When celebrity chef Paula Deen first spoke openly about her type 2 diabetes there was some criticism from people in the diabetes community and the general public. Almost a year later, Deen has regained her footing and has begun her diabetes advocacy she set out to do in helping people address their diabetes honestly and begin to really take care of themselves. 

By: John Parkinson, Clinical Content Coordinator, DiabetesCare.net  

Imagine if one of your true joys or passions in life that helped you in tough times, brought your family together, and was such a huge part of your identity was also a major contributing factor to developing an incurable, chronic disease?

This is what happened to Paula Deen.

Deen was a divorced mother of two young boys when she began a catering business over 20 years ago. The start of that business grew and segued into developing a brick and mortar restaurant, The Lady & Sons, in Savannah, Ga. Deen continued to work hard through the years and went on to open another restaurant, write cooking books, and do TV shows. In the process, Deen obtained millions of fans and became a recognizable, public person. 

Yet in the midst of her public success, she was dealing with a great private challenge: type 2 diabetes. Like many others who are diagnosed with type 2, she struggled. Deen decided to keep her diagnosis private for three years before earlier this year announcing she had the disease and that she was working with a large pharmaceutical company. Instead of becoming an opportunity to discuss her advocacy plans and have an open discussion about type 2 diabetes, this announcement brought about public criticism. 

However, what was lost in the ensuing firestorm was that in Deen’s story of being diagnosed and her subsequent struggles was that she mirrored what happens to many people who are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. People often grapple with the news of having the disease, and in getting to a place of acceptance of diabetes and learning how to manage it. Ultimately, the path in type 2 diabetes is a daily journey, filled with challenges, small victories, and most of all humanity.

Deen has the same frailties as others with the disease and getting a footing on how to handle it. Whereas, private people can make missteps and no one notices, when you are a celebrity, everything you do is dissected and opened up for debate in the public arena.

The beauty, however, comes in redemption and moving beyond the perceptions of the first go around and how she can come out as a diabetes advocate to help others who are struggling with the disease. In the broader context, relating to people is where Deen can really serve as an advocate to the public. People can take solace in that understanding that even successful people like Deen struggle with diabetes. She also has a message of how taking smaller, healthier steps can begin the path towards gaining better glucose control.

DiabetesCare.net spoke to Deen recently about what she went through when she was first diagnosed; the learning process along the way; and how she, along with her partnership with Novo Nordisk, wants to help people with their type 2 diabetes in getting to a place of acceptance and good disease management.

DiabetesCare.net: Can you walk us through when you were first diagnosed, and what that was like when you were being told you had type 2 diabetes?

Deen: Any diagnosis of a disease is scary, at first. You know, diabetes is not something that runs in my family and it wasn’t something I knew a lot about. I was definitely in denial, at first, and I thought, `Okay, well I’ll cut out sweet tea,` and that would solve everything. I didn’t have the knowledge or the tools I really needed to manage my diabetes.

DiabetesCare.net: You began by just cutting out sweet tea and not addressing your diet.  Do you think that you were struggling in the beginning and that you made a gradual acceptance of the disease?

Like anyone else would, I think I struggled in the beginning. I was scared that my entire life was going to change and that having diabetes meant I couldn’t enjoy the Southern foods I’ve grown up loving. But I’m not someone who lets things stand in my way, and I decided I wasn’t going to let diabetes stop me from enjoying my life. As I learned more about diabetes and how to manage my condition, I learned that rather than completely cutting out the foods I love, I can cut back on portion sizes. I’ve also found ways to lighten things up!

DiabetesCare.net: How has diabetes been a learning process for you? What did you have to learn to do differently?

Deen: Having type 2 diabetes has definitely been a learning process for me. Once I accepted my diagnosis, I worked closely with my doctor to figure out what management plan would be right for me. That meant reworking my diet, increasing my physical activity and making a commitment to taking my medication once a day, every day. I’ve continued to learn new things on my own and from others with diabetes all the time.

DiabetesCare.net: You have lost quite a bit of weight in your bid to become healthier. What were some of the things you did differently in your diet to help you lose it?

Deen: I have changed the architecture of my plate. When you look at my plate, there are less carbs and bigger servings of salad and vegetables. I keep a seasonal garden at my house, so I love incorporating fresh, homegrown veggies into my meals. You know, I still indulge from time to time, but as I’ve said before it’s really all about moderation. It’s those small changes that you start to make that can really add up to big results.
















Deen shows the importance of changing her diet and how incorporating vegetables into her everyday foods has been very helpful for her.

DiabetesCare.net: Have you incorporated exercise into your life? If so, what do you like to do?

Deen: I am used to a crazy schedule and just have to squeeze in the time for a walk every day. Sometimes I go outside and just walk back and forth until I get a good workout. When I can get on my treadmill I try to walk for at least 30 minutes. I used to hate exercise and never made time for it, but now, it’s part of my routine.

DiabetesCare.net: You recently partnered with Novo Nordisk. Is there any specific initiative(s) that you and the company are working on together?

Deen: Along with my sons, Bobby and Jamie, I’ve teamed up with Novo Nordisk on Diabetes in a New Light™ campaign. And I’ve been taking what I’ve learned, particularly about diabetes-friendly cooking, and sharing that as part of the campaign, we’ve been lightening up some of our favorite recipes to be diabetes-friendly.

People can sign up for these recipes and get other great resources by going to the Diabetes in a New Light™ website. Bobby and Jamie have also been hosting events in cities across the country to share these recipes and provide tips on lighter cooking. It’s really been a great experience for all of us.

What do you hope to achieve with your partnership with the company?

Deen: It’s real important to me to give others hope and Diabetes in a New Light™ lets me do that. So many people are affected by type 2 diabetes, and it’s important for them to know that they can still enjoy all that life has to offer. Diabetes in a New Light™ has allowed me to share my experience and what I’ve learned about living with type 2 diabetes, and prove that a positive approach and small steps can work.

DiabetesCare.net: What advice would you give to people when they are first diagnosed with diabetes and in learning to come to grips with the disease?

Deen: You know, it can be hard to hear at first. It was for me. I would tell them that you can still enjoy the things you love and that your entire life does not have to change. It’s the little changes I’ve made–like portion control, increased exercise, and the right treatment–that have shown me big results.

DiabetesCare.net: Are you working on any newer cooking-related projects?

Deen: All the diabetes-friendly recipes that we’ve been cookin’ up for Diabetes in a New Light™ can be found on the website. We’ve also got some really exciting things in the works that you’ll start seeing next year through our work with Novo Nordisk as well as other projects.