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Paula Deen and the lure of the easy fix

Op-Ed

She is pitching 'a life that's delicious.' Type 2 diabetes is manageable, but it's hardly delicious.

January 23, 2012|By Karen Stabiner
(Peter Kramer/AP Photo )

Paula Deen came out last week. The cookbook author and television personality, known for her enthusiasm for high-fat and fried foods, has been a closet diabetic for three years — and for the moment, she's the chef we love to hate, having seduced us with unhealthful recipes on the one hand while she checked her blood sugar with the other.

But she's also a distraction, and the media storm surrounding the news of her illness is exactly the sort of publicity bonanza the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk must have dreamed of when it hired Deen to be the spokesperson for its new marketing campaign. It's Deen's job, along with her sons, to help us see "Diabetes in a new light," according to the company's website. As if one soft-focus slogan weren't enough, there's a kicker: "Live a life that's delicious."

It sounds like so much fun; almost makes you want to sign up for Type 2 diabetes. Surely Deen fans with the disease will start asking their doctors if the $500-a-month Novo Nordisk drug she takes might be right for them, not because they need a new medication but because it will catapult them to one degree of separation from Deen — which is, after all, what celebrity endorsements are all about.

There's a heated debate in the blogosphere over what Deen knew, when she knew it, and the amount of sugar, fat and calories she dished out in the meantime. But really, the worst she might be guilty of is being a savvy entrepreneur. Deen got handed a bushel of lemons and made — suddenly sugar free! — lemonade.

I say, let's turn up the wattage on Novo Nordisk's "new light" until it's as strong as the bare bulb hanging over a perp in the interrogation room. Here's some illuminating information:

More than 25 million Americans, about 8.3% of the population, have diabetes, and at the current diagnosis rate, 1 in 3 of us will have it by 2050. All but a small percentage of these cases are Type 2 diabetes, and obesity is the No. 1 risk factor.

According to 2007 figures, the most recent available, juvenile and Type 2 diabetes cost $174 billion annually — $116 billion in excess medical expenses, according to the American Diabetes Assn., and $58 billion in reduced productivity. It's a healthcare crisis all by itself.

Obesity numbers may have flattened out for the first time in 30 years, according to new figures, but not among poor and minority populations who have more trouble accessing care and managing their illness. You won't find them in the same waiting room with Deen.

The long view? Decidedly not "new" or "delicious." The National Institutes of Health lists the life-threatening complications: heart disease, stroke, hypertension, blindness, kidney disease, nervous system disease, amputations, dental problems, pregnancy complications. The catchall "other complications" category includes coma, greater risk of death from pneumonia, trouble with physical activity for those over 60 and, no surprise, depression.

I imagine that right now most of you like Deen a whole lot more than you like me, and I apologize for putting a dent in her I-eat-what-I-like-but-in- moderation campaign. My father had diabetes, and I watched its progress for 21 years. I can say with some authority that while a diabetic's life is manageable, it hardly qualifies as delicious in any dependable way.

Here are some things that can derail a diabetic: Skipping a meal, any meal, any day; eating too much or too little of just about anything; hidden sugar in a restaurant dish; eating a spontaneous snack; sitting on the tarmac having forgotten to pack a candy bar; having a glass of champagne at your kid's wedding; eating one too many summer-ripe, isn't-fruit-good-for-you strawberries.

Yes, people manage diabetes, and some really disciplined people wean themselves off medication with a regimen of diet and exercise, but that's a long, long way from what most of us consider "moderation," which usually involves saying no to a second slice of cake. Besides, a diabetic never gets a day off.

The life of a diabetic is somewhat less than swell — but Novo Nordisk is selling swell, alongside drug companies that promise to medicate away depression, gas, incontinence, clogged arteries and fibromyalgia. According to the Congressional Budget Office, pharmaceutical companies spent $4.7 billion on direct-to-consumer advertising in 2008; the United States has the dubious distinction of being one of only two countries in the world to allow such advertising, New Zealand being the other.

Support and encouragement is one thing, but what we're being sold is magical thinking. In the battle between healthcare reality and fantasy, Paula Deen is small potatoes (steamed, skins on, no butter), but what she represents matters: another attempt to market immortality to a culture that's particularly in love with misbehaving, followed by an easy fix.

Karen Stabiner is writing a book about restaurant staff meals with chef Michael Romano.

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