Mira Sorvino Tackles Diabetes, Bipolar, and Human Trafficking

The actress tells WebMD about her role in the new movie, Union Square, plus her advocacy work and personal health habits.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on October 04, 2011
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Born in Tenafly, N.J., actress Mira Sorvino has won acclaim for her roles in a wide range of movies, including Barcelona, Quiz Show, Mighty Aphrodite, and Romy and Michele's High School Reunion. She spoke to WebMD the Magazine about her work with the families of people with diabetes, as well as her healthy diet (it really is healthy), her three children, and her role as a woman with bipolar disorder inthe upcoming Union Square. Plus she reveals her favorite guilty-pleasure food.

You graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, won an Oscar at 28, and are now married with three kids. But you're not one to rest on your laurels. In addition to starring roles on stage and screen, you're spokesperson for Diabetes Co-Stars, which educates about the importance of family support in managing the disease. How has diabetes affected your life?

My dad [actor Paul Sorvino] has type 2 diabetes. He got diagnosed about five years ago and for the first couple of years didn't tell any of us. And when he finally did we were really alarmed because he wasn't really taking care of himself.

We're living proof that family members and friends can make a huge difference. My dad definitely would not be doing as well as he is if we children did not help him and encourage him and make suggestions about changes to his diet. We exercise together. We've done some ballroom dancing, which brings back memories of him dancing with me at my wedding, and teaching me the box step when I was little and going to a school dance.

You work to combat child sex trafficking. What don't most people know about this dark world?

Basically, slavery is alive and well -- it's just under a different name: human trafficking. Even in America, children are being bought and sold every day by unscrupulous people to unscrupulous people who will sleep with them and keep them in slave-like conditions. The way these kids' lives are being ruined, it just kills me. So I've been on a campaign to change state's laws so that they are seen as victims of crime, not "child prostitutes" who are criminals.

In your new movie, Union Square, you play a woman with bipolar disorder. What did you learn about that disease while working on that film?

I know some bipolar people and I tried to craft the character's behavior on what I knew personally of these people. They feel the world a little bit differently -- things can hurt much more. But then also there can be these wonderful bursts of happiness and creativity and joyfulness that maybe other people don't experience. They say a lot of the great artists and writers throughout history have been bipolar.

As an actress an activist, you travel a lot. How do you eat healthfully on the road?

I think sometimes it's easier to eat healthfully when you're staying at a nice hotel because you can always order a salad. It's not like at home where there are things to munch on all over the place.

What is your best health habit?

I try to eat healthy. I avoid pesticides in food and I try to eat organic as much as possible, and locally grown. I used to work out a lot more, but with the kids there's really not the time to do it every day. When I can, I'll go out for a quick walk or run on the beach. Or when my kids play in the pool, I'll try to sneak some laps around them. But they won't always let me because they want to play Marco Polo with me!

What is your worst health habit?

I definitely like sugar too much. I used to eat a piece of cake instead of a meal -- which is ridiculous. But I don't do that anymore. I used to bake a lot, too, but I don't anymore because I can't resist the temptation. Now I try not to keep sugary things in the house so I don't succumb to them.

Now that you're a mom, how do you teach your kids healthy eating habits?

Like all kids, they're drawn to French fries and cupcakes, but I really try to enforce vegetable and fruits and limit the desserts. Like today, when my daughter came home from school I served her some organic strawberries and grapes for a snack instead of a popsicle.

Has a health condition ever altered your daily life?

During my last pregnancy I had placenta previa and I had to be on hospital bed rest for nine weeks. It made me really sympathetic to people who have chronic illnesses and spend a lot of time in hospitals because it was so lonely. It changed my perspective on hospitals and illness. So now I'm doing everything I can to not be in a hospital.

What qualities do you value in a doctor?

When I was in the hospital I had some tremendous doctors who were extremely attentive. They were very positive, very honest, and called and visited a lot. They weren't people who were just rushing to get out of there -- I truly felt that they cared about me. That was important.

What is your favorite part of your body?

I like my lower lip. And my legs.

What health habit do you wish you'd had as a younger person?

My mother was always extremely conscious about the sun -- she was into sun block and hats way before other people were, so I'm lucky that that was instilled in me early. I feel that my skin is in a better place than it would be had I done a lot of intentional tanning.

But I did smoke on and off for about a decade and a half. I never smoked more than a pack a week, but I'm happy that I stopped that. I stopped the day my husband and I got engaged. He stopped smoking, too, and he was a three-pack-a-day guy.

How do you feel about aging?

I don't think anyone is that excited about getting older, except that the alternative is worse! I think age is an attitude and a mindset, and you are as young as you feel. You have to accept that time may do a tap dance on your exterior body, but if you keep your heart open and your mind spry you're still going to really enjoy life all the way through. So that's my plan.

What is your favorite healthy food?

I love all kinds of seafood. I also love broccoli and fruits, like berries, peaches, and mangos.

What is your guilty pleasure food?

Cake. I like almost all kinds of cakes, but chocolate is definitely high on my list.

Do you cook?

Actually, my father and I are thinking about doing a cooking show! We've always cooked together and we love going back to Italy to revisit our roots, so we thought it might be fun to share how easy healthy Italian cooking can be. It's not complicated like making French sauces, it's just a few ingredients and really fresh products -- you just have to get the hang of it. And I think it's the most delicious food, though obviously I'm biased.

Do you cook with your kids?

We cook simple things. They'll help me make omelets or pancakes -- they love breaking eggs.

If you could see one disease eradicated in your lifetime, what would it be?

I'd have to say cancer. I've lost so many people I love to cancer. I just lost one of my best friends a year ago this summer -- she'd fought breast cancer since 1995. My grandmother died of cancer. My husband's father died of cancer when he was 10. I don't know a single person whose family has not been marred by cancer, and even if people survive it, so many people get it.