Paula Deen, a native of the state of Georgia and the Food Network darling of Southern cooking, is most known for her decadently rich food she cooks on her TV show. This week, Paula Deen announced to the world that she has been living with type II diabetes, which caused a bit of an uproar. Even more shocking to people was the fact that this announcement was paired with an endorsement for a diabetes medication. Why is everyone so upset?
Some say it’s expected given the type of food she cooks on her show, and argue that she has been promoting a culture of excess and obesity in America. In fact, this isn’t the first time she has received criticism for her recipes on her show or in her cookbooks. In 2009 Paula Deen appeared on The View, where she was lambasted by Barbara Walters for the recipes in her cookbook geared towards children’s meals, Paula Deen’s Cookbook for the Lunchbox Set.
Deen responded to the criticism then and again to similar statements this week when she appeared on The Chew saying, “I’ve always said moderation. I don’t eat every day the way that you see me cook on that show. It’s 30 days out of my life, and it’s for your entertainment.”
But the hard feelings don’t end there. Others say she only announced her diagnosis now so that she could rake in money by promoting a pharmaceutical, evidenced by the fact that she waited three years to announce her condition. And they feel that given the nation’s obesity epidemic, Paula Deen should have used her diagnosis for different activities to promote more healthy eating rather than “peddling a drug”, as some would put it. Popular celebrity chef “bad boy” with an attitude, Anthony Bourdain, tweeted this week in response to Paula’s news, “Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later.”
Why all the vitriol against Deen? Yes, she did once air a recipe called “Deep Fried Butter Balls” involving 2 sticks of butter and a scant amount of cream cheese, coated in batter and deep fried. But she certainly is not the only one to ever promote rich calorie and fat laden food. All one has to do is look at the nutrition facts of some dishes in a sample of the nations most popular eateries to see that unhealthy rich food is fairly pervasive throughout the American culture of cuisine. 1,540 calorie slice of red velvet cheesecake, anyone?
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that we often feel everyone who is popular needs to serve as an exemplary role model. Just because someone popular says, “oh this tastes great, here’s the recipe”, does not mean we all have to be little lemmings and go out make everything they share for every meal – no more than the fact that a 1540 calorie slice of cheesecake exists at a popular restaurant means we should all be ordering it. Is it really up to every TV personality and food dish in this world to make the decisions for your health for you? Health is a very personal thing, and not everyone has the same situation regarding their health. Some health situations are preventable, others are not. And several are very complicated and their precise causes are not nearly as clearly understood as the public thinks they are. And really, we the general public have no idea if Deen’s diagnosis is caused by her diet, other lifestyle choices, or simply genetics. Is it really our place to judge?
I think the main backlash though stems from disappointment – disappointment for not taking advantage of an opportunity to educate the public more about diabetes and natural ways to treat it. Nutrition professor Marion Nestle argues against the American Diabetes Association, who was quoted in the NYTimes as saying “you can’t just eat your way to Type 2 diabetes”. Marion states that Paula should have instead used her diagnosis to promote better food and weight loss rather than the medication Victoza, and she certainly isn’t the only one to come out with this opinion.
I’m not a doctor so I’m not going to comment on the utility of this medication or whether or not a lifestyle of unhealthy eating is linked to onset of diabetes, but I can comment on taking responsibility for our own actions. Whatever your feelings on Paula’s health and career choices, I think rather than expelling the energy to judge her, we need to look at ourselves. What choices have we made regarding our health? Are we proud of it? What have we been teaching our children about choosing a lifestyle that fosters healthy habits? What factors work against a healthy lifestyle and how can they be overcome? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves as members of a society with increasing health problems year after year.
Should Paula devote more energy into promoting more healthful recipes? Maybe. Should Paula use her diagnosis to educate people about prevention, management and risks of type II diabetes, an illness that currently affects over 25 million in the US alone? Maybe. Is it the most moral decision to use your own health conditions to make more money via select endorsements? Maybe not. But we can’t know her specific motivations or experience dealing with this, and no one but Paula can presume that they do. Personally, I would love to see Paula expand more on her experience – what this has meant for her the past three years, how she arrived at wanting to support her medication in this way, and any new directions she is planning to go as a result of this. But before everyone starts vilifying her, let’s all remember Paula Deen isn’t single-handedly responsible for the health issues in America, and it’s unfair to blame her as such. The health issues in America are much larger and more complicated than one person’s recipe for fried butter balls on TV.