Jessica Marie Garcia on how a prediabetes diagnosis changed her life: ‘I had an unhealthy relationship with food’

Jessica Marie Garcia talks about her health journey. (Getty Images; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

It will is Yahoo Life’s body image series, which delves into the journeys of influential and inspirational figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality, and self-love mean to them.

Jessica Marie Garcia has always had a prominent relationship with food growing up in a Cuban household with a single mother where she learned early on that ‘food is love’. But as the Florida native grew up struggling with her weight and even faced a health anxiety that forced her to make a major lifestyle change, the actress’s approach to food came with challenges.

“My family showed love by making food and making sure you ate everything on your plate. And if you didn’t want seconds, what was wrong with the food?” the on my block actress remembers. “I’m an only child and food was one of my best friends.”

The endless home-cooked meals made for great memories early on, as Garcia notes that there was no occasion without good food. Still, she began to learn that food wasn’t just a means of spending time with family or connection to her Cuban and Mexican background, but was instead something related to both health and appearance.

“My mom never said anything negative about my body, but my grandmother would. And I know it was more from a health standpoint, but it was still like, ‘You’re getting too big, you have to take care of that now. ‘ So that’s where I started to feel a little insecure about myself,” explains Garcia. “Then it was kids laughing at me at school. I was always one of the tallest in the class.”

Garcia had to deal with further reminders of body and beauty standards after school when she came home and watched TV. She also became aware of a great lack of representation as a plus-sized young Latina woman.

“I didn’t see myself portrayed on screen. I didn’t see the love interests or the main character being someone who was a real plus size,” she says. “So I think I was probably about eight or nine when I realized I didn’t look like everyone.”

As she grew up, the lack of representation made Garcia feel like she had to change herself to fit in when she tried some diets that failed her. “I wouldn’t eat all day. And at night I would eat everything,” she said. “My metabolism had just stopped.”

Ultimately, it was the yo-yo diet that threatened her chances of pursuing her dreams of becoming an actress when she discovered that her health was suffering.

“I had a battle with prediabetes,” Garcia says. “That was really tough. When I found out I had just gotten Liv and Maddie [a Disney channel show that Garcia starred in until its end in 2017] and I thought, ‘Oh my God, like all my dreams come true. I can’t let this get the best of me.'”

Garcia was on the brink of becoming type 2 diabetes, just like her father. Despite the family history, she felt it was a condition she gave herself. “The fact that I had the ability to change it, I knew I had to,” she explains.

It was then that the actress had to face her relationship with food in a way that she hadn’t done before by tackling the unhealthy habits she had acquired during her upbringing. “There are just certain things that become a habit,” she notes about her food. It took becoming prediabetic to show her how it really affected her.

“It was really just testing my willpower and realizing that I had an unhealthy relationship with food and I needed to reevaluate that in myself, but also not to make food the enemy,” she says. “I’m not trying to win a beauty pageant, I’m not trying to be the thinnest person in the room. I’ve never been. I just want to be healthy.”

What health looked like to her, however, was what she had to figure out.

“There’s a misconception for plus-sized people that they eat all the time and it’s just an unfair stereotype,” she says, sharing that there was “so much to learn” about taking care of themselves and eating in a way that best suited her. An essential part of that is realizing that her weight is not an indication of her health.

“My weight from that day still fluctuated back and forth. I can even see it in the seasons of on my block. So it’s something that won’t go away,” she says. “But I won’t let it rule my life. If I have to wear a bigger size jeans, I will. It’s not something that I let define my whole identity or who I am.”

Instead, Garcia found that the beginning of her health journey allowed her to find out who she really is. “My motivation was my future,” she says. Most importantly, she’s had a chance to develop the trope of plus-size girls on TV through her portrayal of Jasmine in the Netflix series, which is in its final season.

“I’m a love interest. And that’s so rare for anyone plus-size, especially for a show that doesn’t comment on my size at all,” she says. “They always like to feed our bigger girls in movies and things like that. And I’m over it. Any project I do in the future, it’s going to be nothing.”

But it’s not just her audience that Garcia tries to inspire as she rids herself of the shame so many people must feel about their bodies.

“I have to constantly remind myself that these negative thoughts I have about my body aren’t something I taught myself. It’s something that society has imposed on me and done to other people,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”