Have a seat and pass the mashed potatoes, y'all: It's timefor a chat about celebrity chef and Food Network television host Paula Deen andthe brouhaha surrounding her recent announcement that she suffers from type 2diabetes, the most common form of the disease whose primary cause is obesity.
The self-proclaimed "Queen of Southern Cuisine"—she of the"turducken" and "doughnut burger" lore—revealed her diagnosis last month to shockand sharp criticism of the high-fat, high-sugar meals she peddles on her show,"Paula's Home Cooking," and her promotion of a diet that, when not consumed inmoderation, contributes to weight gain, diabetes and a host of other healthconcerns.
In all honesty, I wasn't that surprised by the announcement.In fact, after years of watching her gleefully deep-fry bacon or lovingly bakeup some "gooey butter cake bars" on her program, I thought it was quitepossible that Mrs. Deen had been diagnosed with diabetes long ago, as she'spublicly shared some of her weight loss battles and defended the use of sugar,oil, butter and salt in most of her Southern-fried recipes.
In fact, Mrs. Deen's diagnosis is not new, as herannouncement revealed that she was diagnosed three years ago. In an interviewwith NBC's "Today" show, Mrs. Deen chose to keep quiet about her conditionuntil she had some advice to offer the public. "It was really something I hadto digest," she told the hosts of ABC's "The Chew."
The news was met with vitriol from health experts and chefsalike. The tenor of public reaction is probably best summed up by outspokenTravel Channel chef Anthony Bourdain, who told restaurant and bar blog Eater, "When your signature dish is a hamburgerin between a doughnut, and you've been cheerfully selling this stuff knowingall along that you've got type 2 diabetes … It's in bad taste if nothing else."
But little has been said about the other piece of newsattached to Mrs. Deen's announcement, which is that she has signed on as a paidspokesperson for drugmaker Novo Nordisk. Mrs. Deen apparently treats herdiabetes with the company's daily injectable drug Victoza, and will promote acampaign called "Diabetes in a New Light," which will offer diabetes-friendlyrecipes and tips to manage the disease.
In a letter to fans on her website, Mrs. Deen wrote, "Heyy'all, when I learned I had type 2 diabetes, I decided to approach managing thedisease with the same positivity and 'go-get-em' attitude I have every day. Inthe past, I've heard so many stories of people like me that let diabetescontrol their lives, but I didn't want to let this slow me down. I wanted totake control and have a delicious time doing it."
This news, of course, has led to accusations that Mrs. Deenis profiting from her promotion of a diet that can contribute to thedevelopment of diabetes. In response to this criticism, Mrs. Deen told USA Today, "Talking about money is garish.It's tacky. But, of course, I'm being compensated for my time. That's the wayour world works." Mrs. Deen has reportedly agreed to donate a portion of herearnings from this relationship to the American Diabetes Association.
I don't know how much Mrs. Deen plans to alter her diet orthe legendary rich meals she serves up on her show, in her cookbooks or in herrestaurants. I do know, however, that discovering you have a serious medicalcondition—particularly one that can lead to life-altering, long-termcomplications—can be a devastating experience, one that surely must be made thatmuch harder by the glare of the "public eye." I also know that Mrs. Deen is inan excellent position to put a human face on a misunderstood disease that isincreasingly sweeping the nation, to show how lifestyle can contribute to itand to share what she has learned about managing (and maybe even one dayovercoming) her diagnosis.
So until this story plays out, perhaps we should show morecompassion to the embattled Mrs. Deen and support what must be a difficultpersonal struggle—because I believe the public reaction to this news speaksvolumes about how we perceive and treat people who suffer from diabetes. IfNovo Nordisk can help the public overcome some of this stigma by shining alight on Mrs. Deen's cherubic face—well, so much the better.
I wish Mrs. Deen, as she usually gushes at the end of everyshow, "love and best dishes"—or as she now says, "love and lighter dishes."