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Too Mean to Paula Deen?

Quinn Phillips

January 25, 2012

Paula Deen, the Food Network host who is often called the “queen of Southern cooking,” has encountered criticism for her work in the past — not surprising, given that her repertoire includes items such as fried cheesecake and hamburgers with bacon served in a glazed doughnut. But since she revealed last week that she has Type 2 diabetes, Deen has encountered a barrage of attacks that seems unprecedented for any famous person making such an announcement.

Last Tuesday, Deen announced her diagnosis to Al Roker on NBC’s Today, along with the fact that she would be working with “a very reputable pharmaceutical company” (Novo Nordisk) to promote a diabetes management campaign. Roker immediately pointed out that she was a paid spokesperson for the company, and followed up with the question of why she waited three years to announce her diabetes to the world (Deen said she was still figuring out what it meant, and “had nothing to give to my fellow friends out there” at the time). Roker then asked how Deen would respond to critics who allege that she withheld the diagnosis to protect her show and her brand, to which Deen responded that “people are not going to quit eating.”

Roker’s questioning was, it turns out, mild compared with what followed in several corners. One online piece at Gawker,Paula Deen Is a Greasy Villain,” suggests that she shouldn’t eat cake unless she does her squats, while Frank Bruni of The New York Times — a former restaurant critic — calls Deen’s decision to conceal her diagnosis “for three long, greasy years” a “profound, unsettling act of withholding.” Deen announced just one day after her Today appearance that she would donate a portion of her proceeds from the Novo Nordisk deal to the American Diabetes Association, but to some this decision seemed, no doubt, like just a calculated move to quiet criticism.

As Jan Chait pointed out here at DiabetesSelfManagement.com, Deen did not seek out her endorsement deal, according to both her and a spokesperson for Novo Nordisk. The company was simply looking for a celebrity chef to whom people with a recent diabetes diagnosis could relate, and who might attract them to a Web site offering recipes for modified, healthier versions of comfort foods (the site also promotes Novo’s injectable drug liraglutide, marketed as Victoza). In a video introduction to the site, Deen announces that she has made “simple changes in my life” including cutting back on sweet tea and going for more walks.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Deen will make any changes to the cooking on her show — whether, for example, she will still feel comfortable deep-frying macaroni and cheese. Many of Deen’s critics assert that regardless of her diagnosis, it was wrong for her to promote unhealthy food to a country in which obesity is epidemic. Others, however, such as Bruni in the Times, note that many other celebrity chefs, including those at the “high end,” promote high-calorie fare yet escape criticism — perhaps because they lack Deen’s Southern drawl and populist appeal. And although it might seem delayed to some, Deen’s decision to endorse certain dietary and lifestyle changes, even for pay, is likely to give pause to anyone who believed her recipes could be prepared every day without negative effects on health.

What do you think — are critics of Paula Deen right to condemn her for withholding her diagnosis and profiting from a drug endorsement? Or are her actions understandable, or even admirable? Do TV chefs have a responsibility to promote healthy dishes, or to share personal information about their own diet and health status? Is Deen’s talk of “simple changes” a good message that will promote lifestyle improvements, or does it downplay the risks of Type 2 diabetes? Leave a comment below!



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