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Paula Deen: Queen of Disease or Healing Food Fairy?

Paula Deen: Queen of Disease or Healing Food Fairy?

In a spate of recent media appearances, Paula Deen, the unapologetic queen of culinary excess and indulgence would have us believe that she didn’t eat herself into type 2 diabetes – that it was just Russian Roulette.  Genes do matter, but just a little. Sorry Paula, but type 2 diabetes, and in fact over 90% of chronic disease, happens because of bad choices, not bad genes.  New research proves that type 2 diabetes is nearly 100% reversible without medication or gastric bypass.

Deen would also have us believe that she really didn’t expect us to eat her signature hamburger sandwiched in the middle of a donut. But whether unwittingly or not, Deen and her brand of junk food have been preying on a very human vulnerability: our innate tendency to become profoundly addicted to sugar, fat, and salt.

Bolstered by “experts” such as Dr. Linda Siminerio, director of the Diabetes Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who said, “To my knowledge no particular food has been linked to an increase in the risk of diabetes,” Deen refuses to acknowledge that her sugary, fatty foods led to her diabetes.  No food has been linked to diabetes?  Dr. Siminerio stands alone with Paula Deen in that belief.

Deen said she would not change her own lifestyle or cooking style drastically, other than to reduce portion sizes of unhealthful foods. “I’ve always preached moderation,” she said. So just have half the hamburger on an open-faced donut sandwich?  If all calories were created equal, that might fly. But nutrition research over the last 30 years has demonstrated overwhelmingly that all calories are not created equal.

Food is information. Any sixth grader will tell you that 1,000 calories of broccoli is different from 1,000 calories of soda.  Even the American Diabetes Association and Weight Watchers have changed how they categorize foods based on the fact that while chocolate chip cookies and spinach are both carbohydrates, they do not have the same effect on your hormones, appetite, metabolism, or weight.  Sorry Paula, you can’t just eat less of the same junk foods and reverse or even stabilize your diabetes.

Paula Deen’s celebration of excess and indulgence is irresponsible if not outright dangerous in the face of our obesity epidemic. Nearly three out of four Americans are overweight or obese, one in two Americans has pre-diabetes or diabetes (or what I call “diabesity”), and, shockingly, 25% of diabetics and 90% of pre-diabetics are not even diagnosed.

Caring for these people will cost us $3.4 trillion over the next ten years.  Today, one in three Medicare dollars is spent on diabetes.  Our country is becoming the United States of Diabetes. And since 1983, there has been an increase of over 1,000% in incidence of diabetes worldwide.  Globally we are becoming the United Nations of Diabetes.

Deen’s endorsement of Victoza, a diabetes drug, lulls us into the belief that the false god of medication will save us from our excess.  Don’t worry. Just keep eating 55 pounds of flour and 150 pounds of sugar a year, the American average.  If you have bad genes, big Pharma will be there to save you.  But remember, the last blockbuster diabetes drug, Avandia, has led to 47,000 heart attack deaths since it was introduced on the market in 1999.  Sorry to break the news, but if you are standing on a tack, it takes a lot of aspirin to make your foot feel better.

While some may have a genetic predisposition, those genes only get turned on when doused in mountains of white flour, white sugar, and fat.  Type 2 diabetes is almost 100% preventable and curable with dietary intervention.  When Deen says she doesn’t blame herself, then whom does she blame?

This week in Indian Wells, California, President Clinton convened the best and brightest minds in health care, business, and fitness to put a stake in the ground that “Health Matters.”  President and Chelsea Clinton, Dr. David Satcher, Richard Gephart, Jillian Michaels, and others including myself painted a picture of the tsunami of cost and suffering brought on by the obesity epidemic and the need for innovative solutions in healthcare, our communities, schools, and the workplace, none of which included smaller portions of bad food.   Everything from “instant recess” to community-based programs for people to get healthy together, to banning sodas from schools, to better access to real foods for the poor was on the menu at the Clinton Foundation event.

Deen said her diagnosis was not a death sentence. But diabetics have four times the risk of heart attack and dementia as well as an increased risk of a spate of cancers, not to mention nerve damage, liver failure, kidney failure, and blindness.  Sorry Paula, but if you don’t make serious lifestyle changes, diabetes is a death sentence.

On the Today show she told Al Roker, “Honey, I am your cook, not your doctor.”  Sorry again Paula, but dinner is a date with the doctor. Food is medicine, and what you put on your fork is more powerful than anything you will ever find in a pill bottle.

But perhaps there is a silver lining here. Because Paula Deen can turn this around. And if she can do it, so can you.

At Saddleback Church this past year I partnered with Rick Warren, Dr. Mehmet Oz, and Dr. Daniel Amen in a social experiment. We put the church on a wellness program based on rigorous nutritional science and lifestyle medicine. Members ate real, whole, fresh food; broke their addiction to sugar and processed fats from industrial food; and learned how to shop, cook, eat, move, and celebrate life together. We had dozens of diabetics who not only lost weight but also got off their medications and even insulin and reversed their disease.  If a church that started its day with ribs and donuts can do it, so can you, Paula Deen.

Paula, be a cheerleader for America and create new recipes and a new show to teach us that food can be both fun and good for you.  Please help us Paula. We need you.

Mark Hyman MD is the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, the Founder of The UltraWellness Center, and a ten-time #1 New York Times Bestselling author.