The Perils of Paula Deen

On Monday night, some good friends came to my house for dinner. Our dessert consisted of delicious store-bought chocolate pound cake from the Paula Deen collection of baked goods.

The very next morning, Ms. Deen announced publicly that she’s been suffering from type 2 diabetes for over three years, a fact that she hid from the press and her fans. She also announced the creation of a new website called ‘Diabetes in a New Light’, which offers nutrition and diet advice to others suffering from the disease.

Public health advocates were quick to pounce on Ms. Deen. Many called her a hypocrite for hiding her diabetes diagnosis while continuing to push the fat-, sugar- and butter-laden recipes that she is famous for. Celebrity chef and long-time critic Anthony Bourdain was quoted as saying: “when your signature dish is hamburger in between a doughnut, and you’ve been cheerfully selling this stuff knowing all along that you’ve got Type 2 diabetes … it’s in bad taste if nothing else.”

Of the 25 million Americans with type 2 diabetes, over 80 percent are overweight or obese. Not everyone with this disorder, also called adult-onset or insulin-resistant diabetes, is overweight. The disease can run in families, and it is more common among certain racial and ethnic groups, so genetics plays some role. However, obesity and an overly sedentary lifestyle are two of the key factors that trigger the onset of disease. Moreover, weight loss and healthy eating are essential for properly managing type 2 diabetes, along with the use of medications to control blood sugar.

Given that nearly 10% of Americans have the disease, the market for diabetes treatment and related care is big business. Americans spend $100 billion a year on diabetes treatment — glucose monitors, drugs that regulate the level of sugar in the blood, and care for other symptoms (many of which can be severely debilitating or life-threatening, such as blindness, heart disease, and nerve problems that may lead to the amputation of the hands or feet).

One of the key players in this market is Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical company that makes both insulin and the diabetes drug Victoza. That drug alone was worth $1 billion in global sales for the company last year, and it earned another $3 billion from its other diabetes related products. And Paula Deen is their new spokesperson — her new website is sponsored by them, and she’ll be promoting their anti-diabetes drug along with tips for healthy living. This has many of Ms. Deen’s other detractors in a froth.

I’ll admit that I find it a little tacky for Paula to become a spokeswoman for a diabetes drug after years of promoting a cooking style may contribute to the disease. I’d rather she become a volunteer for the American Diabetes Association. [Update: After this commentary was recorded in the studio, Ms. Deen announced that she will give a portion of her earnings from the Novo Nordisk deal to the ADA]. It will be hard for her to shake the impression that she is little more than a cold and calculating opportunist, using her disease to land a lucrative advertising deal instead of helping the millions of Americans suffering from the disease.

As tacky as this all seems, what is equally as tacky is the vitriol and abuse being heaped upon Ms. Deen by folks like Anthony Bourdain (who himself is not known for promoting a healthy lifestyle). It reeks of schadenfreude — a German word that describes the sense of joy we get from watching the troubles of others.

Unlike her many critics, I’m willing to give Ms. Deen the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know the nature of her agreement with Novo Nordisk — maybe she’s earning several million dollars for promoting Victoza, but maybe she’s not. I don’t really care, so long as she gets more people to undergo screening and treatment for diabetes, particularly since early detection can decrease the likelihood of developing severe complications.

Furthermore, celebrity endorsements of over-the-counter or prescription drugs are nothing new. Paula is being singled out because of who she is and because of the type of cooking she’s long promoted. But no one with half-a-brain who’s ever watched her show would think that this way of eating is healthy. Few cooking shows on television actually do promote healthy eating, and it’s the responsibility of the viewer to make wise food choices.

As for the three years that elapsed between Ms. Deen’s initial diagnosis and the public revelation that she has diabetes … that’s not really anyone’s business but Paula’s. Maybe her coming-out party is tied with her Novo Nordisk endorsement, but maybe not. Again, I don’t care. Just because you’re a celebrity doesn’t mean that every single aspect of your life should be open to scrutiny. Few of us would want our medical records shared publicly, so we shouldn’t criticize a celebrity like Ms. Deen for choosing to keep her personal health information private.

“Practice moderation, y’all” will soon be a catchphrase on Ms. Deen’s cooking show, reminding her viewers that they should go easy on the high-calorie, high-fat comfort foods she is famous for. That is also sound advice for her critics, who should not be in such a rush to judge.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on January 19, 2012. It is also available on the WAMC website.]

About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
This entry was posted in Celebrities, Diabetes, Media, Obesity. Bookmark the permalink.

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