Paula Deen and Diabetes Denial

Why eating her recipes — even in moderation — isn’t a long-term solution.

Photo via iStockphoto

You’ve seen Paula Deen before on the Food Network, full of Southern charm while happily frying up some “butter balls” or making her famous hamburger, bacon, and fried egg sandwich served between a sliced glazed doughnut — and always adding more “buttah.” No one, not even Deen herself, says her cooking is healthy, but you often hear it described as comfort food. And though you might think that a diagnoses of type 2 diabetes would be anything but comforting, maybe even be a wakeup call, that’s not so for Deen. Just recently, she revealed that she has had the disease for three years and is pleased to announce that no, nothing will change in her cooking, but she will be a spokesperson for Novo Nordisk, the Danish pharmaceutical company that makes Victoza, an noninsulin injectable diabetes medication which she now is taking. This decision has been highly criticized in the media because with 14 cookbooks that have collectively sold over 8,000,000 copies and a monthly magazine that reaches a million people, there is no doubt that Paula Deen influences eating behaviors in this country.

“I have always encouraged moderation,” she said on the Today show. “On my show, ya’ know, I share with you all these yummy, fattening recipes, but I tell people, in moderation, in moderation you can have that little piece of pie.” Even a very little piece of Paula’s Pumpkin Pecan Pie is 620 calories with 33 grams of fat — which isn’t so little at all. A 150-pound woman would have to walk more than four miles to burn that off.

But not even looking at the fact that just a little of Deen’s cooking can be difficult to recover from, a big problem with the outlook she touts is that it’s difficult to use portion control as your sole strategy to control calories. The occasional, moderate indulgence is great, but it won’t work in the long haul. People can rarely satisfy themselves adequately at meals through portion control alone (and often can’t limit their portions correctly), and in the context of Deen’s food, even reasonable looking servings pack an outsize punch.

Let’s look at what a day would look like if you ate 2,000 calories worth of Paula Deen’s food:

  • Breakfast: One small piece of baked French Toast Casserole — 1,296 calories, 64 grams of fat
  • Lunch: You ought to skip lunch to have a “little” dinner
  • Dinner: One scoop of Lady and Sons Chicken and Dumplings — 920 calories, 49 grams of fat

The total here is two small meals that equal 2,216 calories (enough to maintain or gain weight for many people) and a whopping 113 grams of fat (the average person needs less than 65 grams of fat a day). It almost goes without saying that this also falls short of essential nutrients that your body needs to function, and I’m willing to bet that you’re going to be hungry.

Deen went on in her Today show interview to admit that lifestyle is part of the cause of diabetes, but she also emphasized the role of age and genetics. The thing is, even though the disease is not yet fully understood, research shows that the number one cause of type 2 diabetes is lifestyle: being overweight, not exercising, and smoking. Poor genes, which is so often the first factor that takes the blame, only contributes 10 percent of the risk for premature death. I choose to view this as positive thing because it means that your health is in your hands. Even if you are already of living with diabetes, you have the power to make lifestyle changes that can improve your quality of life, longevity, and potentially, reduce your need for medications.

In the coming months, I truly hope to see Deen stop touting “fried butter balls in moderation” and become an advocate for a healthy lifestyle instead of a pharmaceutical company.

  • Tony

    Not sure why the fat is listed from her recipes. Lets focus on causality. Type 2 Diabetes is a disease caused from too much carbohydrate consumption and has nothing to do with fat intake. Her recipes are very heavy in grains and flour and Paula over eats carbohydrates in every way. That is the root cause of her condition.

    • http://eatsimply.org/ Ayla Withee

      Thank you for the comment. You make a good point that carbohydrates play an important role in diabetes, particularly when it comes to regulating blood sugar once a person already has the disease. There is evidence that excess sugar and refined carbohydrates (not all flour and grains) in the diet may lead to insulin resistance and Paula Deen’s cooking is certainly full of sugar. What many people do not know is that there is a very strong link between fat consumption, particularly saturated fat consumption, and type 2 diabetes. Paula Deen’s food is dangerous in many ways but the outrageous levels of fat and calories are important to recognize as contributors to this disease and many others.