Paula Deen at the Crossroads: Punch Line or Role Model?

American’s foremost peddler of excessive butter, cream, salt and sugar, chef Paula Deen, has finally confirmed rumors that she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years ago. Her timing for this announcement was clearly no accident as she also revealed that she is now a paid spokesperson for the Novo-Nordisk diabetes drug, Victoza.

Ms. Deen, whose high-calorie recipes and super-sized portions have made her both a Food Network favorite and a public health nightmare, appears appallingly opportunistic for simultaneously revealing both her diagnosis and a deal with a pharmaceutical company. But could this announcement by one of America’s most high-profile chefs actually be a blessing in disguise, particularly for her devoted fan base? Could her diagnosis act as a wake up call to those in denial about the relationship between what you eat and your health? It certainly could, if Ms. Deen chooses the right path.

In a rocky start, Ms. Deen demonstrated a healthy dose of both denial and damage control on the Today Show when she refused to acknowledge that her weight and/or eating habits contributed to her illness. “On my show I share all these yummy, fattening recipes but I tell people (to eat) in moderation,” Ms. Deen said. She claimed she’s always eaten in moderation and reminded Americans that, “I’m your cook, not your doctor.”

No one I know would go to Ms. Deen for medical advice. However, on the cooking front, this charming and up-from-the-bootstraps southern chef is an inspiration to many. And that’s why her diagnosis with a serious, chronic disease that is heavily related to unhealthy food choices may actually resonate with Americans.

For those unfamiliar with why diabetes is such a devastating ailment, here’s a brief primer. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), Type 2 diabetes is a major cause of heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, amputation, and blindness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out that diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death listed on U.S. death certificates in 2007. And if current trends continue, 1 of 3 U.S. adults will have diabetes by 2050. The good news? More than 85 percent of people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight and weight reduction can prevent onset.

No question that there’s been a collective haze of denial hovering over America for decades as waistlines increased dramatically along with hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol counts. With Big Food refusing to play a meaningful role in the overhaul of our disease-producing food system, and federal legislators unable to pass important policies that would help reshape the nation’s food environment, Americans have been lulled into a sense of complacency about what we eat. Enter Ms. Deen, America’s most visible cheerleader for unhealthy eating habits, who even after her diagnosis said diabetes won’t change how she cooks. Imagine the impact she could have if she renounced her old lifestyle and began publicly modeling a healthier one.

As it stands, Ms. Deen is at a crossroads. Her fame and diagnosis have presented her with a unique opportunity, which can create a legacy as either a role model or a punch line. So far she’s hurtling down the punch line path – encouraging Americans to pop a pill for their diabetes while continuing to hawk fare like deep-fried cheesecake, deep-fried lasagna, deep-fried stuffing on a stick (are you sensing a pattern here?) and her notorious Lady’s Brunch Burger which consists of a burger topped with bacon and fried egg on a sliced glazed donut.

But it’s not too late for her to toss out the deep fryer, modify her recipes and admit she was wrong. A reinvented Paula Deen, cooking wholesome, tasty, healthier food and modeling a physically active lifestyle would be an inspiration to her legion of trusting fans. Everyone loves a celebrity resurrection, and Ms. Deen sure could use one right now.

So if Ms. Deen is reading this, let me sum up my advice. Ditch the Novo-Nordisk gig, admit you’ve seen the light and become America’s dietary savior. You’ll save lives. You’ll earn new respect. You won’t even miss those Twinkie Pies or Fried Butter Balls as you bask in your newfound role of Dietary Role Model in Chief. And as an added bonus, you’ll increase the likelihood that you’ll live to see your grandchildren grow up.

Could this be the true meaning behind the expression, “the South will rise again?”

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