By Elaine Schattner, MD|January 22nd, 2012
I never heard of Paula Deen until this week, when the plump Food Channel celebrity and cookbook author announced she has Type 2 diabetes. The Georgia-born, sweet tea-loving cook has teamed up with Novo Nordisc to spread the word about dietary modification and life with diabetes. Her new platform, Diabetes in a New Light, highlights a drug she’s taking called Victoza.
Type 2 diabetes tends to develop in overweight people who become resistant to insulin. Thi disease is epidemic in North America; it affects over 8 percent of the population. Almost 95 percent of adult-onset diabetes cases are Type 2; many could be avoided by diet and lifestyle modification. Diabetes causes blood vessel abnormalities throughout the body; it leads to secondary illnesses like heart disease, stroke, poor vision and blindness, kidney problems, neuropathy and other serious health problems. It’s a costly disease, apart from the medical effects; The NIH estimates the total, direct health care expenses for treating diabetes at $116 billion per year.
Deen’s cooking style, as reported in major newspapers, is heavy on butter and frying high-calorie, fat-loaded stuff in combinations I’ve never contemplated. The verbal stone-throwing came on fast. It’s no surprise she’s got diabetes, many say. Far worse, some suggest, is that Deen enriched herself by encouraging fans to prepare and serve unhealthy foods in their homes. She waited several years after her diagnosis before admitting her condition, meanwhile stirring macaroni and cheese on TV. Some call her a hypocrite, eager for a second helping of income from a drug company that manufactures a relatively new and expensive diabetes medication.
Having reviewed some of Deen’s recipes and cooking clips, I can’t say I’m a fan. Quite the opposite; I advocate and prescribe for myself a low-fat, high fiber diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables. Especially since my cancer diagnosis, I keep processed foods and those with chemical preservatives to a minimum. I’ve reduced portions of what I eat. And while I do enjoy some foods that are probably unhealthy, like cured meats and smoked fish, I generally limit those to holidays and special occasions. My view is that each of us is responsible for what we eat, and although we can’t prevent some illnesses from developing, we can increase the chances for good health by regular exercise and a sound diet.
That said, I find myself partly sympathetic to Deen’s plight. She’s a 64 year old woman who’s made mistakes, and who’s fessing up now. She’s got Type 2 disease and she’s trying, at least in part, to do the right thing in terms of telling her fans about her condition and what she plans to do about it.
The main issue I have is with Deen’s relationship with Novo Nordisc, the Denmark based company that manufactures Victoza. The generic name is Liraglutide. This new kind of injectible diabetes med for Type 2 diabetes works by mimicking glucagon. It was first approved by the FDA in early 2010, and may cause thyroid cancer, according to the black-box warning.
My take on this brouhaha is that Deen’s getting a lot of grief because she embodies so much of what’s wrong with our overeating, supersizing food culture. She’s a not-young woman who’s successfully sold a lot of unhealthy food through a popular TV show and related enterprises. The former cheerleader is hardly responsible for obesity in America.
Maybe she can do some good in her new endeavor. Better late that than never, in coming out and changing some recipes. What would be really great is if Deen could dissociate herself from the drug company, adjust her diet, exercise and shed some pounds. Unlike a doctor, who’d typically speak about a disease or treatment in a dry, technical sort of tone – and might also be under the spell of a lucrative deal with a drug company, a celebrity like Deen can grab people’s attention through a friendly, upbeat demeanor.
She could become a role model for overweight, out-of-shape women in their 60s, with and without Type 2 diabetes, who like to cook or don’t, who crave all kinds of rich foods.