As I’m talking to Beatriz Parra, the lead nutritionist from Dr. Sebi’s Cell Food, I hear waves of hope in her voice.
“Keeping in mind that everybody’s different, but you will see a change.”
She can’t know what change I need. But at 202 unlovable pounds, I know I need the cure for low self-esteem, which I treat with foods that my body shows me it hates, and I relentlessly pledge allegiance anyway.
Beatriz’s voice crests when she says, "natural." Her teacher Dr. Sebi’s philosophy praises anything untouched by human hands, which is kind of difficult to find in 2019. Hybrid foods, as he labels them, wouldn’t occur in nature. And thus began my journey into discovering exactly what the Dr. Sebi philosophy was all about.
Alfredo Bowman, best known as Dr. Sebi, was a Honduran herbalist who first appeared prominently in Los Angeles newspaper ads in the 1980s, offering plant-based medicinal salves and a strict vegan path to quality living and weight loss. But he earned notoriety in 1987 when the New York State medical board sued him for practicing medicine without a license. The self-proclaimed healer avoided charges by claiming he wasn’t practicing medicine and offering the testimony of his followers as proof he was something of spiritual adviser and diet wizard.
Although his ads touted his herbal answers could topple diseases as nefarious as cancer, diabetes and AIDS, the proof of that was anecdotal and bare bones. Still, there are many testimonials swearing by his nutritional guide, including the late Nipsey Hussle, who confirmed, himself, that he took supplements from the program. You've likely heard of him because of various conspiracy headlines and his devoted celebrity following.
Sebi’s legacy is undeniable. When rapper Nipsey Hussle was gunned down in the streets of South Central, LA, where his raps had become anthemic, the internet rumored that the 31-year-old artist had been targeted for trying to spread Sebi’s message. On the song “Blue Laces 2,” Hussle rhymes “They killed Dr. Sebi. He was teaching health.”
In that bar, Hussle also solidified, for another generation of fans, Sebi’s influence among top-tier Black entertainers. The guru allegedly treated Eddie Murphy, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez and Michael Jackson in the decades those stars were at the height of fame. I can admit I gave his diet a chance because I maintain mistrust for the medical and food industries and the way they prey on people who look like me.
So I dived into the Dr. Sebi Cell Food journey, and upon my initial call with Beatriz, she explained why some vegetables I thought of as harmless were, in fact, the enemy.
“One example I can tell you is celery. But even foods like broccoli, cauliflower, spinach are genetically modified and were only created for us to buy them.” She sounds like she truly believes that natural is best for me and for her.
Still, I pepper her with questions. I have more than just doubts. I have scientific cynicism and unrealistic demands. I believe I have earned this badge of suspicion. Where I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where I saw Rastamen and women peddle oils, elixirs and bitters pegged as cure-all elements suppressed by outside forces. (This is partly true about the hood: there is more bad food than good, and it’s cheaper to eat the bad stuff.)
When the Rasta vendors I witnessed used the word “natural,” it meant something else. It meant a way to fill the void where nutritious foods were lacking. Natural has transformed into a selling point, one of many bullets. But I want to feel natural if that feels like love from within.
Dr. Sebi’s basic principle is this: Mucus means sickness. If you want to stop sickness, stop mucus. He also qualified some food as “electric” and advocates eating these supercharged ingredients to preserve our own vitality. He pays special attention to pH measurement, claiming that alkaline foods contain more of this glowing electric energy.
There are some holes in the alkaline and mucus theories. After all, we’ve been taught in school that the immune system produces mucus to combat illness, and that digestion and cardiovascular respiration rely on us producing acid. But I’m neither a scientist nor a doctor. I’m writing about taking a diet that makes Black people feel better, and I hope I’ll feel better too, although I don’t harbor a chronic disease and haven’t had major surgery. I mostly just tend to punish myself for not being slimmer.
When I tried explaining my new diet to friends curious about this piece, I noted that the Venn diagram between Sebi’s afrocentric vegan YouTube disciples and Hotep archaeologists was a single circle. Dr. Sebi sermonized the same shaman talk that’s long been present in our history. Years later, after his research came to light, even after his passing in 2016, his nutrition plan, his secret library of herbal knowledge, continues to sell for a mere thousand-dollar dose a month. That’s a bargain if we’re essentially talking about the fountain of youth.
On the first Sunday of the diet, I order a salad at the deli counter: kale, chickpeas, apple slices, black olives, sunflower seeds, avocado, salt, pepper, olive oil. I doubt the meal will feed my hunger, but that’s not what it’s for.
In 2017, when ketogenic diets fed my hunger, I warmed to thick slabs of bacon over arugula leaves hugging goat cheese and sundried tomatoes. But the trendy diet wasn’t sustainable, at least not for me, and led me here seeking a totally different approach to nutrition.
I’ve always lived closest to juicy, salty, sticky, hateful food. I tell myself junk food is the only kind that speaks to my hunger. Leafing through the Sebi nutritional guide discouraged me at first. Where would I find organic pearl bananas with seeds or the soursop fruit in Harlem? But the aim of a limited diet is, in part, to give the user understandable guidelines to eat and shop. The limits are the whole point.
The hard-line vegan rules gave me anxiety about eating what was truly “pure” versus when I had license to work around, substituting canned chickpeas for raw ones, for instance. It seemed impossible to uphold the unprocessed credo of Sebi’s “electric food” diet in a modern city. Every morsel of food, drink and spice that touches my hands has survived a long, deliberate process to get it to me. While Sebi’s concept holds up—eliminating the kinds of high-sugar and high-fat foods that come packaged and pre-made and replacing them with vegetables will jump start weight loss—the key to health only starts there.
The seeds that grow the plum tomatoes and green bananas in the produce section of my local supermarket—staples of the Cell Food list—were surely altered in a lab for growth rate, taste and color. Would I be able to properly absorb full wellness and life everlasting with a Monsanto-grown avocado? This is the inherent carrot-and-stick game of miracle health diets.
When I receive the package from the Dr. Sebi shipping address, I scanned the list of foods I’d be allowed to eat. Brazil nuts. Iron bromide. Fucus. Lymphalin. These Sebi diet herbs had weird names that stuck in my mouth like their flavor profiles. Because I had so many of the products to consume, I tried blending the contents of the pills inside a giant smoothie with coconut milk, pearl bananas and agave syrup. Not the tastiest concoction, but I swallowed my medicine.
During the first week, the number of pills (28 per day) I had to gulp overwhelmed me. I’d asked Beatriz what to expect, and she guaranteed I’d feel nausea at first. I did. I felt way more aware of my digestion. She warned I might have the sweats and cramps in addition to more frequent bathroom trips, but I drank the recommended daily gallon of water, which seemed to help.
That much hydration does come with some cons. On the second day, I drank a half-gallon of water before getting on the train to work. In the course of the 20-minute ride to get there, the water immediately rushed to my bladder. I loosened my belt when I exited the sliding doors, hoping for relief before the brief walk to the glass doors of the building where I work.
I didn’t make it, though. Instead, I stopped five yards from the glass revolving doors of my job and peed on a standpipe. Yeah, not my proudest moment. From then on, I drank most of my water at work during breaks. But in that shaky first stretch, I noticed progress as well.
In my food journal I wrote, “felt more energetic in the a.m.” on Day 3. Around 8 a.m., I would take the first 14 pills of the 28-capsule daily dose. I felt lighter, less bloated after meals. When I couldn’t cook food, or felt too tired, I’d eat salad or fruit, so the lightness made sense. In random moments, I remember feeling encouraged and even ecstatic that I hadn’t craved hateful food for days at a time.
I even became more intentional about sleep. I went to bed at midnight the first seven days—a true feat because I indulge insomnia more often than not. That meant I ate meals and stopped eating meals at an earlier hour, too. My body, confused by years of mixed signals, welcomed the stability and chance to digest. I ended that week at 190 unlovable pounds. I felt self-conscious about my shape but proud of the benchmark.
The same way I felt deliberate about sleep, I took pains to prepare my food and avoid settings where I wouldn’t be able to eat along the guidelines following the ritual of food preparation celebrated by IG influencers and fitness heads.
I boiled chickpeas, chopped green bananas, sautéed mustard greens and collards. I bought Haitian mangoes, now in season, and sliced cubes for smoothies and snacks. I learned the combinations of texture that made food feel more satisfying. When I ate the saccharine dates with just-ripe mango slices, it was a perfect dessert for lean times. I relished the smell and taste of onions frying in a pan, and how they melded to fresh tomato and basil when I needed seasoning.
The meals didn’t take very long to cook, but the time was intimate and, eventually, familiar. I learned to use those quiet meditative moments to nourish myself, in subtle ways, not like the rush of a Snickers bar, more lasting.
It was easier to take Dr. Sebi’s pill potion when I timed them for 30 minutes after a meal. New energy brewed inside me, so I worked out for the first time in about nine weeks. Rejuvenation visited me daily. I woke up less reluctant each day, more ready to battle doubt. But when I got on the scale on Day 14, I looked down and saw 190 pounds.
This number was still high and ultimately deterred my confidence, but I thought, "Maybe this lull in progress was just part of the process?" So instead of cracking, I carried on and "treated” myself to a frozen blend of mangoes and banana and pretended it was ice cream. If I couldn’t have a hateful-ass pint of Ben and Jerry’s, I could fake like I was.
By Day 24, I’ve settled into the diet, and the pill count has diminished significantly. I step on the scale awaiting my verdict, and I finally get my win. It says 181, meaning I've successfully dropped 21 pounds since following Dr. Sebi's manifesto.
The pill doses and powder smoothies don’t feel like a pain to guzzle anymore. I haven’t drank coffee in about a month, but I feel great about it. Beyond the physical improvements, a calmer, happier mood has washed over me. Despite my initial skepticism, I gradually surrender to the reality that I look and feel better than I have in a long time.
But it also made me revisit the myth of Dr. Sebi, the largesse of Nipsey Hussle, and the capacity for an unloved, unlovable body to house miracles. Soon, every conversation I have becomes a referendum on how every person wants to feel good about their diet but struggles with it.
We’ve praised the results of self-care, the superficial proof of a changed body, but have not explored the damage that leaves people feeling unlovable. Nipsey Hussle focused his energy on flipping that negative perception growing like weeds in our urban garden. He had a plan to use federally designated Opportunity Zones as breeding grounds for food plazas that would feature fresh local produce. He wanted to transform South Central LA into a food oasis instead of letting it languish as a food desert. Alfredo “Dr. Sebi” Bowman brought a scandalous food philosophy that flew in the face of conventional medicine but ultimately did more good for the Black community’s beliefs about diet than the other influences in 24-hour driveways.
Disclaimer: These opinion are not BET's nor is this a sponsored story.
(Photo: Getty Images/BET)