It's been quite a week for Paula Deen. Not only is the mega-popular Southern cook turning 65 today, but she's also found herself in the midst of a media firestorm after revealing she's been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
Deen's specialty is over-the-top, high-fat recipes like the Lady's Brunch Burger: a hamburger topped with a fried egg, bacon and served between the halves of a glazed doughnut. And how about some deep-fried macaroni and cheese, or deep-fried stuffing on a stick? It's easy to see how eating this kind of food regularly can lead to obesity, a major risk factor in Type 2 diabetes.
Critics of the folksy Food Network star have long insisted that she was encouraging her audience to eat foods that were unhealthy in the extreme. Also, the long-term rumor - not confirmed until this week - that she has diabetes, the critics said, meant that she was hiding the health consequences of her recipes from the fans who regularly made them.
In an interview on "The Today Show," Deen insisted that wasn't the case. "I've always encouraged moderation," she said in an interview with Al Roker. On the show, Deen also said that she "wanted to bring something to the table when I came forward" with news of her diagnosis. As it turns out, that something is the endorsement agreement she has to endorse the diabetes drug Victoza. She's now got a new website, Diabetes In A New Light, sponsored by Victoza's manufacturer, Novo Nordisk.
Deen's revelation sparked Internet arguments and comments as vitriolic as any used in a Presidential debate. "High-end trailer trash cooking," sniffed one poster on The New York Times website, which quickly ran up close to 800 comments. On the other hand, comments on the Facebook page of the NBC affiliate in Phoenix, Arizona were 99 percent of the "it's her business" variety.
And some diehard fans said they would continue to eat Deen food no matter what. Outside the star's Savannah, Georgia, restaurant, The Lady and Sons, Bud Apple told "The Savannah Morning News" that he didn't want any part of low-fat food in Deen's restaurant. A diabetic himself for more than two decades, Apple joked, "I'm gonna go in there and get me some more diabetes."
If nothing else, Deen's acknowledgement of her condition brings new attention to Type 2 diabetes, which affects millions of Americans who know they've got it - and many more who don't. According to the American Diabetes Association, 25.8 million Americans suffer from either Type 1 (previously known as juvenile) or Type 2 (adult onset) diabetes, and 90 percent of those cases are Type 2. And the Centers for Disease Control estimates that an additional 7 million people are undiagnosed Type 2 diabetics. Taking into account all these cases, the latest statistics show that the cost of diabetes care has reached a staggering $218 billion each year - almost half of what the entire Medicare program costs annually.
There's a strong genetic factor with Type 2 diabetes, although Deen didn't address that issue on the Today Show, saying only that her illness was discovered during a routine physical exam. The diagnosis couldn't have been a surprise: Combine Deen's excessive weight, her sedentary lifestyle and her consumption of sugary, high-fat foods, and you've got the perfect recipe for Type 2 diabetes.
It's hard to tell how seriously Deen is taking her revelation, or how responsible she feels to substantially change other people's eating habits. In her "Today" interview, she said, "I'm here today to let the world know that it is not a death sentence." (In fact, diabetes is the seventh-leading cause of death in the U.S.) On Diabetes In A New Light, she told her fans that after her diagnosis, "I wasn't about to change my life. But I have made simple changes in my life." The website promises lighter recipes, starting with "Lady And Sons Lasagna."
Given all the fuss, how will Deen celebrate her birthday today? With her trademark Chocolate Layer Cake With Cheesecake Filling? A slice of angel-food cake topped with fresh fruit? Maybe she's not ready for that second choice, but let's hope that she gets healthier and encourages her hardcore fans to start thinking about the same.
Good luck, Paula, and Happy Birthday!