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Posted: January 20, 2012 12:00 a.m.

Morgan: Food for thought

You knew this column had to be written.  It’s just too obvious. I can’t turn and look the other way.  The topic just fell into my lap, so who could ignore it or pretend it didn’t happen and just go on as before?  Nobody, I say, and least of all, me.

The subject is Paula Deen, the deep-fried, butter-laden, sugarcoated, steeped in sweet tea current reigning star of southern cooking – or at least southern cooking as she’s styled it.  After years of touting all things sweet, buckets of saturated fats and hot, crackling oil, and after converting legions of eager home cooks into Paula Deen cult members, Ms. Deen has confessed to having developed — three years ago — one of the most dreaded diseases of modern life, Type 2 diabetes. Some 25 million Americans battle the disease that kills about 200,000 every year.

Diabetes is just one of the chronic diseases — like heart disease, colon cancer, kidney disease, osteoarthritis — that are linked in most cases to “lifestyle choices.”  That means the choices we make when it comes to how we live our lives, what we eat and drink, whether we smoke, how active we are, whether we are overweight and whether we have high blood pressure and high cholesterol. 

Diabetes is particularly cruel because it can lead to many of those other chronic diseases affected by lifestyle choices.  It can affect the eyes, the heart, the nerves, kidney and liver function and limbs.  In diabetes, the body doesn’t produce enough insulin to maintain a healthy level of blood sugar.  An accumulation of blood sugar triggers diabetic symptoms and sets off a chain of unwanted results.

Medication is, of course, required, but long before one gets to the need for drugs, we can avoid habits that can lead to diabetes and make changes that improve one’s longevity and health on all fronts. A healthy diet filled with fruits, vegetables and whole grains vs. sugars and saturated fats is a must.  Exercise has to be a habit, as is not smoking and excess consumption of alcohol. Losing weight is a priority, because being overweight can itself result in high blood pressure, high cholesterol, fatty liver disease, sleep apnea, stroke, stress, depression, even infertility.

You can’t tell me Ms. Deen didn’t know all this while she was promoting her high fat, high cholesterol, and calorie-laden goodies all these years.  She apparently and blissfully ignored all medical facts on the road to establishing an immutable “brand” on television and in publishing, filling the family coffers to overflowing, and signing “fat” endorsement deals for the likes of Smithfield Ham, the latest being for a daily injectable diabetes drug made in Denmark.  Come on, Paula, you’ve got about as much credibility right now as the ship’s captain who says he tripped and fell into the lifeboat, leaving his passengers behind on a sinking cruise liner.

She says she took her time revealing her diagnosis in order to figure out how diabetes was going to affect her life.  It seems clear to me that she spent three years figuring out how her diabetes was going to affect her bottom line.  If you noticed, her announcement was coupled with a re-do of her website now promoting healthier choices and reduced butter, sugar and fat-drenched recipes.  In the meantime, how many of her admirers followed her gaily down the road to the same diagnosis over the past three years.  They were on a yellow brick road at the end of which they’ve now discovered the wizardess dabbled in false ideology. 

I’ll give her this.  Paula Deen is pure entertainment for those who embrace her. Her insouciant ways, effervescent personality, her laughing violet eyes, that perfect go-gray hair and her emphasis on hearth, home and family, can be captivating. Her story of pulling herself up by her bootstraps is pure Americana and not uncompelling.  There is much to like about Paula Deen.

 What’s not to like is that in creating both her persona, brand and career, she so blithely ignored all that’s known these days about making healthy lifestyle choices, thereby perpetuating a belief that high calorie, deep-fried, drenched-in-butter-and-sugar recipes regularly belong on anyone’s menu.  She says she’s always preached “moderation,” but that can hardly be true when she’s achieved renown (or revulsion in some quarters) for recipes like fried cheesecake or a cheeseburger serve on a sliced glazed doughnut. 

Nathalie Dupree, the first southern cook on TV, says Paula Deen is now in a position to effect positive changes in the way Americans view diet and lifestyle choices.  But consider this: if Ms. Deen truly aims to be the game-changer in the battle against diabetes by promoting a healthier lifestyle, she’ll undercut the sales numbers her Danish drug maker is hoping to achieve by her endorsement. Watch Ms. Deen talk out of both sides of her mouth. 

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She chairs the Newton Advisory Committee.

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