Randy Jackson Tackles Weight Loss, Diet, and Diabetes

American Idol judge reveals how he lost 100 pounds and tamed his diabetes. Plus, a slimmed-down recipe and his iPod playlist!

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 20, 2008
From the WebMD Archives

Randy Jackson’s struggle with obesity began as a child in Louisiana, with its super spicy, often super-fatty cuisine. Even as an adult, Jackson still doesn't dream of sugarplums at Christmastime. Instead, he dreams of waltzing andouille sausage and grits, jigging jambalaya, and shimmying beignets and bread pudding with bourbon sauce.

“For the old Dawg, a holiday party was a chance to have something to eat, drink, and be merry, but the new Randy does not drink or eat at parties,” says Jackson, 52, today a slimmed-down 5 feet 11 inches and 220 pounds. These days his focus is more about good times and less about food since he’s recently lost -- and kept off -- more than 100 pounds since peaking at 350 in 2001.

Jackson’s approach to food and health is new -- certainly a lot different than when American Idol first aired in June 2002. Idol is, of course, the reality-show juggernaut that has dominated television and the radio waves ever since, rewarding one promising young singer with a recording contract after seven weeks of drama-filled elimination contests. Last year, the show was the No. 1 Nielsen-ranked program of the season, viewed by 56 million between January and May 2007.

Randy Jackson's Struggle With Obesity

Jackson has been there, in his judge’s slot, every season, but behind the scenes he’s weathered a type 2 diabetes diagnosis, major weight-loss surgery, and a wholesale rethinking of his health, especially when it comes to food and the role it plays in his life. (Check out Randy Jackson's workout playlist!)

Not that temptations don’t abound. Holidays aside, the self-proclaimed Dawg (Jackson’s nickname for himself and almost everyone else) has his resolve tested daily on the road, as he scours America for top singing talent with American Idol co-hosts Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and a new judge, Kara DioGuardi, who joins the gang this season. The days are long and the lavish catering spreads are everywhere.

Notoriously ornery Cowell is “always saying ‘We are ordering lunch, bring Randy a Dunkin’ Donut and 12 milkshakes,'” Jackson says. He pauses with a laugh, then adds, “We joke about it, but he and Paula are very supportive.”

Take the run-up to season eight, for example, which airs in January. Jackson and his cohorts visited eight cities over five weeks starting in July, dropping into Louisville, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco, among others, for two full days of hard-core judging on each stop.

Long auditions are packed with off-key contestants (and a few promising performers) -- and, yes, plenty of M&Ms and cookies. The pre- and post-show buffets do offer some healthy options, but junk food is in good supply, and who wouldn’t be tempted?

But Jackson says he’s up for the challenge. “It’s all about being aware of who you are, knowing your body, and accepting that,” Jackson says.

Randy Jackson's New Book

This relentlessly practical point of view is the heart of Jackson’s new book, Body With Soul: Slash Sugar, Cut Cholesterol, and Get a Jump on Your Best Health Ever, releasing on Dec. 2. “I am not some trainer with a half-percentage of body fat; I am a real guy dealing with obesity,” he says. “I am the guy who knows what it’s like to be walking around with 100 extra pounds.”

You can’t get more real than that. In an oversaturated market where weight-loss books hawk get-skinny-quick gimmicks, Jackson’s gimmick is that there is no gimmick. He is all about being real, exercising and eating in moderation, and accepting yourself for who you are.

His chosen profession has forced him to be diet-conscious as well. While many of his peers in the music industry battled drugs and alcohol, “food was always my thing,” Jackson says, “because I grew up in the South where food and good times were king.” And this love affair with food continued as he toured and played bass for Carlos Santana, Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, and Whitney Houston, plus a lengthy stint as the bassist for Journey. He has also recorded with such luminaries as Madonna and Celine Dion.

A well-stocked deli tray is set up like a welcome mat for the band, and that’s just before the event. “After the show, everybody hangs out and eats and drinks. There are all kinds of sandwiches plus chips, cheeses, cookies, cakes, candy, beer, wine,” he recalls.

Now Jackson is a self-proclaimed TV-show guy, and he lives in Los Angeles where health and fitness, not food and good times, tend to reign supreme. His healthier approach to eating is spilling over to his children -- Taylor, 18 (with ex-wife Elizabeth Jackson), Zoe, 13, and Jordan, 11, with wife Erika. “There are lots of fruits and vegetables in the house, and we now have the corn without the bread,” he says.

He has also learned to cook healthier versions of the foods he grew up loving, such as low-fat sweet potato pie and salt-free Cajun spice bread. (Try Jackson's recipe for shrimp and sausage gumbo.)

Randy Jackson's Weight Loss

Even so, how does he hold his own in the face of Cowell’s teasing or late nights on the road? “I now know so much about food that I can look at a piece of chicken or fish and have half,” he says. “I am very attuned to knowing when I have had enough.”

Forgiveness is also a part of the equation for Jackson. “If you make a mistake, change it the next day,” he says. “Never say ‘I will never have another piece of chocolate,’ because it won’t happen, and as soon as you say never, there is a binge coming.” Jackson instead turns to frozen yogurt and protein shakes to satisfy his sweet tooth.

Health experts approve Jackson’s approach. “We know that Americans can lose weight, they just can’t sustain their weight loss,” explains Francine R. Kaufman, MD, head of the Diabetes Center at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles and a distinguished professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California. “Jackson’s message is to do ‘the best I can today and keep pushing each day,’ and that’s the right one.”

Knowing yourself also helps. Obviously, he can dish it out as an Idol judge, often calling contestants’ renditions of classic tunes “pitchy,” but even at his heaviest Jackson was no easy target for ticked-off Idol wannabees. “If someone called me fat, I was like ‘Dude, I’ve got a mirror, you ain’t telling me nothing I don’t already know.’”

So what finally clicked for Jackson, who was looking pretty large when Kelly Clarkson took home the title in 2002 and comparatively svelte when David Cook brought down the house at the end of season seven last May? “I barely recognize myself when I look back at old shows,” he says. “Although the transformation may have seemed abrupt to viewers, I had been trying to lose weight for a long time.” He’s tried as many diets as there have been finalists over the years. “Liquid fasts. Bee stings. Urine of pregnant women. You name it. I have tried it,” he says, exaggerating a bit. “The problem is that those diets don’t work for people who have the disease of obesity.”

Randy Jackson's Diabetes

Getting diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2001 was the final straw for Jackson, who had no choice but to start taking his health seriously. And while this set him on his current path, there were -- and still are -- some bumps along the way. “The struggle continues,” he says. “It never ends.”

At the time of his diagnosis, Jackson found himself in the emergency room after feeling tired, thirsty, sweaty, and dizzy for five days. He was 45 at the time.

Even though he was at higher risk for type 2 diabetes due to his weight, ethnicity, and family history, the diagnosis caught him off guard. Both his parents had what he calls “the sugar,” but, ever protective of their children, they didn’t really share much about their struggles with the disease.

Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes and the form most closely associated with obesity. It occurs when the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells do not properly use the insulin. Over time, high blood sugar levels may harm the eyes, kidneys, nerves, or heart.

“When you grow up with ‘the sugar’ in your family, there are a lot of decisions you could make, such as cut back on this or cut back on that and do more of this or more of that, but you never think it will happen to you,” he says.

Except that it did. “A generation ago people weren’t as overweight as they are today, which has changed the playing field,” says John Buse, MD, PhD, chief of the endocrinology division and director of the Diabetes Care Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the American Diabetes Association’s president for medicine and science.

“Today, for people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, a family history of diabetes is a pretty strong risk factor because our environment is worse than our ancestors,” he says. “If you do have a family history, your risk is twice as great as the general population. And if you’re also overweight, you should start screening at puberty and not wait until your 30s or 40s.”

Diabetes Symptoms Can Be Invisible

Jackson feels fortunate that he caught his diabetes when he did. “Things can jump up and surprise you,” he says. “I thought I had a cold,” he says, still shocked seven years later that he didn’t make the connection.

Jackson’s case isn’t unusual. “You can function reasonably well until things are about 90 percent down,” Buse says.

“A normal blood sugar is 100 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL), and it’s rare to have symptoms until your blood sugar is twice as high as that.” When Jackson found himself in the ER, his blood sugar was more than 500 mg/dL. Plus, when there are symptoms, they are pretty nonspecific, such as waking up at night to urinate, blurred vision, and fatigue. And even these signs don’t always show up.

“Of the six or seven million people who have diabetes and don’t know it, almost none would have any symptoms,” Buse says. That’s why many people don’t know they have it until they have a stroke or a heart attack.

“More people probably know who Kelly Clarkson is than realize that diabetes is connected to cardiovascular disease and stroke,” Jackson says.

Randy Jackson's Gastric Bypass Surgery

Jackson has teamed up with the American Heart Association to lead the Heart of Diabetes campaign (, which provides information and tools to help people with type 2 better manage their disease.

He also leads childhood obesity prevention and treatment programs in East and South Los Angeles.“Obese kids are made fun of in school and we are trying to lighten their loads,” Jackson says. “We want to get to them and teach them to adopt healthy lifestyles before they need gastric bypass surgery.”

In 2003, Jackson chose to undergo gastric bypass surgery, in which a surgeon creates a smaller stomach pouch to curb food intake by stapling a portion of the stomach. Put another way: The once-larger stomach is now the size of a golf ball. As a result, a person feels full sooner and eats less.

Gastric bypass surgery also entails connecting the smaller stomach pouch further down the small intestine. This bypasses the upper part of the small intestine, leading to fewer calories and nutrients being absorbed by the body.

The weight loss from gastric bypass is very rapid, occurring in the first nine to 12 months, then tends to plateau after 18 months and a person’s appetite comes back. “For me, I gained back 15% of the weight I lost after surgery, and I said, ‘Now I have to get to work,'” Jackson recalls.

Sliding back is typical, says Christine Ren Fielding, MD, an associate professor of surgery at NYU School of Medicine and director of the NYU Program for Surgical Weight Loss. “Weight loss surgery is a tool and definitely gives you a jump-start, but the rest is up to you.”

Living With Gastric Bypass

People who undergo the gastric procedure have to change everything about how they ate before the surgery. “You have to eat smaller portions and chew each morsel thoroughly,” she says. They also must take supplements to compensate for certain nutrients that the body no longer absorbs as well. If they don’t abide by these new rules, decidedly unpleasant symptoms, such as abdominal cramps and nausea can happen.

And if they do gain the weight back, other consequences of obesity, such as diabetes, will also return. Not everyone’s diabetes goes away, but Jackson’s is at bay for now. His blood sugar is controlled by diet and exercise alone, and he no longer has to take medications. “I go to my doctor four times a year to see where my sugars are,” he says. “It’s a good thing to stay on top of, because health is the biggest wealth we can have in the world.”

And for exercise? While millions of Idol viewers likely tune in from the comfort of their couch, Jackson says he’s definitely found ways to incorporate simple exercises into his hectic lifestyle, even when he is on the road. The former high school football player keeps a big, bulky treadmill next to his bed, which may not do much for décor, but he has to pass it each morning when he rolls out of bed. “It’s right there staring at me, going, ‘Come here. You know you need this,’ [and] that makes the ugliness worth it,” he says. Jackson usually walks on the treadmill for 35 to 45 minutes a day.

He’s also been known to get down on the mat as part of his morning routine. It may be hard to picture the Dawg in the downward-facing dog or other pose, but “I have become accustomed to yoga,” Jackson says. “I love the stretching and how it makes my body feel better and looser.”

And it’s working. “Dude, I feel great today,” he says. “I am fortunate and happy to be on the path that I am on.”

Randy Jackson's Workout Playlist

When Jackson hits the treadmill, his iPod is loaded with tunes to get him rolling. Here’s his pumped-up playlist, in order:

"Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow," Paula Abdul
"Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow," Paula Abdul (Paul Oakenfold Remix)
"Let’s Go to Bed, " The Cure
"Being a Girl, " Van Hunt
"Start Me Up, " The Rolling Stones
"Good Life, " Kanye West
"Breathe Me, " Sia
"Fly Away, " Lenny Kravitz
"Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough, " Michael Jackson
"California Love, " Zapp & Roger
"Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight, " Paul McCartney
"Clocks, " Coldplay
"All the Small Things, " Blink-182
"Make It Happen, " Mariah Carey
"Jump, " Kris Kross
"SexyBack, " Justin Timberlake
"At the End of a Slow Dance, " Van Hunt
"My Humps, " Black Eyed Peas
"Buttons, " The Pussycat Dolls
"Don’t Cha, " The Pussycat Dolls
"Hey Ya! " OutKast
"Addicted to Love, " Robert Palmer
"Beat It," Fall Out Boy featuring John Mayer
"Crazy," Gnarls Barkley
"Born for This, " Paramore
"Call Me," Blondie
"Chains of Love, " Erasure
"Chasing Cars, " Snow Patrol
"See You Again, " Miley Cyrus
"Damaged," Danity Kane
"Dance to the Music, " Sly & the Family Stone
"Boulevard of Broken Dreams, " Green Day

Shrimp and Sausage Gumbo Ya-Ya

Growing up down South, Jackson developed a taste for the richest of fare, and while most of those original recipes are off-limits, he has learned how to enjoy the taste without the calories, fat, and guilt with the help of chef Jeff Parker, a nutritionist, and his own cook. “Even a Baton Rouge boy like me can hardly tell that they’ve been slimmed down,” he says. Here’s one of the many recipes from his new book, Body With Soul: Slash Sugar, Cut Cholesterol, and Get a Jump on Your Best Health Ever, in bookstores Dec. 2.

Shrimp and Sausage Gumbo Ya-Ya
Makes 12 servings

3/4 cup flour
1 lb ground turkey breast
2 tbsp salt-free Cajun seasoning
1/4 tsp cayenne, or more if needed
1/4 tsp liquid smoke
3 tbsp minced garlic, divided
2 tbsp canola oil
4 ribs celery, thinly sliced
2 large onions, diced
2 red bell peppers, diced
2 green bell peppers, diced
8 cups fat-free chicken stock
8 oz okra, tops trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 lb medium shrimp, thawed if frozen, peeled and deveined
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400º. Spread flour on a baking sheet and toast in oven for 45 to 60 minutes or until nut brown, stirring occasionally. Sift into a bowl and set aside.

Meanwhile, make turkey “andouille” sausage. Thoroughly combine ground turkey, 1 tbsp Cajun seasoning, cayenne, liquid smoke, and 1 tbsp garlic. Form 1/2 tbsp of meat into small patties. Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large heavy skillet or Dutch oven. Brown sausage patties on both sides. Remove and set aside.

Add remaining oil to pan and heat. Cook celery, onions, peppers, and remaining garlic until soft, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle flour over vegetables a little at a time, stirring between additions. Cook 2 minutes more. Slowly pour in stock while stirring. Add okra, bay leaf, and remaining Cajun seasoning. Stir in sausage. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Skim foam from top of stew as it rises. Add shrimp and cook just long enough for shrimp to become opaque; about 5 to 10 minutes. If sodium is not an issue, season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve with cooked white or brown rice.

Per serving: 168 calories, 25 g protein, 14 g carbohydrate, 4 g fat, 79 mg cholesterol, 2 g dietary fiber, 480 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 17.2%.

WebMD Magazine - Feature


Interview, Randy Jackson, September 2008.
Christine Ren Fielding, MD, associate professor of surgery at NYU School of Medicine and the director of the NYU Program for Surgical Weight Loss, New York city, New York; co-author of Fighting Weight: How I Achieved Healthy Weight Loss with "Banding," a New Procedure That Eliminates Hunger Forever (with Khalia Ali).
Francine R. Kaufman, MD, head of the Diabetes Center at the Children's Hospital in Los Angeles; distinguished Professor of Pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California; author of Diabesity: The Obesity-Diabetes Epidemic That Threatens America -- and What We Must Do to Stop It.
John Buse, MD, PhD, chief of the endocrinology division and director of the Diabetes Care Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; the American Diabetes Association's President for Medicine and Science.

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