My mother loves to cook, and she, my grandmother, and all of my aunties can throw down some serious Southern classics. By the age of six, I was hanging out with them in the kitchen, and it was all about collard greens, mac ’n’ cheese, chicken dishes—-real soul food. I would watch and smell and taste as they performed their magic.
We were a military family—-our mother was a drill sergeant and our father a first sergeant—-so in our household, we all had chores. By the time I was twelve, I was cooking full meals for the family. By thirteen, I had mastered a variety of omelets, pork chops with mustard sauce, and even roasted Cornish hen. They weren’t terribly fancy dishes, but having kitchen duty taught me basic cooking skills, patience, and an appreciation for home--cooked food.
In fact, I adored it. I would get absolutely lost in the kitchen. Because cooking had structure—-bake this for fifteen minutes, add half a cup of that—-I could relax within its boundaries. It was like a dance. To this day, I cook to relieve stress, sometimes to other people’s amusement: When I fired up the stove on my last birthday, ready to start a quinoa dish, my husband, Cory, said, “Tia, you don’t have to cook—-it’s your birthday! Why don’t you just relax?” And I replied, while happily chopping a carrot, “Honey, you don’t understand—- this is my way of relaxing.”
Have I mentioned that I love cooking?
My kitchen exploration stalled when my sister Tamera and I started shooting our TV sitcom, Sister Sister at fourteen. Every morning, in the cafeteria at Paramount Studios, I would have a stack of pancakes. And when I say “stack” I mean at least four or five, topped with whipped cream, strawberries, and about a cup of maple syrup. And that was just breakfast.
TV sets are always catered, so I was surrounded by junk food, 24/7. To my teenage self, it was like living in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Everything I wanted was at my fingertips: Twizzlers, M&M’s, Starbursts, potato chips, you name it. And if something I craved wasn’t there, all I had to do was ask: “Chocolate chip cookies, please?” And they simply appeared. It was heaven.
If heaven leads to health problems, that is.
Nothing was fresh. Everything came out of a package, a bag, or a box. Every time I walked by the food table, I picked something up. And though I didn’t know it at the time, an Oreo here and a bread roll there can lead to some nasty consequences.
I probably would have gained weight if, in my late teens, I hadn’t started to use—-and quickly abuse—-diet pills. I didn’t feel fat, but the pressure of being on television and wanting to look sexy and beautiful took over. I’m not proud of it. I got skinny, true, but the pills caused my heart to race, and I knew in my gut that I was hurting myself. A few years later, after the active ingredient in the pills was connected to a number of deaths, it got pulled from the market.
Around this time, I was also overusing antibiotics. No matter what symptom I presented to a doctor, even when all I had was the common cold, it seemed like I went home with antibiotics. This is really common. Don’t get me wrong: Antibiotics are wonder drugs that have saved millions of lives. But they’re doled out like aspirin. Antibiotics can zap a bacterial infection, but they also kill a lot of the good bacteria in the body, which is a big problem. (We’ll get to that a little later. . . .)
In the last couple years of shooting Sister Sister, I attended Pepperdine University part time. I was still eating lots of junk food and taking the diet pills, but I fell in love with student life. One of my favorite classes, Introduction to Psychology, was taught by a wonderful professor, Dr. Jeff Banks. He was fantastic. Everyone worshipped him because he seemed to understand our feelings and inner lives. His class wasn’t just about grades; it was about life. Corny? Maybe. Meaningful? One hundred percent.
Part of the class was about unloading our own issues, fears, and troubles. I had never told anyone about the pills, but I got honest about them in class. Dr. Banks asked us to write down everything that we wanted to let go of and to make a promise to ourselves to address what was holding us back. I scribbled, “Give up diet pills” on a piece of paper, crumpled it up, and tossed it into the flames of my living room fireplace, just as Dr. Banks had instructed. As I watched the paper crackle and burn, something in me released. I haven’t touched diet pills since that day, and thankfully, I haven’t wanted to.
I did gain some weight, but I didn’t care. By that point, my chest had started to hurt and I had discovered how dangerous the pills really were. I was grateful to be done with the speeding heart and the shame of having a secret. A few pounds were worth it.
La Dolce Vita
When Sister Sister ended its six--year run, I was still in college, but comparatively speaking, I was free. I had more time, less responsibility, and university was opening my mind to totally new things. Up until that point, I’d always had the security of my parents and sharing a home with Tamera, and the structure of the TV show. Now something pushed me to get out of my comfort zone; I wanted to be challenged. So at twenty, I decided to go abroad.
I spent the summer in Italy, and took short trips from there to France, Spain, and Egypt. I was exposed for the first time to new languages, environments, and ways of life. I was stimulated on all levels and through all of my senses by the art, the architecture, and the smells on the streets. I had seen pictures of Michelangelo’s David and the Florence Cathedral, but viewing them up close was another story. A new “me” blossomed. I may have spent my adolescence in front of an audience of millions, but I had been relatively sheltered. On this wonderful extended vacation, I visited the Vatican, sailed up the Nile, and drank my first glass of wine. I felt grown--up and sophisticated.
And the food. My taste buds were on fire! Goodbye, endless candy; hello, succulent chicken and frites in Paris, delicate thin--crust mushroom pizza in Florence (and, of course, gelato all over Italy), handmade bread in Cairo. There’s nothing like it! Everything was made with quality ingredients and introduced me to tastes I’d never known. One of my most vivid memories is from Sardinia, where I was served a whole fish, on a beautiful platter, cooked to perfection. It was fresh, simple, and melted in my mouth.
Mmm . . .
Europe offered an almost orgasmic culinary experience, and it was there that my real love affair with food began. Until then, food and its preparation had represented a fun part of my childhood responsibilities and then the dangers of weight gain, but they had never been such artful and sensual pleasures.
The cook in me awakened. I asked myself, “What did they put in this?” and “How did they do that?” My inner twelve--year--old, who’d spent so much time in the kitchen, was back with a whole new set of tools and ingredients to explore. I couldn’t wait to get home and start chopping.
Cory was my boyfriend at the time, and he picked me up at the airport after my trip. He could see immediately that I was a new person, inside and out. Not only had I awakened internally, I had gained fifteen pounds in two months, and he definitely approved: “Oh my god, Tia, I love it!” he said, as he slung my suitcase into the trunk of the car. I was round and juicy, with a big ol’ booty. I felt fantastic.
But not for long.
In 2006, I was still in college, and majoring in psychology. I was sitting in one of Dr. Banks’s classes when I started to experience abdominal pain. It got so bad that I had to excuse myself. The only thing I could think to do was sit on the toilet, and that helped—-a little. I missed the entire class, just sitting on the can. Tamera drove me home that day while I crouched in the backseat, doubled over.
A doctor did an ultrasound, which revealed a small ovarian cyst. She assured me that it would go away on its own, and that I would feel better soon. But I didn’t. These painful episodes began to occur with regularity. During a particularly bad one, I followed all of the doctor’s recommendations: I tried to relax, I took a hot bath, I placed a heating pad on my belly. Nothing worked and no one seemed to know how to help me. Baffled and terrified, I was this close to calling an ambulance. I knew, in my gut, that something was very, very wrong.
I decided to get a second opinion, and a friend recommended an ob--gyn named Dr. Kent, who had delivered Jada Pinkett Smith’s babies. Dr. Kent also did an ultrasound and before she had even wiped the jelly off my belly, she declared, “I think you’ve got endometriosis.”
I was confused. I’d never heard of endometriosis, although an estimated 15 percent of women get it; among African American women, the rate may be even higher. In those with the condition, the blood that’s meant to build up every month on the inside of the uterus builds up on the outside instead. And that’s a big problem. Not only does endometriosis cause incredible pain, it makes pregnancy pretty much impossible: if the uterine lining, where fertilized eggs implant and grow, is on the outside of the uterus, it’s useless for baby--making.
It was scary to get the diagnosis, but a huge relief to receive an explanation for all the pain. Dr. Kent told me that the only way to confirm that I had endometriosis was to do surgery. By going inside, she could both diagnose and treat the condition. I hesitated; I’d never been under anesthesia, and I hated the idea of being poked and prodded.
“Do you want to have kids one day, Tia?” asked Dr. Kent.
I didn’t have to think long or hard about that. “Yes,” I said, “of course.”
She looked at me in her kindly, doctorly way: “Then you should seriously consider surgery.”
So I underwent laparoscopic surgery. After inserting a camera into my abdomen and assessing the situation, Dr. Kent told me, “You have endometriosis and several cysts.” I wasn’t too surprised by that, but what she said next threw me. “Tia,” she said, “this is a chronic condition, and it will come back.”
And it did. It took almost two years, but the symptoms finally returned. And when endometriosis comes back, it doesn’t sneak in under the door; it comes back.
Tamera and I were out to lunch. We had just pitched a new series idea to a network executive. Over dessert, I was suddenly hit by a truckload of pain. Again, I was doubled over in agony, and again, poor Tamera had to help me home. I could see in her face that she felt helpless and afraid for me.
Dr. Kent put me on birth control pills, which can help with endometriosis, but after a while, she needed to put me on pain pills, too. After my nightmare with diet drugs, I had become pretty sensitive to what I put in my body, and I didn’t like the idea of being dependent on pharmaceuticals. We talked about my options, and she recommended a second surgery. Cory and I were engaged at the time, and I knew we were getting that much closer to planning for kids, so I agreed. I think, in that moment, part of me surrendered to having more and more surgeries as time went by. It was just what I had to do.
So, once again, I found myself on a cold operating table, under heavy anesthesia, and once again, Dr. Kent was using high--tech instruments and lasers to ease my suffering. It was like déjà vu. I came out of the surgery sore and saddened that this was going to be a recurring routine.
But this time Dr. Kent had another idea. At a checkup after my procedure, she sat me down, closed my file, and changed the course of my entire life: “If you want to stop having surgery, Tia . . .” she said, and then paused.
My heart leapt. I leaned in closer.
“If you want to get rid of your symptoms . . .”
This was getting good. Was there a new procedure? A permanent fix?
“If you want to have a baby . . .”
Oh God, yes, yes, YES!!! I thought. I’d do anything to have a baby. I sat poised for her solution, the medical knight in shining armor she was about to unleash:
“You have to change your diet, Tia.”
And then I blinked again, not sure I’d heard her correctly.
“Especially dairy,” she added, quite seriously. “You need to stop eating dairy. Now.”
I was stunned.
It was the first time any doctor had connected my diet to my health. And to point a finger at dairy, no less? Wasn’t dairy nature’s perfect food? It made no sense.
“Your uterus is inflamed,” she said. “And endometriosis is fueled by inflammation.” That sort of made sense; blood on the outside of the uterus sounded . . . inflamed. Then she connected the big dots: “Dairy causes inflammation.”
I looked at Dr. Kent, rocked by this new information. It had never even occurred to me that something I had always eaten (so innocently!) could be causing me such harm. Obviously, I’d heard the old adage “You are what you eat” a million times, but I’d never really processed that fundamental truth. Now here was a well--respected doctor telling me that my problem—-my big, you--may--never--get--pregnant problem—-came down to my favorite foods: butter, cheese, and gelato. It was like a slap in the face.
New Food, New Life
But I was equally stunned by the fact that I could do something about it. Dr. Kent sent me to a nutritionist, who confirmed that food and major health issues were definitely connected, and I kept on doing my own research. Then I reached out to a good friend, Brittany Daniel, my co--star on The Game, whom I’d worked with for five years. I knew that she had battled stage IV non--Hodgkins lymphoma, a very serious cancer—-she’s a rock star. In addition to going through chemotherapy, she had taken a particular approach to eating with amazing results, and she recommended I talk to Donna Gates, author of The Body Ecology Diet.
I met with Ms. Gates, who confirmed what Dr. Kent had said; not only was endometriosis fueled by inflammation, almost all diseases are supported by an inflamed condition in the body (we discuss this a little later). By fighting inflammation through diet, I could not only kick the endometriosis to the curb, I could prevent all sorts of other baddies!
I decided to go for it. Designed to reduce inflammation and strengthen the immune system, the Body Ecology diet meant letting go of all processed foods, refined sugar, and dairy. I also had to learn to cook with foods like quinoa and buckwheat that I’d never even seen before! A little meat was okay, but it had to be high quality—-no antibiotics, no factory farms. I had to eat new vegetables—-lots of them, and at every meal. This meant learning a new set of tricks in the kitchen. All told, it was a big shift.
Luckily, I’m a very determined woman, and when I want something, I get it. And I wanted to get pregnant very, very badly. So for a full year, while I was in Atlanta to shoot The Game, I followed the Body Ecology guidelines, with very few cheats. I was disciplined. Endometriosis had been like an alarm—-a loud alarm—-going off in my body, and I was finally ready to hear its message: Change how you eat!
Let’s be real—-I did it, but I wasn’t happy about it. In fact, at first, it was extremely depressing. I didn’t want to give up bread, cookies, noodles, and other refined carbohydrates. I felt like everything I loved was disappearing. I had devoted entire afternoons to watching The Barefoot Contessa and Giada di Laurentiis, for crying out loud! My signature dish was cheesy pasta! When Cory’s friends came around, I would make them deep--fried, breaded, cheese--filled tortellini!
You heard me. Deep--fried.
But now, my pasta and pizza days were gone. My trip to Italy, which had taught me to breathe from a deeper place, seemed like it had happened a thousand years ago. Food had been an orgasmic experience for me, and now?
And unsurprisingly, I had to stay away from all processed foods, too: no chips, no Cheez Doodles, no pretzels. Nothing that came in a bag. Nothing from a package. Although I had dialed down my junk food consumption considerably since my trip to Europe, I hadn’t cut it out altogether, and truth be told, I wasn’t even sure if that was possible. (It was, of course; I had just never known that healthy food could be good for your body and good for your taste buds.)
Healthy foods carry a stigma that I’d like to erase. And it’s not just because they’ve restored my health and turned my life around. It’s not just because they’re packed with nutrients and are simply good for you. I’m determined to push past that stigma because whole, natural foods, cooked with love, taste absolutely fantastic. You heard me: fantastic.
Okay, so I didn’t feel that way overnight. But I persevered, and the benefits started rolling in: Within six months, the eczema I’d struggled with for years disappeared. My migraines evaporated. I lost weight, quickly and effortlessly. I was amazed.
As my body issues cleared up, my palate adjusted to all the new tastes I’d discovered, and I started to find natural foods delicious and truly satisfying. My food journey had come full circle: It began with the practical, as I learned to cook dinner for my family; it moved to the sensual, when I experienced a world beyond the one I had known; it became medicine when all else failed; and now it had begun to encompass all three.
As if that wasn’t enough, I got a bigger surprise about a year after I began to eat this way: I started to feel deeply, thrillingly alive. I had more energy than I remembered ever having; my mind was clear and focused like a laser beam. For the first time in my life, I understood the concept of profound “wellness.”
I started to do some research and learned that here in the West, we tend to concentrate on disease—-focusing on the bits and pieces of the body and everything that can go wrong in its own discrete way. We get hypnotized by symptoms, and ignore their underlying causes. But in Chinese and many other traditional medicines, the doctor looks at the body as a whole, a system that is unified and self--healing. She focuses not on how to treat symptoms per se, but on how to support holistic wellness. By treating the whole body—-and supporting it on all levels—-many symptoms just disappear.
That’s what was happening to me. By eating whole, natural, and clean food, I was supporting my body on a profound physical level. The food was detoxifying my blood, my organs, and my brain, changing everything. Like bodies do when they’re treated right, mine was fixing itself. It was really cool.
I think you should feel that good, too. You deserve it. Are you ready?
The cherry on top of this dairy--free sundae is that I got pregnant. Quickly. Given all my health issues, I hadn’t expected it to happen so fast—-if at all—-but after I’d been following my new regimen for just twelve months, Cory came to visit me in Atlanta, and a few weeks later, we got the happy news!
I guess I’d just assumed that it would take longer, that the body couldn’t repair itself that fast. We hadn’t planned for pregnancy—-it happened on the first try. But I was ecstatic; I wanted to start a family very badly. So I celebrated! With pizza. And ice cream. And Flamin’ Hot Cheetos! (For weeks, I had the telltale orange fingers of the secret Cheetos--eater.)
I mean, I was pregnant, right? That was the whole point of the healthy eating stuff, no? I figured I didn’t need to be so diligent anymore. Between my pregnancy--induced cravings and new laissez--faire attitude, my diet went all over the place.
Surprise! I paid for it. My migraines came back, worse than ever. My eczema returned. I had nosebleeds. But the worst issue was horrible, miserable nausea that lasted the duration of the pregnancy. Meanwhile, I was still shooting The Game, and my sister and I were doing our reality show, Tia and Tamera. I was throwing up so much that my doctor was considering putting me on an IV drip of Zofran, a heavy--duty anti--nausea drug.
I had heard that bread helped with nausea, so I ate bread. Loads and loads and loads of bread. It was the only thing I could keep down. I had no idea that, beyond causing weight gain, eating so much of one food could set me up for allergies and upset the balance of my body that I’d worked so hard to foster. I didn’t know. I just ate more bread.
Sixty pounds later, I gave birth to Cree, our lovely baby son. That same day, the nausea simply went “Bye--bye!” After the pregnancy I was able to resume a more varied way of eating, but I didn’t return to the Body Ecology principles . . . for a while.
Red Velvet Face
Soon after Cree’s birth, Tamera and I were back on the set of Tia and Tamera. The show was doing really well, so to celebrate, Cory decided to surprise me with my favorite dessert: red velvet cupcakes. I indulged, and enjoyed them to the fullest.
But the next morning, during an interview at MTV, Tamera looked at me, horrified: “Tia!” she whispered, “Your face!” I had no idea what she was talking about until she adjusted her phone to show me my reflection; a big red rash was spreading over my whole face, and I looked like I’d aged thirty years. Needless to say, it was not a pretty sight.
An allergist diagnosed me with a yeast allergy. When I asked how it had happened, she told me that “The immune system can get imbalanced and sometimes it never gets back into balance.” She explained that all the antibiotics I’d taken over the years had upset the balance of bacteria in my gut, which can affect the immune system. Not only that, she said, “You ate so much bread—-and only bread—-during most of your pregnancy. That can lead to an allergy.” And all it took was a yummy little cupcake to set it off.
Red Velvet Face was a final wake--up call for me. There was no turning my back on the truth that my body was profoundly affected by what I put in my mouth, no matter how gooey and delicious. That cupcake notified me—-in a pretty gross way—-that, like many people, I suffer from an overgrowth of Candida albicans, a natural yeast in the body. I returned to an extra--clean diet to get myself back in balance. Since then, I have happily settled into eating foods that work for me: clean, powerful, whole foods.
Which doesn’t mean I do it perfectly. I have my ups and downs, my backs and forths. But every time I eat something processed, or highly refined, or just plain over the top, I feel it. Not in a horrible truckload--of--pain--endometriosis way, thank God. Now it’s just little alarm bells, ringing from deep down inside: “Tia . . . Tiiiiiiaaaaaa!!!”