Teachable Moment Lost During Paula Deen's Announcement of Diabetes

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • In basketball, there’s something called “home cooking.” It’s a term describing the home field advantage, including referee bias that allows the home team to win.
    In my opinion, that’s exactly what happened when Paula Deen announced that she has Type 2 diabetes on the Today Show. She was allowed to squirm out of a tight situation through a relatively friendly interview by Al Roker, who did get her to admit that she is now a paid spokeswoman for a pharmaceutical company that makes diabetic medications.

    I’m not surprised by Deen’s announcement. In fact, I had a sneaky suspicion that she was not sharing everything when she went on Dr. Oz’s show last fall. At one point, she cagily admitted that she was on medications for some health issues that she could probably stop if she watched her diet and exercised more. A few minutes later, Dr. Oz asked Deen if she had any bad habits. She hedged for a while, but finally admitted that her bad habits were cigarettes and potatoes.  She admitted to having had the habit for 50 years and smoking 1-1/2 packs per day. “Oh please don’t look so disappointed,” she pleaded to Oz. “I don’t want to disappoint you. I’m so ashamed. That’s my one vice.”

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    I think many people would disagree with that statement. In covering Deen’s announcement, journalists have noted that her popularity is based in large part on her dogged determination not to follow contemporary standards. Time.com’s Josh Ozerksy wrote, “Deen knew that, and her enormous success over the course of her 15-year career was based on her personal elan and a freewheeling indifference to health concerns that, in today’s climate, seemed in some weird way heroic. She was the Huey Newton of country cooking. The woman just didn’t care; she was going to deep fry some Twinkies, and that was the end of it. The result, just like our mothers told us, has been predictable.”

    So imagine what the ripples would have been if she had fessed up to Dr. Oz (as opposed to the Today Show crew) about her diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, which was made three years ago. I think that the good doctor (who still regularly practices heart surgery) would have had an honest and blunt conversation with Deen about the culinary choices she has made and has encouraged so many others to make. Dr. Oz would have held her feet to the fire.

    In her interview with Roker, Deen pointed out that genetics, stress, lifestyle and age are believed to be triggers for Type 2 diabetes and seemed to be downplaying the role of food. However, Today Show contributor Dr. Roshini Raj, an assistant professor at New York University, did point out that being overweight is the most defined risk factor.

    It seems like Deen is trying to have it both ways. Rewind to the Dr. Oz interview last fall. “Talk to me about your health. Have you been adversely affected by the way you cook?” Dr. Oz asked Deen. “I’d like to say yes, but no,” the Food Network star said. “Regardless of what people think about the South, I don’t eat fried chicken and biscuits every day.” And she told Roker that she tapes 30 shows a year that showcase her Southern-cooking style, but claims to eat a more healthy diet the rest of the year (and which, I point out, is away from the all-seeing eye of the television lens so we don’t know if her claim is true or not). However, she did admit to Dr. Oz, ““There’s always room for improvement. I do take medications for certain things. If I exercise and monitored my diet, I probably could come off those pills.”

  • Roker asked Deen whether the diagnosis would damage her reputation. “People are not going to quit eating,” she said him. “I wanted to bring something to the table.” She also did not answer whether she plans to change how she cooked and ate, instead saying that she would continue to preach moderation. Yet moderation was in limited view when she answered some questions from Dr. Oz in the fall. Her favorite meal – fried chicken and mashed potatoes. Her favorite junk food – French fries. The one kitchen gadget she can’t live without – the deep fryer.

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    “I’m your cook, not your doctor,” Deen said to Roker. “You are going to have to be responsible for yourself.”  Although I agree with the part of self-responsibility, I also think Deen continues to try to set herself up as a role model in describing her life struggles and also by teaching people to cook and by encouraging lifestyle choices. Case in point – Deen told Roker that her desire is to bring hope to people who have Type 2 diabetes. However, what I saw based on these two interviews is a woman who is not willing to be honest with herself and with those who follow her shows and the Deen brand. And, unfortunately, what I saw on the Today Show was a woman who was more interested in hawking a product than encouraging her legions of fans to make important – and lifesaving – lifestyle changes.

Published On: January 18, 2012