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Paula Deen should endorse healthful habits — not medicine

Addie Broyles, Relish Austin

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Paula Deen recently said she has Type 2 diabetes.

By now, you've probably heard that Paula Deen has been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and is a new spokeswoman for a once-a-day noninsulin injection drug called Victoza.

Confirming the rumors that had started to spread widely, Deen told Al Roker on the "Today" show last week that she was diagnosed three years ago and that she's entitled to be compensated for her work with drugmaker Novo Nordisk, "just as you are for your work."

The announcement comes just as one of her sons has started a Food Network show called "Not My Mama's Meals" featuring lighter versions of her food (they cooked together on the second half of the "Today Show" segment to promote the show), and she and both sons will appear in commercials for the drug that will start airing by the end of the month.

Deen isn't new to controversial endorsements or widespread criticism. Since 2006, she's been a spokeswoman for Smithfield, a company whose factory farming methods are frequently under attack from animal rights and sustainable food advocates, and last year, a public spat between her and fellow food celebrity Anthony Bourdain turned into a bigger discussion about food snobbery and elitism. I defended Deen in this column by saying that dismissing her and her legions of fans as culinary Luddites wouldn't do anything to help improve access to healthy food for people who don't have it or educate everyday Americans on how to eat and cook better for themselves and their families.

But Deen's endorsement deal — for a drug that reportedly costs $500 a month — is indefensible.

I'm not attacking her because she has diabetes or even because she kept it a secret from the public for three years. A person has a right to medical privacy and to make a living. But Deen is a multimillionaire whose cooking has probably led to the decline of her own health and that of countless others. And what does she do with her diabetes diagnosis? She finds a way to make even more money from it, getting paid with the profits that Novo Nordisk is making off people who are far less fortunate than she is.

Deen is justifying her partnership by saying that "I wanted to bring something to the table when I came forward," as if all the other information about how to prevent Type 2 diabetes and other ways to treat it weren't out there already. She claims that she's always preached moderation, but if you've ever seen her show, moderation isn't the first word that comes to mind.

Yes, we are all responsible for what we put in our bodies, Deen included, but she was presented with a golden (but much less lucrative) opportunity to become a role model by changing her brand and taking fans, many of whom are struggling with diabetes or have a family member who is, with her. But, as former Washington Post food writer Jane Black pointed out in an article last week, "Deen knows that even a mention of healthy, responsible eating could undermine her multimillion-dollar television-and-cookbook empire built on the glories (of) sugar and lard."

The New York Times' Julia Moskin talked with Southern cookbook author Virginia Willis, who pointed out that we have always been quick to attack Deen for using so much butter, but that we let Michelin-starred chefs get away with it. Having said that, though, Willis reminded us that Deen — and this announcement — actually gives Southern cuisine a bad rap that it doesn't deserve.

In a video on the drug company's site, Deen explains that she has cut back on drinking sweet tea, goes on walks with her husband and is sharing diabetes-friendly recipes as part of this partnership. All you have to do to get access to those recipes is fill out a form with almost 20 required fields, including whether you "feel guilty when my doctor tells me my blood sugar should be better under control." (It should be noted that there is no option to opt-out of getting promotional and marketing information from Novo Nordisk when you fill out the form.)

Dr. Thomas Blevins, a partner at Texas Diabetes & Endocrinology in Austin, said that for most people, Type 2 diabetes is both preventable and controllable through diet and lifestyle changes. "Diabetes is an epidemic," Blevins said. "If people know they are predisposed to diabetes or prediabetic, you'd hope they would tune in to losing weight and start exercising. ... But in the real world, not everybody is successful with weight loss," so medicine is part of the reality of diabetes treatment.

There are plenty of people who have lost a lot of weight and those with a high hereditary risk who get Type 2 anyway, but for most people "you can lose weight and exercise your way out of prediabetes," he said. People who already have Type 2 diabetes can get off medicine with the right dietary and exercise changes, Blevins said.

"We're surrounded by celebrities that use their celebrity to market things," Blevins said. "You would wish that people would get up and say, ‘You know, the most important thing is diet,' and then use their diet and their show or reputation to demonstrate how to eat better and exercise," Blevins said.

After her critics' voices became so loud last week, Deen announced that she'd decided to donate a portion of her endorsement money to the American Diabetes Association, a nonprofit whose "disinterest in promoting diet and exercise is easily explained," wrote Atlantic food writer and food safety advocate Marion Nestle last week. "It is funded by drug companies." Now, they are getting even more drug company money.

There's something sick about all of this that has nothing to do with Deen's cooking.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504