Paula Deen and southern cooking: Lesson learned

OPINION - Paula Deen is fascinating to watch and those who have recreated her masterpieces say the final products taste divine. But how good can a product be if the number one guinea pig develops a life-threatening illness as a result?...

This focus on Paula Deen and the health risks of “old school”-style Southern cooking is not new. Deen is making news for revealing that she has had Type 2 diabetes for three years, while continuing to cook in the fat-laden style that has made her famous.

Many other chefs who specialize in Southern cuisine have already altered their cooking styles to include low-fat ingredients and unusual substitutions — like applesauce for fats and butter — without losing that down home taste.

After collapsing onstage 17 years ago and subsequently being diagnosed with diabetes, Patti LaBelle traded in her infamous deep fryer for sautéing, egg whites and turkey products. Her two most recent cookbooks feature healthy recipes, and her first, not-so-healthy cookbook isn’t even featured on her website.

And, then there’s Paula Deen.

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As part of her revelation, the celebrity chef announced an endorsement deal with the Novo Nordisk company, which sells diabetes medications. Yet, Deen has stated that she will not alter the way she cooks, despite the connection between her cooking and her diabetes.

Deen is fascinating to watch and those who have recreated her masterpieces say the final products taste divine (even the deep-fried butter balls… yes, they are made exactly how they sound). Butter, in fact, has found its way into many a Deen dish over the years.

But how good can a product be if the number one guinea pig for testing the long-term effects of its consumption develops a life-threatening illness as a result?

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Contrary to certain myths, simply eating sugary treats such as Deen’s do not cause diabetes. It’s the extra weight caused by high-fat, high-calorie, high-sugar meals that leads to the disease.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when insulin can no longer scoop sugar out of the blood to use as fuel and energy, a phenomenon known as insulin resistance. This leaves high levels of sugar in the blood, which damages blood vessels and nerves, leading to amputations, heart attacks and strokes, to name a few tragic results. And, we know that insulin resistance increases with weight gain.

A false perception is that you have to be 80 or 100 pounds overweight to develop diabetes, but many with diabetes are not morbidly obese. Likewise, for those diagnosed with the disease, losing just 5 percent of body weight can decrease the need for medications. For a 200-pound person, that means losing just 10 pounds.

Depending on the severity of a person’s diabetes, medication can play an instrumental role. But, I worry about the message we send having a diabetes drug spokeswoman who still won’t give up her decadent meals.

Even if this diabetes medication could allow Deen and her fans to cook the same exact way without diabetic repercussions, let’s not forget that heavy creams, salt and butter also lead to heart disease and high blood pressure.

As I said in my interview on MSNBC’s News Nation, those who refuse to change their eating habits and plan to “die happy while eating my (insert unhealthy indulgence),” death is actually not the main worry. People with diabetes can live decades with amputated feet, blindness or even paralyzed arms and legs from a stroke. That hardly sounds like dying happy.

I applaud Deen for coming clean and no longer pretending that these meals can go unpunished. But, she hardly seems remorseful. It’s also difficult not to notice that this announcement correlates with her inking an endorsement deal with a major pharmaceutical company.

A few have mentioned that her health is her own private matter. In most cases, I completely agree. But, it gets tricky when a celebrity actively pushes an unhealthy product. Her worst critics predicted her cooking would lead to health problems, yet she continued to push said product, and here she is with, surprise, surprise: diabetes.

I will agree with Deen on two things: everything in moderation, and she’s not a doctor, she’s a cook. Moderation may mean one spoonful for an inactive person, but a full slice for, say, a body builder. What gives one person health problems may be just fine for someone else.

This news highlights the fact that we have to make independent healthy eating choices for ourselves and our particular lifestyle, regardless of the examples in front of us. This week, we have Deen to thank for this reminder.