Earl “the Pearl” Monroe was one of the greatest guards in the history of the National Basketball Association, playing from 1967 through 1980 for the Baltimore Bullets and the New York Knicks. A member of the NBA’s 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, he was enshrined in the league’s Hall of Fame in 1990. The Knicks retired his jersey number, 15, in 1986.
In 1998, Earl was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Determined to reach out to other type 2s, he joined forces with Merck & Co. in October 2009 to help publicize its “Diabetes Restaurant Month” program, which challenges restaurateurs in select cities to create diabetes-friendly menu items.
Earl recently discussed the program with Diabetes Health publisher Nadia Al-Samarrie.
Nadia: You’ve teamed up with Merck to challenge restaurants in 18 cities to create diabetes-friendly menus. How did you go about doing that?
Earl: What we’re doing with Merck is actually the first ever diabetes restaurant program. I’m in New York right now, and it’s the eighteenth city I’ve visited. We challenge restaurants to come up with diabetes-friendly menu items by having them work with dietitians and endocrinologists who go in to see what type of meal they can come up with that is diabetes-friendly. It also has to be heart-healthy.
Nadia: How are you getting restaurants to participate?
Earl: We do an outreach where we explain the program and ask if they’ll participate. So far, we’ve had more than 65 restaurants join the program. It has been rewarding to hear their reactions once they understand how it works. Often we hear, “Wow, what a novel idea! Why hasn’t this been done this before?” They appreciate that we are building awareness among type 2 people that they can now go to restaurants where they have genuine options for tasty, satisfying meals that are diabetes-friendly. They can fully enjoy themselves.
Nadia: Do you offer advice to type 2s about how to get the most out of their restaurant experience?
Earl: We like to say that if you go to a restaurant, the first thing you should do is ask the server how the meal is prepared. Is it fried? Is it baked? Is it boiled? What are the sides that come with the meal? If the sides are items like rice, potatoes, or French fries, we advise asking for a healthy substitution like steamed veggies and salad. I know some people see me going into the restaurant and think, “Oh boy, there he goes again, asking questions.” But it’s important for us folks who have diabetes to find a way to eat properly while going out and enjoying a meal at the same time.
Also, on our website at www.merckdiabetes.com, there are over 100 healthy and heart- friendly recipes for people with diabetes to try for themselves at home.
Nadia: How does the program help restaurants publicize the fact that they have created diabetes-friendly food?
Earl: We encourage people to go to our website, where they’ll find information on all the restaurants that have participated in the program. It also has tips for dining out and meal information. “Restaurant owners can visit MerckDiabetes.com for updates on the program and what city I’ll visit next.”
Nadia: The Merck program offers many resources for people with diabetes beyond just food recommendations. What are some of them?
Earl: We try to get people to understand how important it is for them at exercise as well as to eat healthily. Another thing we do is educate people about the fact that if you have diabetes, you are two to four times more likely to get heart disease, which makes it even more important to follow certain regimens to stay healthy and control your diabetes. We talk to diabetes educators and their patients about the importance of management. That includes blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol control.
Nadia: After being diagnosed with diabetes in 1998, did you change your diet right away or go through a longer learning process?
Earl: I went through a process before I got into the swing of it. It’s really hard to change after you have been doing something for years-the fast foods, grabbing something when you get a little hungry. But the big thing I had was the support my family and friends to help me through those times when I leaned off the straight and narrow.
Nadia: What are your concerns about having type 2 diabetes? What do you fear the most?
Earl: Right now, I don’t fear anything. My doctor told me what I could and couldn’t do, and I try to stay straight with that. The biggest thing he told me was that even though I have type 2 diabetes, if I do certain things, which I try to do, I can live a normal healthy and productive life.
Nadia: Do you have an A1C target that you work toward with your doctor?
Earl: Yes, I do. Sometimes it fluctuates. Right now I’m in the lower end of the recommended range. I take pills every day and keep my regimen up. Also, the Merck website has information about low blood sugar.
Nadia: What’s your daily regimen?
Earl: I know my blood sugar is under control when it’s around 95 to 100. I take my pill in the morning and I try to eat properly-lots of salads and vegetables. I save a little room for dessert at the end of the day because I like to eat sweets. But I only eat a portion of my dessert. If I get a piece of cake, I’ll cut it into four pieces. Then I’ll eat one piece a day for four days.
Nadia: Do you have a daily or weekly exercise routine?
Earl: I try to exercise as much as I can. I have a dog, and a lot of the time I go walk my dog for 30 or 35 minutes. That’s certainly a form of exercise. When I’m out doing things, I park my car farther away from where I have to go. I also do cardio exercise.
Nadia: I understand that you discussed diabetes with fans in all these restaurants across 18 states. What have you found interesting in your feedback?
Earl: We’ve been received very well in those restaurants. The thing that stands out for me is that people say when they’ve seen me talking about diabetes, it’s inspired them to start taking better care of themselves. I myself was in denial for a couple years. When you realize that there are over 26 million people in this country with diabetes and an untold number in denial, it makes you think. If you’re able to control your diabetes, your blood pressure, and your cholesterol, you’re in good shape. You definitely don’t want to be in the position where you are promoting your own heart disease.
Nadia: Do you have any other advice?
Earl: Just that if you find you have some of the symptoms-the sweating, the increased thirst, the increased appetite, the increased urination, and whatnot-go get checked out. And visit our website.