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Paula Deen, Type II Diabetes, and Me

Me in 1992. Apologies for the crappy quality…

Please forgive me. What follows is a rant, complete with occasional foul language. I’m pissed.

THREE YEARS. Paula Deen knew for three years that she had Type II Diabetes. During those 1000+ days, did she offer any hint to the millions of people who adore her and her over-the-top, butter-mayo-lard-encrusted food? No. Instead, she offered up recipes like Cheesy Pizza Dip with Pizza Crust Dippers (which appears under “recently added” on her site). Half a stick of butter plus Italian sausage plus Canadian bacon plus pepperoni plus TWO packages of cream cheese plus bacon. All to be transported to one’s gullet via nuggets of pizza dough coated with olive oil and Romano cheese. I’m gagging just writing this. Maybe you’d prefer the Ooey Gooey Butter Layer Cake? That one only calls for five sticks of butter and three packages of cream cheese, and because too much is never enough, Paula throws in a cup of sour cream for good measure.

Here’s the thing: Both my parents are Type II diabetics. If I hadn’t lost 100 pounds about fifteen years ago, I’d probably be there myself. Let’s just say eating—and obesity—is something of a hobby in my family. So I feel comfortable calling out Paula on her bullshit. She didn’t wait three years to tell the world because she “wanted to bring something to the table when I came forward,” as she told Al Roker on the Today show this morning. All she needed to bring to the table was a simple message: Eat less of my kind of food, and move more. Maybe she could’ve revamped some of her recipes, even, to help people see that you don’t have to use these ingredients in such vast quantities to make something taste good. As many fine Southern cooks can tell you, traditional Southern cooking does not require the excess that she encourages.

And yes, all those Southern women I linked to have written recipes that call for butter, mayo, etc. And you’ll find decadent recipes on my site, like my husband’s all-time favorite Philadelphia German Butter Cake. But in these cases that’s the exception, not the rule. Paula Deen has made a huge living off of showing America how to get fat(ter), and instead of taking the responsible route and acknowledging her lifestyle’s role in her diagnosis, she kept it a secret until she nailed down a paid endorsement gig with a pharmaceutical company. Until one of her sons could get his own show on the air. About cooking healthier versions of mama’s food.


ETA: It’s clear from the comments that some people are interpreting this post to be me criticizing Paula for having diabetes and not telling us. I’ll say it plainly: She was under no obligation to go public, ever. Her medical conditions are her own private business. Yes, I admit, if I found out that she’d merely kept it a secret for three years I’d be disappointed in her—because given her enormously high profile, going public about the lifestyle changes she (I hope) made would’ve helped an awful lot of people. But I wouldn’t have been motivated to rant on this blog about it. What pushed me to write this post was her glaring ethical lapse: She kept it a secret for three years, and then went very, very public, on national television, only when she had a (presumably) significant endorsement deal in place, and her son had a TV show tied in to her diagnosis. THAT is the problem: Her actions create the appearance that she only went public when she figured out a way to use the disease to make more money. Not that she was motivated by any desire to help her many fans. It was a tremendous opportunity for her to help people, and she blew it.

So: No privacy issue here. Nobody’s forcing me to watch her, or to eat her food—I never have, and I don’t plan to. The issue is ethics. Scruples. Responsibility. That’s where Paula failed her fans.

This Post Has 39 Comments

  1. Renae B

    I’ve been saying for years that she must be about a half a cup of butter away from a massive heart attack, and she’s dragging a bunch of people down with her.

  2. Good post, Debbie. As someone who also specializes in Southern/country cooking, I think you said it best with, “As many fine Southern cooks can tell you, traditional Southern cooking does not require the excess that she encourages.”

    Sure, I grew up cooking with butter, fatback etc…but it was in great moderation. Additionally, I have always sought to maintain a very active lifestyle. I was a competitive gymnast for 13 years and still run 18 miles a week, so I’m allowed to indulge in a brownie every now and then. As a family, we incorporated gobs of fresh vegetables from the garden into our diets and nearly everything was homemade from start to finish. We rarely ate “manufactured” foods. Heck, my granny is turning 101 this year. Southern cooking isn’t all bad. Paul Deen’s recipes were.

    Deen’s cooking was deliberately over-the-top as part of her schtick. She is a master marketer and business woman, who knew her days of fried doughnut hamburgers were about to end due to her diagnosis being outed, so she did what she could to eek out some cash flow (i.e. totally sell out to Novo Nordisk). My husband used to sell a competing diabetes drug, and this disease is nothing to scoff at as you know. I feel Deen needs to take more responsibility regarding the importance of lifestyle changes for people living with diabetes instead of simply pimping out Victoza,which merely covers up the underlying causes of the disease (genetics, diet, exercise and sedentary lifestyle). Now, is the time for her to lead by example. We’ll see if that happens, but it doesn’t look like she’s getting off to a great start here.

    Thanks for speaking your mind, Debbie. P.S. congrats on your new book!


    1. Debbie Koenig

      This is all so well said, Kendra! I wrote a piece on Southern cooking for Weight Watchers recently (it’s not up yet, or I’d link) and it covered much of the same ground. I so wish Paula had, as you said, chosen to lead by example.

  3. Julie

    Well said.

    I just heard her on NPR a few weeks ago reveling in her reputation as the butter queen, making jokes about eating extraordinarily healthy greens, so it was “okay” to add tons of butter and bacon. How is that funny to her now? It was a hell of a performance I guess. Gross.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      I wonder how many of those incidents are going to bite her in the ass now. She’s such a flaming hypocrite, and it’s so easy to find examples.

  4. Paula’s southern ‘charm’ were lost on me long ago. If any other person made what she does, it would be called pure crap but for some reason it’s seen as quintessential southern and she sells it with the best of them.

    OK, maybe she pissed me off she took ownership of the Gooey Butter Cake, a St. Louis tradition…or maybe it was when she completely bastardized it that put me over the edge but in any event; her behavior is just wrong. Evidence of her being more of a celebrity than a cook; of the almighty dollar mattering more than her own or others health. Sad commentary but it’s rampant in our culture so even more sad? No big surprise.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Ha! The butter cake! She made something that was already unhealthy a thousand times worse. And yes, very sad what this says about our culture.

  5. Holly Herrick

    Good for you, Debbie. You not only saved and lengthened the quality and duration of your life, but you sent positive messages and role models to your children.
    100 pounds lost is a huge accomplishment!

    The fact that most American’s and most people don’t understand the concept of moderation is killing them and making them fat and sick. I make a living writing about, preparing and eating food (as a restaurant critic), yet I don’t use it as an excuse to gorge and stuff myself silly.

    I once interviewed Paula Deen for a magazine story and found her to be very down to earth and pleasant, especially given that she had 30 interviews lined up for that day. I also respect how she pulled herself out from the brink of agoraphobia and poverty to build an empire.

    However, as someone who lives in the deep South, I’ve always found her depiction of Southern cooking to be (for the most part) not only way off base, it is irresponsible.

    I decided after seeing her on the TODAY Show this a.m. that I will no longer watch her shows, her on any other show, or read anything she writes. I’ve ALWAYS practiced “moderation” she says. “It’s o.k. to have a little piece of pie,” she says. Have you EVER seen her eat a little bit of anything?

    Her moderation comment is a downright lie, and it’s a lie to her viewers to get sick from eating too much bad stuff, keep quiet about it, all the while seeking $$ to be a spokesperson for a pharmaceutical company. The right thing to do would be to send out a message about eating properly – yes, with the occasional even daily indulgence – and (at least indirectly)exercising. Taking a pill is not going to cure diabetes and we, as a culture, need to realize that taking pills will not keep us healthy.

    Eating right and moving more are two big steps in the right direction, just as you say, Debbie. Congrats on your new book!

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Thanks for chiming in, Holly! You’re one of the Southern folks I link to above–your approach is so sensible.

  6. Diana

    Brava, Debbie. I just about choked on my green smoothie when I saw that she waited three years to come forward. I hope the backlash cripples her brand because it’s pretty clear all Paula cares about is her big fat bank account.

  7. One Hungry Mama

    amen, debbie. for me, it’s not as much about the food she cooks (which has never held any appeal for me; her ties with industrialize pork producers particularly turned my stomach), as it is the responsibility piece. you can’t blame someone for becoming famous—people like her recipes, I guess—but you can blame someone for not being socially responsible about whatever it is they do, in this case promoting a way of eating. i’m always shocked to learn how far people will go to protect self-interest and, even more, how self-interest trumps good old fashioned creative smarts. I mean, really, at her level of food celebrity, did she/her team not believe that there was a way to be honest or make healthier adjustments to her cooking without losing fame and profit? That’s just plain old laziness and total disregard.

    Okay. Now excuse my rant. And thank you for bringing this up.

  8. great post
    but really, it’s not the butter and animal fat that’s the problem, it’s the FLOUR and SUGAR that raises the insulin levels. flour AND butter and fat (vegetable fat is the worst) equals= bad news for your health.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      It’s the whole kit and caboodle, for sure. But where Paula really packs it on is via fat, loads and loads of fat.

  9. virginia willis

    I do wish her the best of luck with her illness, but 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. And, I very much look forward to your piece in Weight Watchers! 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

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Thanks so much, Virginia! And good point about her food being not exclusively Southern. It’s exclusively excessive.

  10. Denise Halcomb

    I dont feel that she HAD to disclose this personal information. She is a cook and an author first and foremost. Her celebrity is under enough scrutiny. It is her business. She doesnt have to advertize!! There is plenty of information available to diabetics she doesnt now have to be a spokes person for the disease! Come on get a grip people! I have MS but that doesnt mean I have to put my life on hold to help others get a clue. There are plenty of charities and oraganizations to help with that. If I choose to donate annonymously then that is my business. Paula Deen gives to many charitable organizations and who is to say she hasnt donated to this cause. It is no ones business but her own! People need to learn when to put the hell out of other’s lives!! PERIOD!!

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Denise, I think the only reason people are coming down on her, myself included, is that she’s made a FORTUNE off this style of cooking, and kept her diabetes a secret for three years–until she found a way to monetize it. It’s extremely irresponsible of her to suggest that people shouldn’t really be eating her food regularly, and by the way if they do and they get diabetes as a result, here’s a pill!

      If she’d disclosed her diabetes and paired it with some straight talk about the need to revise her lifestyle, rather than a paid endorsement for a medication, I wouldn’t be complaining. If she’d kept her mouth shut about it completely–because you’re right, she didn’t HAVE to disclose this, she CHOSE to–I would complain, but for a different reason. It’s the amount of money she stands to make off herself and her illness that makes me so angry I could spit.

  11. Julie

    Paula Deen has every right not to disclose her diabetes. What business is it of yours? Anyone with an ounce of common sense knows that ooey gooey butter cake isn’t healthy–that doesn’t mean Paula Deen has to stop distributing the recipe. Get a life, lady.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Julie, see my response to Denise. She CHOSE to disclose it, and to make money off of it. That’s the problem. Not the fact that she has diabetes.

  12. Diana Hsieh

    I eat tons of butter, lard, homemade mayo, etc… and I have perfect blood sugar. I have excellent cholesterol too. That’s because I don’t eat wheat, sugar, or other junk carbohydrates. (Look at the recipes you cite as so bad… they’re not just fat!)

    Before I switched to a paleo diet, I ate all the supposedly healthy foods that most Americans eat — pasta, cereal, bread, pizza, etc. I limited my fat intake. That’s when my fasting blood sugar was creeping up into the pre-diabetic range, and my cholesterol was high.

    Not all fats are good — I avoid soy, corn, and canola oil — but the idea that fat consumption causes diabetes or other diseases is just plain wrong.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Absolutely, it’s not just about fat consumption. It’s about overall caloric consumption, and fat has more calories per gram than any other type of food. Paula’s recipes are so over-the-top it’s almost funny, and yet people cook & eat them in all seriousness.

  13. Peter Smeeth

    The most sickening this is that she is now making a TON of money…think nearly 1 MILLION most probably….to support a pharmaceutical company instead of working with a dietetic group who can actually help her….

  14. NoPotCooking

    I could not believe she waited 3 years. Yes, I can see taking some time to decide how to deliver the message and how to spin it. I guess they couldn’t figure it out until they had some company paying her to come forward. Pretty disappointing. I hate to say it though, but I doubt it is going to affect her brand.

  15. Sarah Berlin

    Seriously? Did someone hold a gun to your head and make you watch this show and cook her food? Does there need to be a disclaimer for everything because people do not know how to take personal responsibility? That would be like me asking this author Debbie Koenig for the 5 minutes of my life back that I wasted reading this and having to leave my comment. Take responsibility for your choices in life people, and stop blaming everyone else! And people wonder why kids are so terribly behaved these days, because they learn from their parents that nothing is ever their fault.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      I’m missing the part where I ever said I watch her show or cook her food… Or where I’m blaming her for my weight problem, or anyone else’s. I’m blaming her for shilling a style of cooking that is unhealthy in the extreme, and then shrugging about the effects on her own health. And then turning around and making MORE money off a magic pill to treat the condition she most likely brought upon herself. It’s a matter of ethics, and responsibility.

  16. Susie

    It’s so obvious that she took 3 years to figure out the best way to spin and monetize her condition, all the while promoting her over indulgent recipes. Disgusting!

  17. carrie

    I’m totally with you on this, and kudos for being so honest. When you are someone like Paula Deen, a cooking personality in the public eye, you have a RESPONSIBILITY to your viewers, fans, readers, etc. Totally, totally irresponsible.

  18. dee plair

    Yes, Paula Dean is over the top, but more importantly, I think her food is nasty. However, I think portion size should also be mentioned. She has a chain of buffet restaurants and this is where the real damage is done.

  19. I just don’t see how she has an OBLIGATION to tell people about her medical issues. How is it our business?

    1. Debbie Koenig

      I agree Amy, she has no obligation. BUT to keep it a secret for three years while pushing the most over-the-top foods imaginable and then choose to go public–in the most public way possible, on the Today Show–only when she’s got a (presumably) lucrative deal to shill for a pharmaceutical company? Those are some messed-up ethics, man. When you reach her level of fame, there should be a modicum of responsibility to her fans. This is about as irresponsible as you can get–she had a huge opportunity to help people, and she blew it.

  20. Crunchy Con Mommy

    I hope this is a wake-up call to people who are eating a Paula Deen “Southern” diet… My best friend was, and ended up with high cholesterol at 22! Many of my relatives continue to eat that way. Really a shame.

  21. sarah henry

    Kudos, Deb, for calling this out for what it is. As someone who covered type 2 diabetes — a frequently preventable disease that ravages the body — I’m appalled by how this scenario has played out.

  22. Alicia

    I have to disagree with you on this one..

    I don’t think she has any obligation to put people on the right path, health wise, honestly. She is a tv personality, not a Doctor. Her job is and always has been, to entertain and sell. I would not think of looking to her for health advice even if the info she was giving was 100% accurate.

    I am of the opinion that fans of Paula Deen are not under any illusion that they are preparing healthy meals. They are making a conscious choice, just as she did. And just like her, they are probably uninterested in changing their lifestyle, and if they have diabetes, interested in trying to control it through medication. She is the perfect spokesperson *for the company’s target audience*, and I don’t think it speaks to her moral character for her to accept a job promoting a product that seems to fit her philosophy, even though I personally disagree strongly with that philosophy.

    1. Debbie Koenig

      Thanks for your comment, Alicia. I agree that she’s under no obligation, and that she’s not a doctor. Which is why I find it so heinous that she only went public about it when she was hired to endorse a DRUG. Not a doctor = shouldn’t be making big bucks from a pharmaceutical company. It’s pretty ballsy to be making money shilling drugs, and then shrug and say, “I’m a cook, not a doctor.”

      You’d be hard-pressed to find a soul who *doesn’t* work for pharma that recommends drugs before lifestyle changes when it comes to diabetes. That’s really not a safe option, which is why this is so especially cynical. This isn’t a difference in philosophy. It’s actually pretty reckless, to leave her fans (who, you’re absolutely right, are probably more likely to NOT want to make lifestyle changes) with the impression that the only change necessary is to skip the sweet tea, as long as you spend $500/month to inject yourself.

  23. Alicia

    I understand your point. However, if anyone is going to make big bucks from a pharma company drug endorsement- I would rather it be a non-Doctor celebrity than a Doctor. I think the second would be much more concerning, both morally and ethically.

    She is one in a long line of celebrities to get a drug endorsement deal. I see retired football players pushing ED drugs without controversy on a daily basis. If your objection is to celebrities endorsing drugs across the board, that’s one thing, and I can respect that. I don’t agree with the ways drugs are marketed either.
    However, if, in your opinion, it is *only* Paula Deen (aka a fat tv chef) that has a moral obligation to turn down an endorsement deal/promote a healthy lifestyle/tell the truth about her illness, I think it is a double standard.

  24. Sheryl

    I’m as outraged as you are. And then some. Prediabetes, which affects thousands, can be reversed by making wise lifestyle choices and changes. Surely Deen is not aware of this fact, or if she is, she’s chosen to ignore it and not share it with the rest of her followers.

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