Paula Deen’s missed opportunity

UPDATE 1/23/12: For an extended and refined version of this post, please see my commentary in the Outlook section of January 22’s Washington Post: What Paula Deen Didn’t Bring To The Table.

It could have been a turning point in America’s war on obesity. This morning on the Today show, Food Network star Paula Deen—the queen of deep-fried Twinkies—admitted that she had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. But when asked whether fans should cut back on the “yummy, fattening” recipes she promotes, she told Al Roker: “Honey I’m your cook, not your doctor.”

Deen’s position is hardly a surprise. This is a woman known for fried chicken and broccoli “salad” that includes sugar, mayonnaise, cheese and bacon. Deen knows that even a mention of healthy, responsible eating could undermine her multimillion-dollar television-and-cookbook empire built on the glories sugar and lard.

Still, it was a grand disappointment. While everyone from Anthony Bourdain to Frank Bruni have called Deen a menace to a healthy society, I always believed that Deen, or someone like her, might be the key to change. Everyday Americans, including a large number that struggle with weight and diabetes, like Deen. They listen to her. As I wrote in a piece on the Atlantic in August, Deen, despite herself, might just be the secret ingredient to changing the way Americans eat.

If that sounds ridiculous, think again about the power of celebrity-awareness campaigns. Magic Johnson singlehandedly changed the debate about the AIDS virus when he public with his diagnosis of HIV. (It’s worth noting, too, that the move hasn’t damaged his career as a broadcaster and endorser.) Christopher Reeves, aka Superman, raised money for research on spinal cord injuries and public empathy for people with disabilities. Lance Armstrong, despite all the controversy over doping, has made supporting cancer research eminently cool

Deen has chosen a different path. Three years after her diagnosis, she’s signed on as a paid spokeswoman for diabetes drugs–her way, she says, of bringing something to the table. Moreover, she denies that her fat-and-sugar-laden recipes have any role to play in the skyrocketing rates of Type 2 diabetes. Fans may see her on TV twice a day swooning over cream pies and “Uncle Bubba’s Wings” but she only cooks and eats that kind of food while filming: “30 days out of 365 days — and it’s for entertainment.”

In the end, Deen told Al Roker: “You have to be responsible for yourself.” It’s advice that the fatty-food diva clearly and cynically has decided to follow herself.

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  1. Eric
    Posted January 17, 2012 at 11:42 AM | Permalink

    Paula is 100% correct. She is not a doctor, and has no right giving medical advice.

    The real menace to a healthy society are the people who blindly follow everything they see on TV. Not the people on TV who are teaching us how to cook. To quote many of our parents, “If Paula jumped off a bridge…”

    There was once a time when people thought for themselves, when the government and the FCC didn’t have to police everything that might cause damage to a person who can’t think for themselves. If you can’t figure out how to moderate yourself and need a cooking show host to tell you how to live your life, fatty foods are the least of your concerns.

    Paula has made her decisions, and instead of wishing her the best of luck with her illness, people are vilifying her for a cooking show. Classy.

  2. Joe Cloud
    Posted January 17, 2012 at 11:57 AM | Permalink

    Jane, Jane, Jane. You were doing so well. Until the 2nd to the last paragraph, and then this: “she denies that her fat-laden recipes have any role to play in the skyrocketing rates of Type 2 diabetes.” What is with the link between fat in food and diabetes? Huh? As in “He took a large bite of butter and felt his insulin levels soar…” I don’t think so. Better dust off your copy of “Good Calories Bad Calories” and do a little remedial reading. If you had said “sugar-laden” I would have no problem. Watch out – the Paleo People are gonna be weighing in next!

  3. Posted January 17, 2012 at 12:03 PM | Permalink

    Ah, the life without editors. Will fix.

  4. Posted January 17, 2012 at 12:29 PM | Permalink

    You beat me to it! I may still write my own post about this very thing, as it was swimming around in my mind when this broke a few days ago. I’m no vegan/vegetarian, and I don’t always eat completely right. But after watching Forks Over Knives, I’ve studied more about the “medical” effects that food has on us, and how things like heart disease and diabetes can be REVERSED.

    How cool would it have been for Paula to buck up and go vegan, and report to the world her health changes? It could have easily been a Food Network special or something. But, I suppose it’s easier to take the money of the pharmaceutical industry.

  5. Julia
    Posted January 17, 2012 at 12:45 PM | Permalink

    Here’s what I think. I’m a big fan of Paula’s. I’ve met her and spoken to her before. I just watched both of the segments she did on Today. Being a Southerner myself, I totally get her choice to keep her health issue to herself at first. However, here’s what was missing from what she had to say. She took zero accountability for the highly unhealthy food she has promoted. She consistently stepped over that. How I see it is she’s made herself a wealthy woman from her actions. She also has to take responsibility for the impact of those actions. She reaped the huge rewards. She can acknowledge a smidgen of her responsibility. For her not to do that rings phony to me.

  6. Posted January 17, 2012 at 12:49 PM | Permalink

    Jane – Thanks for this piece. It’s a tragedy and a shame that Paula missed a moment to educate and use her power, position, and influence for good, not just promote her son’s new show. How much more powerful would it be for HER to improve the healthfulness of HER recipes.

    My main issue? She said “yummy, fattening” Southern recipes. Paula Deen’s cooking is NOT exclusively Southern. I wholeheartedly maintain Southern food does not have to be unhealthy. The obesity rates and borderline epidemic of diabetes in the South is not a result of traditional Southern food. It’s a result of processed convenience foods that is by no means contained to the South.

    Thanks again for contributing to the dialogue. Best VA

  7. Kenneth
    Posted January 17, 2012 at 12:52 PM | Permalink

    Oh, Eric,

    “To quote many of our parents, “If Paula jumped off a bridge…”

    “There was once a time when people thought for themselves…”

    As it turns out, your sentimental trip down memory lane took a wrong turn. The reality is, people have ALWAYS had an impact on other people’s behaviors, and your parental quote from days gone by is proof of that, else mommy and daddy would have never warned against following blindly.

    Having said that, another reality of society (the term has a philisophical construct) is that we all take on part responsibility for each other. If not, we wouldn’t feel any need to congregate. We’d just all be solitary hermits. And so, when we (tens of thousands of years ago) decided to come together into societal groups, we took on that heavy burden of being role models for one another– some have chosen to become drug dealer role models, and some have chosen to become “honorable behavior” role models. Deen, it appears to many (including me), has chosen the route of “take the ‘cash’ aspect of modest fame, but don’t take ownership of how that cash came to be” role model. So, much like a cigarette company, which creates flashy ads that twinkle in our eyes, and help us to lose ourselves in mystique over scientific evidence, Deen has glamorized her style of unhealthy cooking… made us giddy with her celebrity, and cashed in doing so.

    Sure, we all need to work on our personal responsibility. And that includes advertisers, celebrities, snake oil salesmen, and so on… as they leverage our human shortcomings to their advantage.

    Bye bye.

  8. TR
    Posted January 17, 2012 at 12:53 PM | Permalink

    Though I’m no fan of big pharma, I do think it’s great that she didn’t decide to cop out to the anti-fat prejudice that has swept the world and say “Oh gosh, it’s horrible, I’ve been fat, it’s all my fault.” How do we even have ANY clue that her recipes and/or her size have ANYTHING to do with it? As a 50-plus fat person whose weight didn’t stabilize till she stopped fighting with it, I’d personally like to see a campaign that says “Dear rest of America, from your majority population of size: Leave us the hell alone, our size is our business, as is your size yours.”

  9. Posted January 17, 2012 at 1:00 PM | Permalink

    Anyone remember the Galloping Gourmet? Graham Kerr faced the same type of situation Ms. Deen did, and instead of kowtowing to industrial food, he built a whole new career out of healthy eating. Ms Deen could have been a savior. Instead she chose the role of Cassandra. A lost opportunity indeed.

  10. Posted January 17, 2012 at 1:07 PM | Permalink

    We can’t connect her recipes to Americans’ issues with weight directly, of course. But it is clear that sugary foods (homecooked or processed) do have a direct relationship with the rising rates of obesity, especially among children. I do not advocate a nanny state but a celebrity taking a stand is hardly the government taking over. And obesity related diseases cost us as a country $150 billion annually so it isn’t really a question of the trend affecting only those who are overweight.

  11. Posted January 17, 2012 at 1:14 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for this thoughtful, pointed piece. So well said.

    Certainly, she’s not medically trained, but that doesn’t mean that she can’t be a role model for improving her own health through better eating habits. And yes, while there is no direct correlation between fat and diabetes, there is indeed a correlation between fat and sugar consumption and weight gain and associated diseases of obesity. They’re not necessarily mutually exclusive. I have a soft spot for her, too – that’s probably why she’s won so many people over – but am really disappointed by her lack of personal accountability. It’s just entertainment? Please, Paula.

  12. Jan Reckers
    Posted January 17, 2012 at 2:08 PM | Permalink

    Jane is correct in stating that Paula’s “fat-laden” recipes contribute to Type 2 diabetes. However, it is incomplete in not detailing that it’s the type of fat: mostly trans and saturated animal fats. There are plenty of good fats that actually assist in preventing Type 2 diabetes, but Ms. Deen opts consistently to avoid those (coconut oil, grapeseed oil, nut oils, etc.).
    Also, a pet peeve of mine is when someone suggests Ms. Deen could’ve taken this opportunity to go vegan, showing fans how to get healthy. Someone like Ms. Deen whose recipes laud bacon, beef, chicken and lard/grease as the star, could benefit tremendously from going vegetarian rather than all the way to vegan-town. Heck, a once-a-week vegetarian lifestyle would have a great impact on her health for the better. I would never expect someone with habits like Paula’s (let’s not forget her confession on Dr. Oz of being a life-long smoker) to so drastically change her diet. Cut way back on the meat, reduce the processed cheeses, swap out the good oils for the bad, and add veggies and whole grains in. And move.
    And speaking of Dr. Oz….her lack of personal responsibility or willingness to embrace/speak out about food choices and health is a real slap in Dr. Oz’s face. Unfortunately for Ms. Deen she is reaping the sick fruits of the unhealthy seeds she’s sown for years. hopefully people will learn what not to do from her example.

  13. raptor22b
    Posted January 17, 2012 at 2:38 PM | Permalink

    Diabetes sucks. Type 1 really sucks. Type 2 sucks too, but IS reversible and YES curable.

    Diet, exercise. Calories Burned – Calories Consumed = Some Negative #/Day

    Two years ago I was 50 lbs overweight and heading towards my late 30s with the fear of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, high cholesterol, etc. I wised up and got educated and lost the weight.

    I wish everyone the best. Diabetes sucks.

  14. Posted January 17, 2012 at 2:40 PM | Permalink

    Agreed. I should be clear that I don’t think anyone could/should have expected Deen to go vegan. (Though, wow, what a headline!) All I wanted was some acknowledgement of the link between eating and type 2 diabetes from a prominent, popular star.

  15. Posted January 17, 2012 at 3:38 PM | Permalink

    When Al asked her if she planned on changing her diet, she said she always ate in moderation. Well, clearly, that is not the case. And, it clearly hasn’t been working for her if she has been eating in moderation. She still ended up a diabetic, and she clearly needs to change how she eats. By the way she talked, she wasn’t planning on changing her diet whatsoever. Very disappointing that she didn’t use this as an opportunity to teach others.

  16. Daisha
    Posted January 17, 2012 at 3:39 PM | Permalink

    I found it interesting that fat was crossed out and replaced with sugar, and then saw it was likely the result of reader Joe who left a comment in which he implied that high sugar would have been “fine” as a reason for diabetes, while the idea of fat being causative was seen as preposterous.

    Joe, Joe, Joe… The American Diabetes Association states, “Being overweight does increase your risk for developing type 2 diabetes, and a diet high in calories, whether from sugar or from fat, can contribute to weight gain.” One of the top risk factors for diabetes is excess weight. So, while it may be true that having excess fat is more clear of a risk factor than eating excess fat, the type of dishes that PD makes are caloric nightmares which if eaten even semi-regularly would likely cause one to be overweight… and being overweight, whether by ingestion of excess sugar, fat, or protein, is a significant risk factor. I don’t think an editor would tell you otherwise, Jane.

  17. Posted January 17, 2012 at 4:26 PM | Permalink

    And because I like to be right, I’ve updated ONE more time. It now says fat-and-sugar-laden recipes. Thanks to all.

  18. Linda
    Posted January 17, 2012 at 4:30 PM | Permalink

    Paula may say that she only eats this way when she films – 30 out of 365 days a year, but people are watching it every day, and are becoming immune to it – thinking they can eat that way everyday. I would be OK with Paula if she interspersed something healthy in with the bad. Everyone eats something every once in a while that isn’t good for them, but it is balanced. Paula has no balance.

  19. Kathy
    Posted January 17, 2012 at 5:46 PM | Permalink

    Paula Deen and her sidekick Guy Fiero are truly a menace to society. And the there’s Jaime Oliver, the British chef taking on the SAD (Standard American Diet) food industry for our children. I’m on his side.

  20. Posted January 17, 2012 at 7:55 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for this piece. Paula Dean may not be my doctor, but she is also not my mom. My mom, on the other hand, being someone who cares about her husband and took care of her kids for much of her life was our cook and 80 percent of the time still is our father’s cook.

    And especially after his heart attack, mom and dad both realized that being the cook is far more critical and important to health than the periodic visit or procedure to the doctor. That is where the real responsibility is. If she wants to be anyone’s cook, Paula needs to heed that reality. But it did lead her to the lucrative drug company contract, so it’s hard to argue with that kind of thinking and priorities.

    Thanks for the post.

  21. Posted January 17, 2012 at 8:52 PM | Permalink

    Wow–opportunity missed for sure! As soon as I heard she had been diagnosed with diabetes, I thought she would become a spokesperson and finally bring a voice of reason. I still want to believe that it will come in time. Maybe??

  22. Dian
    Posted January 18, 2012 at 3:42 PM | Permalink

    I am a big fan of Paula’s,but that does not mean I cook like her.We can’t blame her for people eatting wrong it is up to each of us to decide what kind of diet we are going to follow.It is like someone jumping in a pool with no water would you follow?We need to stop blameing others if we have a problem of any kind and look in the mirror.

  23. Pat
    Posted January 18, 2012 at 10:37 PM | Permalink

    There are several ways to approach a diagnosis of Diabetes. You can go the diet & exercise route, the medication route, or a combination of both. Some people will follow a strict healthy diet while others will continue to eat as they please and depend on more and more medications to offset their desire to eat whatever they want. Medications should be used to enhance your diet and exercise program, not to replace it. Paula, in my opinion, sounds like she has chosen the route of continuing to eat however she wants to and pop the pills. There is nothing wrong with needing the help of a medication, but Paula has missed a really good chance to inform the public how small changes can make a difference. I can even understand her waiting three years, it can be a very confusing disease and it takes time to wrap your head around everything thing you have to figure out, but it just seems to me that she’s saying “its ok, I can do whatever I want because I have this wonderful drug that will save me”. There is soooo much more to it than that. She missed the boat on this one.

  24. Posted January 19, 2012 at 12:21 AM | Permalink

    we have to decide our self that which diet we are going to follow. We have to use our brain don’t follow each and every thing from any TV show. It may not be correct cooking method provide us.Learn from parents they have experience in cooking.

  25. Annie
    Posted January 19, 2012 at 2:17 AM | Permalink

    Diabetes is not curable ! Yet!
    Controllable, in remission, but not curable

  26. Posted January 20, 2012 at 10:16 AM | Permalink

    Paula Deen’s brain is scrambled by CARB syndrome, a reversible, curable ailment that results from eating too many sugars, processed carbs. she can’t make a good decision, because she’s been subjected to bad information – but oh that lovely money she’s gonna get from the pharma corporate sponsor. I figure she’s gonna live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful memory. Her choice. Not mine. I choose unprocessed organic foods, eat low on the glycemic index and avoid most carbs. It works. See my book “The High Protein Cookbook”, Clarkson Potter. Linda Eckhardt, James Beard award winning cookbook author

  27. Maria
    Posted January 20, 2012 at 12:54 PM | Permalink

    Why do all of you (and evidently America) think Paula ‘owes’ you anything? She’s a TV personality. I love watching her but I don’t cook like her. How many of you leaving comments do? I’d bet none! If you don’t like that she didn’t become America’s savior, don’t watch her shows or buy her books. She is an individual with all the freedoms given to us – same as you. I’m a diabetic, courtesy of willfull overeating of pizza, candy & fast food and any other thing I felt like cramming in my mouth. I have to fix that & no amount of regret on Paula Deen’s part for entertaining me with her shows will make an iota of difference. She owes me NOTHING! No apology, no change in her lifestyle, no refusal of pharmaceutical drug money! If you want to make a difference, go teach a diabetic friend how to cook & eat. You all seem to know how to do that.

  28. Noah
    Posted January 23, 2012 at 6:29 PM | Permalink

    Jane, as usual you are thoughtful and right on the money. But missing opportunity?! Nothing beats the concept of a celebrity marketing the cure while simultaneously sponsoring the ills. Brilliant!

  29. Renee White
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 1:58 PM | Permalink

    The comments from the likes of Kenneth, Kimberly, and Andrea prove the sad mind set of self righteous people who blame others for all their problems. If you are a diabetic, of course you can’t blame yourself, you blame the TV cook for not being a vegan….please, spare me. If you are dumb enough to think that Paula Dean’s cooking is healthy, then you have more problems that diabeties. But you will probably just blame me for pointing that out..I say good day to you.

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Saveur, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.