Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Opinion

Less butter, more love

Don't expect Paula Deen to go cold turkey on the hoecakes.

If she did, she wouldn't be Paula Deen. And her ardent fans — people who stand to learn from her newfound health challenges — would disengage.

The finger-pointing at the Southern goddess of buttah and sugar has been nonstop since she announced that she has type 2 diabetes. She's gotten little sympathy.

Deen fessed up to having the condition in conjunction with announcing that her latest gig will be a pitchperson for the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk. She takes the company's product Victoza to help control the diabetes.

Famous globe-trotting chef Anthony Bourdain pounced quickly, tweeting this snarky gem: "Thinking of getting into the leg-breaking business, so I can profitably sell crutches later." What gets Bourdain's cabrito (baby goat, a delicacy in many of the regions of his travels) is that Deen exemplifies the lifestyle that is a known contributor to this form of diabetes. Her forte is overindulgence in high-fat and high-calorie and high-carb foods. And then you go back for seconds, because Deen is all about the buffet.

Deen is an easy target for ridicule, and not just because she glories in fatty extravagance in her cooking. She's famous and rich but clearly not to the manor born.

In fact, her eating and cooking habits are deeply entwined with her earlier struggles in life. Dean's parents both died by their early 40s, leaving her to raise a younger brother. She was married at 18, pregnant with her first child the next year and later became a divorced single mother with two young sons. She had $200 in her pocket. Deen virtually hid inside her home for nearly two decades. She had a high school education and a debilitating fear of public places. She learned to cook with the ingredients placed closest to the exit doors at the grocery. Prone to panic attacks, she could barely get herself inside the store.

Her culinary ascent began with a sandwich catering business she ran out of her kitchen. She sent her two sons out for delivery and sales. Meanwhile, Bourdain was serving up French fare at New York's Les Halles. You might say Deen is the poster woman for one of America's greatest and least understood curses: the link between poverty, obesity and health issues like diabetes. She could be the Marlboro Man for unhealthy eating. Recall that several of the men who portrayed the advertising icon died of lung cancer, but not before they spoke out against smoking, eventually seeing the connection. (Deen's a smoker, too.) The fact that she appears to be in denial about how to address her health condition is perfect. America is in denial.

Deen has said she will tweak her recipes, but just barely. She's giving up sugar-laden sweet tea. And she waxes on about moderation, but she hasn't exactly renounced any of her most famous dishes (e.g., the hamburger, bacon and fried egg sandwich served between a sliced glazed donut).

To explain the disease, Deen offered this: "The thing that can bring on diabetes is stress, and I've had my share of stress. It can be your age, it can be your race, it can be your lifestyle, it can be from lack of exercise, and it can certainly be genetic." Okay. But I think it was probably the lard, too.

Dean likely has a lot in common with many of the two-thirds of American adults and one-third of school-aged children who are overweight or obese. And the contributing factors — poverty, lack of access to fresh foods and poor eating habits — do not change quickly.

Obesity rates in the United States have been rising in recent years among all class levels. But they are disproportionately linked to poverty.

My own food tastes run more to the Bourdain end of the spectrum. I own his cookbooks. Deen's do not appeal. And, yet, I don't think his attitude is helpful on this issue.

The Vassar-/Culinary Institute of America-educated Bourdain, like most Americans, would do better to reflect on ways we can help people, especially the poor, come back from the brink of obesity. Because here's the bottom line: Obesity is killing us, literally and financially. It's a medical crisis. Obesity is linked to chronic diseases that make up an estimated 70 percent of all health care costs.

Diabetes is a silent killer, partly because many of the more than 25 million Americans with the disease don't know they have it. Another 79 million are considered prediabetic.

But changing these complicated patterns — which is to say, getting millions of people through the denial and getting them to change their behavior — will take time and effective messaging, not snotty putdowns. In that, Deen just might serve as the perfect pitchwoman.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion page columnist for the Kansas City Star.

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