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Leave Paula Deen alone, y’all
Have a seat and pass the mashed potatoes, y'all: It's time for a chat about celebrity chef and Food Network television host Paula Deen and the brouhaha surrounding her recent announcement that she suffers from type 2 diabetes, 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 shock and 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 in moderation, contributes to weight gain, diabetes and a host of other health concerns.
In all honesty, I wasn't that surprised by the announcement. In fact, after years of watching her gleefully deep-fry bacon or lovingly bake up some "gooey butter cake bars" on her program, I thought it was quite possible that Mrs. Deen had been diagnosed with diabetes long ago, as she's publicly 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 her announcement revealed that she was diagnosed three years ago. In an interview with NBC's "Today" show, Mrs. Deen chose to keep quiet about her condition until she had some advice to offer the public. "It was really something I had to digest," she told the hosts of ABC's "The Chew."
The news was met with vitriol from health experts and chefs alike. The tenor of public reaction is probably best summed up by outspoken Travel Channel chef Anthony Bourdain, who told restaurant and bar blog Eater, "When your signature dish is a hamburger in between a doughnut, and you've been cheerfully selling this stuff knowing all 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 news attached to Mrs. Deen's announcement, which is that she has signed on as a paid spokesperson for drugmaker Novo Nordisk. Mrs. Deen apparently treats her diabetes with the company's daily injectable drug Victoza, and will promote a campaign called "Diabetes in a New Light," which will offer diabetes-friendly recipes and tips to manage the disease.
In a letter to fans on her website, Mrs. Deen wrote, "Hey y'all, when I learned I had type 2 diabetes, I decided to approach managing the disease with the same positivity and 'go-get-em' attitude I have every day. In the past, I've heard so many stories of people like me that let diabetes control their lives, but I didn't want to let this slow me down. I wanted to take control and have a delicious time doing it."
This news, of course, has led to accusations that Mrs. Deen is profiting from her promotion of a diet that can contribute to the development 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 way our world works." Mrs. Deen has reportedly agreed to donate a portion of her earnings from this relationship to the American Diabetes Association.
I don't know how much Mrs. Deen plans to alter her diet or the legendary rich meals she serves up on her show, in her cookbooks or in her restaurants. I do know, however, that discovering you have a serious medical condition—particularly one that can lead to life-altering, long-term complications—can be a devastating experience, one that surely must be made that much harder by the glare of the "public eye." I also know that Mrs. Deen is in an excellent position to put a human face on a misunderstood disease that is increasingly sweeping the nation, to show how lifestyle can contribute to it and to share what she has learned about managing (and maybe even one day overcoming) her diagnosis.
So until this story plays out, perhaps we should show more compassion to the embattled Mrs. Deen and support what must be a difficult personal struggle—because I believe the public reaction to this news speaks volumes about how we perceive and treat people who suffer from diabetes. If Novo Nordisk can help the public overcome some of this stigma by shining a light on Mrs. Deen's cherubic face—well, so much the better.
I wish Mrs. Deen, as she usually gushes at the end of every show, "love and best dishes"—or as she now says, "love and lighter dishes."