After announcing on the Today show that she has type 2 diabetes, Paula Deen has come under fire from critics—and received support from fans—about whether her lifestyle and the recipes she’s become famous for are responsible for her type 2 diabetes diagnosis. The famous Southern chef spoke to iVillage about diabetes, her critics and the craziest recipe she’s ever come up with.
First off, Deen isn’t going turn tail on her down-home cooking and distance herself from the food she’s known for. “It’s not good for us to eat just lettuce every day,” she says in her sweet southern drawl. But she does acknowledge that you can’t eat fried chicken and biscuits every day, either. “I’ve always encouraged people to use moderation,” she says. “[My] show is meant to show my southern roots, my heritage, and southern recipes—it’s entertainment.”
My diabetes diagnosis was shocking
Though some of Deen’s detractors weren’t surprised to hear that she has diabetes—Anthony Bourdain called her the “most dangerous person to America“—Deen says the diagnosis shocked her because she hadn’t experienced any symptoms, which can include excessive thirst, fatigue, and tingling or numbness in the hands or feet.
“The hardest part [about my diagnosis] was being told that I had to totally change my life. That was hard for me because I love my life. I didn’t want to have to change.”
Giving up a few things
According to David P. Pryor M.D., West Coast Medical Director for NBCUniversal, making some healthy changes is central to diabetes management. “In almost all cases of adults newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a mainstay of treatment is to advise patients to make dietary changes and to lose weight if they are overweight.”
Deen is adamant that her doctor never suggested that the plump chef lose weight, but says she was told not to drink fruit juice (because it converts to simple sugar in the body) and to start exercising regularly. “I think I handled it well. Anytime your doctor gives you news that affects your life, you have to absorb it.” For her part, Deen gave up her favorite drink, sweet tea, which she says was a no-brainer. “I was consuming a cup and a half of sugar just through sweet tea.” Now she drinks her iced tea with a sugar substitute and skips the fruit juice all together. (She’s been soda-free since the 80s).
The other change Deen made was to finally start exercising. When she isn’t traveling she hits the treadmill daily. “I can watch some of my TV shows and walk and I put in a minimum of one mile a day.” To help manage her diabetes she’s got to keep it up. “Exercising is critical for the improvement of insulin sensitivity. It helps reduce body fat and improves sugar metabolism,” says Pryor.
Why wait so long to go public?
Another piece of controversy in the Deen diabetes story is though she’s had the condition for three years, she just announced it. “I could have, I guess, walked out two or three years ago and said ‘Hey y’all, I’ve got type 2 diabetes,’ and turned around and walked away. I probably would have had a great big target on my back because I had no answers. I had to figure out what I was going to do about it and how was I going to take this big ol’ basket of lemons and make it into hope.”
Her answer was to become a paid spokesperson for a diabetes management campaign sponsored by drug company Novo Nordisk, whose medication she is on. Critics fear she’ll hawk the drug rather than concentrate on managing diabetes by eating healthier and getting more exercise.
Though diabetes is a chronic condition, it isn’t a given that you’ll need to take medications. “Lifestyle changes, like improving your diet and exercising, can enable some people to avoid taking glucose-lowering medications,” says Pryor. And making healthy changes doesn’t mean people with diabetes can’t still enjoy southern food, says Pryor. But there are two caveats: “One, changing the recipes to reduce the amount of sugar and fat in them, and two, eating in moderation, which means once or twice a month instead once or twice a week.”
A once-in-a-lifetime food
Sometimes we have crazy thoughts, and sometimes we act on them. Deen shares one of those moments: “One day, I accidentally came up with this Krispy Kreme cheeseburger. Lord have mercy, in the middle of my show I looked over and saw those Krispy Kremes sitting there. Of course I had hamburger buns, but I said, ‘why not? I love sweet and savory.’ I put that sucker together and I took one bite and it was so good, that sweet donut with that cheeseburger. But I told people immediately, ‘listen y’all, this is very good but if you decide to eat this, it’s one serving per lifetime, so choose your time.'” She reiterates that it’s all about moderation.