Sunny Anderson, a Food Network personality, began experiencing symptoms of ulcerative colitis (UC) in 1993. However, she didn’t assume it was anything serious as she had recently moved to South Korea for her deployment in the Air Force and thought it was her body becoming used to the new foods. After consulting with her father, a military radiologist, on her symptoms, he advised her to see a gastroenterologist who performed an endoscopy and colonoscopy, and she was subsequently diagnosed with UC in 1995. After leaving the Air Force as an award-winning broadcaster, she became a radio DJ in many cities across America. Her urgent and frequent bathroom usage would sometimes cause disruption to her work on live radio, but Sunny was open about her condition with her colleagues, and they were happy to cover for her if she had a flare-up. When Sunny was living in Detroit, she was hospitalized with UC after passing out unexpectedly.
Throughout Sunny’s journey with UC, she paid attention to what she was eating to help mitigate her symptoms. Sunny would notice the foods that caused a UC flare-up, and instead of cutting them out of her diet completely, she learned ways to modify some of them so she could still enjoy them. When Sunny moved to New York in 2001, her symptoms began teetering off. In New York, Sunny began cooking for her friends in the entertainment business, turning her hobby and growing client list into a catering company. That led to a guest appearance on Food Network’s Emeril Live! in 2005, and shortly after, she left her radio career and closed her catering business to focus on chasing another dream: sharing her recipes with the Food Network audience. Her first show, Gotta Get It, a food gadget show, premiered in 2007, followed by Cooking for Real, How’d That Get On My Plate, and Home Made in America with Sunny Anderson. She’s currently a co-host on The Kitchen. Her cooking style combines classic comfort foods and unique flavors inspired by her travels. With an understanding of everyday life and the belief that real people deserve down-to-earth, delicious meals, Sunny offers real food for real life.
She spoke to ESSENCE about why she partnered with Pfizer on the ‘Live Fully’ campaign to support those living with UC with resources and tips to help them navigate their disease and encourage them to have open and honest conversations with their doctors regarding this seemingly taboo disease.
ESSENCE: Share with our readers about your diagnosis with UC. How did you realize you had it?
Sunny Anderson: I moved to Seoul, South Korea, at 18. It was my first assignment in the military, and I was experiencing some prevalent symptoms of ulcerative colitis, but I did not know then. After a few months of experiencing these symptoms, I realized something was wrong. So I spoke to my dad about it. He was a doctor back in the States. You have to imagine I was very young and just starting my career. I didn’t have a lot of money. And back then, those calls were costly. But I thought it was an intelligent thing to do because my body was talking to me, and I didn’t know what it was saying. After telling my dad my symptoms, he suggested I speak to a gastro specialist. From there, I went through a battery of tests. And within a few months after that, I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.
Were you aware of UC before you were diagnosed?
I was not aware of ulcerative colitis when I was diagnosed. That’s why I’m happy to team with Pfizer and ThisisLivingWithUC.com so more people know what ulcerative colitis is and what the symptoms are. People living with ulcerative colitis need to know they have resources that they can use to talk to their medical professionals about managing their disease. I’m so very proud of this partnership because of that. Because I think if I had known what ulcerative colitis was and what the symptoms were when I was going through them, I would have gotten to a medical professional a lot faster. Initially, I thought it was maybe just period cramps or something I ate. And come to realize it was something a bit more than that.
How were you handling your UC symptoms?
It was about talking to my doctor and determining if the symptoms would continue. How long will this go on? What was ulcerative colitis? What was I going to expect? Because it was a new world for me. So, my doctor was good because he wanted me to journal and keep notes of how my body felt daily and what I was eating. And that was back in 1993, so I carried around a little notebook. But now, ThisisLivingWithUC.com and Pfizer have created a cool website and an app. So, everyone is carrying around their phones these days, so it’s kind of like a notebook, and people with UC can use that to track their symptoms and food.
How did living with UC shift your lifestyle? What did you have to change?
I think the biggest change for me was being vocal about my diagnosis. I’d never had a disease, so it was a new field. I had to decide – was I going to keep it to myself? Or was I going to share it with others? The first impetus for me to share it with others was that I was working and would possibly need help with some of the symptoms, especially with the urgent need to go. But secondary to that was just getting the word out because ulcerative colitis was something I’d never heard of, so, chances are, other people hadn’t heard of it yet, either. When I started speaking about it openly, I found some people knew and then people who didn’t know. My goal with Pfizer is to increase the amount of people who know about ulcerative colitis. Because over a million people in the U.S. have ulcerative colitis. That means it is someone you know or someone that knows someone that you know, right? It’s a relative, family member, et cetera. More awareness can help people get a diagnosis early. And we all know early diagnosis is much better for the individual health.
How did UC impact your relationship with food? Did you have to avoid using different ingredients and eating certain meals?
The way ulcerative colitis impacted my relationship with food was more of me being aware of what I was putting in my body and how it reacted. Before I was diagnosed – like many people – we ate the food we liked. And we enjoy, and we know the natural processes of our digestive system would go into action and handle the rest. When I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, it was more about pinpointing the specific foods and the preparations of those specific foods that would make them more conducive to my body and what would work with having ulcerative colitis. So there’s nothing that I ate before that I don’t eat now. It’s just how I prepare certain foods and how often I eat them. That’s been my personal experience, but I know it’s different for everyone.
What are foods that are difficult for people to eat with UC symptoms?
Oh wow, I would say that I don’t know the answer to that. Mostly because people with ulcerative colitis symptoms – at first, they are just symptoms, so we don’t know if they’ve been diagnosed yet. But even after diagnosis, we’re all individuals and different. And that’s the thing about ulcerative colitis that makes me proud to partner with Pfizer to get the word out there so more people with ulcerative colitis can find their community online at ThisisLivingWithUC.com. It’s important to realize that we’re all individuals, and some foods that might exacerbate my system would be perfectly fine for others. So, there are resources on that website for people to advocate for their health with a medical professional. There’s an app to track your foods to discover what foods might not work for you. But it’s important to understand that some foods might not work for you but would work for others with UC. We’re all individuals.
Why did you decide to partner with Pfizer?
I decided to partner with Pfizer because they had a goal that was 100% aligned with my goal of pushing knowledge and awareness. They could increase the bandwidth of what I do, which is just interpersonally telling people about my ulcerative colitis journey, and every once in a while, it will come up in conversation. Pfizer could amplify my voice and tell other people about my journey so they might feel a little bit of community with their journey. It’s also about educating others who might have some of the symptoms of this disease. It’s so important because, as it stands, more than a million people in the U.S. have ulcerative colitis. And so I can’t possibly reach more than that without the assistance of people who can get the word out there. So, ThisisLivingWithUC.com attracted me to working with Pfizer, knowing that they would build a website and dive into awareness with me, which is my goal. I’m not a doctor. I can’t tell you what you have or don’t have. I can’t even tell you how to react when you are diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. But I can’t tell you what my journey is and how I have managed to live fully.
Describe the Live Fully campaign for our readers. Why is it important for Black women to strive to live fully and healthily?
Well, this is important to me. The Live Fully campaign with Pfizer and the website ThisisLivingWithUC.com is an excellent resource for people with ulcerative colitis and people wondering if they have symptoms that they need to get checked out by a medical professional. But I think one of the most important things we discuss in the community is representation and how much it matters. I think a lot of times, we can get caught up in representation just being about women. Or just about being black, African American, or BIPOC. But representation also has to do with our insides. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Even when I was diagnosed at nineteen, I’d never heard of ulcerative colitis. So it’s important to come out and tell people I live fully with ulcerative colitis. Showing them the full career and life that I’ve had in food is important to me. I think this partnership with Pfizer is important because representation matters. And that means representation on all levels, including diseases.
What are some healthy alternatives food-wise that Black women should be investing in?
Well, you can buy my cookbook. Hahahaha. Sunny’s Kitchen, a New York Times best-seller. I would say that we’re all individuals, and you know, that’s the interesting thing about ulcerative colitis and that it deals with our digestive tract, but each of us has a different journey. And that’s why I really would implore your readers to check out ThisisLivingWithUC.com. If they have any questions, it will help them navigate ulcerative colitis, and there are resources there that can connect the dots for people. Like I said before, I was diagnosed at 19. That was some years ago before we had social media, the internet, and the ability to share information. So I would just say, before investing in certain types of food, invest in your health. Log on to the website and see if there are some things that you should discuss with your medical professional. And then, medical professionals can work with you to help you figure out what to do individually.
What are some of your favorite foods and recipes that are UC-friendly?
First, I have to start by saying every food is my favorite. Except for the one food I’m allergic to, which is crab. The interesting thing about being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis is that it’s a journey for each of us to discover what ingredients and foods and how to prepare them so they don’t Exacerbate our system. We’re all different. So, each of us deserves to work with our medical professionals to manage our UC. I encourage anyone with ulcerative colitis to lean in and dive into that with your healthcare provider. ThisisLivingWithUC.com is just the beginning of your journey. Anyone else who wonders how a woman with a food career, such as myself, navigates this – I didn’t do it alone. And it started at nineteen, so now at 48, it’s like second nature to me. I don’t think about it. But it all began with leaning in and conversing with the medical professionals.
What advice do you have for our readers so they can advocate for themselves with their doctors, especially if they have this disease?
My best advice is to understand that your doctor is there to help you. It’s literally why they got into the career field. Plus, they’re sworn to secrecy, so there should be no shame. There should be no worry. You should go into your doctor’s office feeling 100% comfortable to tell them everything happening with your body so they can help you. And they can confer with their contemporaries and professionally diagnose you. The best thing you can do for yourself is to talk to your medical professionals. And realize that they are there to help you. So, my biggest piece of advice would be to talk more. Share more and understand that when you do that, you give as much information as possible to the people who can help you.
How can Black women be more aware of UC?
As a Black woman, I find when I share my story with others, many times, it’s the first they’ve ever heard of ulcerative colitis. So first, thank you for talking to me about this. And secondly, I implore women to visit ThisisLivingWithUC.com and speak to their doctors. We know statistically that black women sometimes receive the bottom end of the stick of care. Because of those statistics, I want to implore all black women to speak up for themselves. We have no problem speaking up for others. We have no problem helping others. And I think sometimes, as black women, we must sit still with ourselves and realize that we must care for ourselves. Because it’s the old cliche – when we care for ourselves, we can better care for others. So, for me, it’s just more. If you’re reading this right now and think you might have symptoms indicative of ulcerative colitis, check out the website. Talk to your medical professionals, who can help if you have ulcerative colitis. I hope people read this and realize that I’m living fully. And they see that I’m 48 and I’ve had ulcerative colitis since 19. So, there is a way to find joy in life. I also want to make sure you take care of yourself. So, my goal truly is for people to understand that representation matters. And by saying that, I’m not just talking about my gender or race.
I’m talking about ulcerative colitis.