to stop me from loving myself enough to make a better one next time. That’s where I need to have the grace for myself to not be perfect all the time.”

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