Bill Cosby on 5-Hour Energy and Thinking of Your Pancreas

Protein and carbs, in deliberate ratios, help the comedy legend avoid "that 2:30 feeling" and highlight his call for nutrition education.

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Cosby at The Atlantic's "Conversation on Community Health" Town Hall, September 24th in Philadelphia

Bill Cosby continues to exercise his celebrity to promote social responsibility, this time in the realm of nutrition and public health. He's outspoken in his positions on diet, enjoining with a passion that reveals a deep-seated desire to advance education initiatives. "Leave the bread alone. Leave it -- alone. Leave it alone."

Yesterday in Philadelphia, Cosby and his long-time writing partner, Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint, sat down with The Atlantic's Steve Clemons and Dr. Brian McDonough, medical editor at Philadelphia's KYW Newsradio -- part of a forum on community health hosted by The Atlantic and underwritten by GlaxoSmithKline. Cosby took the stage with a solemn gait, but when in an early question Clemons referred to white people as "less-colored," Cosby let out a rumbling laugh, and his whole face lit up. Suddenly we were in the Huxtable living room about to get a talking-to.

While he continued to sprinkle in enough humor to keep the place laughing every minute or so, most of his message was serious and heartfelt. He aptly addressed messages from the media:

"There are commercials out now about a drink that, if you drink it, for five hours you'll be in fantastic shape. And people are saying yes at a certain time of day my body goes down, and at certain times this and that. And I'm telling you right now that 2:30-3:00 time of day -- just bring with you to work a Ziploc bag of some chopped chicken, beef, pork, or fish; and another bag with some raw or cooked vegetables -- just do that ... There are certain times of the day when you need a balance -- that is, your protein and your carbs. I'm a Barry Sears man. I believe that anything green is a carb, and I need 2:1. Two of the carbs to one of the protein."

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Cosby highlighted that nutritional education can't just teach people to read labels -- it has to also teach why being healthy is important. "If I read the small print, and I see that what I love to taste has pantonaponamene or fake smeinlioaimine, then I have to hide in my room when I eat it. I'm still gonna eat it, it's just gonna be 'Don't come in here!'" The underlying message was that  we need to foster a culture that encourages people to value their own health. 

Specifically, Cosby implored us to think of the pancreas. Which could be a catchy public health campaign slogan in itself.

"Because your pancreas ... takes this protein and breaks it down into fat. When you eat the green, that turns to sugar, but it doesn't wear out that poor little pancreas that you have. So I'd advise all of you -- just try [eating protein at 2:30], two or three days in a row, instead of picking up somebody's candy bar or two cups of something that boosts you. How about eating for real?"

The recurring theme of childhood obesity, which has increased in prevalence by 60 percent between 1990 and 2010 and is at notably high levels in Cosby's home town of Philadelphia, is close to Cosby and Poussaint's collective heart.

The importance of the message isn't new to the writing team, though. They've been actively promoting socially conscious behaviors since the days of The Cosby Show. "I remember having a long hard argument with a writer when I was doing a commercial and he wanted to say that this product took care when you're hungry, and I said, 'I'm not going to say hungry.' I can say when you have an appetite -- because that's what it is. When we say we want to eat something we really don't know if it's hunger or appetite." Cosby went on to underline that most commercials aren't so conscientious in their wording, and that "along with whatever television and radio are telling you" nutrition education needs to start early.

Dr. Poussant added, "If we're really going to deal with nutrition, it has to start in preschool or before preschool -- it's an issue for parents from the very beginning. The early habits establish everything." At that Cosby incited the room to applause.

"The obesity problem starts even before the kid is born," Dr. Poussant continued. "All the information has to be there to mothers prenatally. And then children who were breastfed are much less likely to be obese than children who were fed formula. And then in addition to the three Rs, everybody has to be literate in nutrition. You have to be able to pick up a can and read the nutrition label -- and know what it means."

Amid the arguments for public education, Dr. Poussant also acknowledged that even when people know how they should be eating, financial issues are often the barrier to good habits. "It can be very hard for people to pay for the healthy foods." While he didn't get to address it, Cosby no doubt has plans for what to do about these issues of access, as well.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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