Paula Deen's Diabetes Diagnosis: How Should Diabetics Change Their Diets?

On Tuesday, celebrity chef and Food Network star Paula Deen announced on the Today show that she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2008, The Huffington Post reported when the news broke.

Deen's kitchen has a reputation for the fatty, the buttery and the over-the-top -- HuffPost Food pointed out that just a few notorious recipes have included fried stuffing on a stick, ribs casserole and red velvet cake. But will the diagnosis change the way she cooks? Some believe she has a responsibility to model healthier behaviors for her viewers -- reported the New York Times:

Rumors about her condition have swirled for years; they swelled over the weekend after NBC teased her appearance on "Today," and were greeted with a chorus of emphatic "told-you-sos" from Internet commenters. "No wonder she has diabetes," tweeted Jennifer Eure, who lives in Franklin, Va., during Monday's broadcast of "Paula's Home Cooking." (Ms. Deen was discussing what kind of breadsticks might pair well with bacon cheese fries.)

And while Deen confirmed her commitment to creating decadent recipes to be enjoyed "in moderation" (and offering diet advice to fellow sufferers through her website Diabetes In A New Light), her announcement was met with skepticism. The website is sponsored by Novo Nordisk, a pharmaceutical company that pays Deen to be a spokesperson for its diabetes drug, Victoza.

Given her famously indulgent recipes, what could Deen know about eating for health, some may ask. An estimated 25 million Americans (8.3 percent of the adult population!) suffer from the disease and about 80 percent of them are overweight or obese, indicating that dietary changes are a necessity. Obviously, weight loss is an important part of managing the disease and that requires a commitment to healthier eating.

But that doesn't mean a diabetic person must begin a strict eating program based on eliminating food, Hope Warshaw, dietitian and the author of Diabetes Meal Planning Made Easy, which is published by the American Diabetes Association, argued on WebMD. Yes, it's time to cut down on high-calorie, refined-carb fare in favor of whole grains and fresh veggies (you were doing that anyway ... right?), but a diagnosis isn't a culinary death sentence: people with the disease can still enjoy delicious meals without getting into Lady's Brunch Burger territory. The American Diabetes Association has recommendations for healthy eating, but the organization's overall advice is to stick to the low-fat, high-fiber and produce-heavy diet that everyone should be adopting. "Having diabetes does not prevent you from enjoying a wide variety of foods," they write. "People with diabetes have the same nutritional needs as anyone else."

Here are a few tips from the American Diabetic Association that clear up some of the myths about eating with diabetes. Of course, it's imperative to talk to a doctor about an appropriate treatment plan for you:

Cut Back, But Don't Cut Out Sugar
"There's an old idea that sweets are verboten for those with diabetes, but that's no longer correct," Warshaw said in an interview with WebMD. "It's true that the carbohydrates in sweets can raise your glucose levels, but an equal amount of starch would have similar effect."

An occasional, small cookie is okay -- having dessert every night is not. It's worth noting that "sugar free" dessert options can also be damaging. That's because the sweets are made with sugar alcohols -- a type of artificial sweetener -- also stimulate blood glucose levels, though to a lesser extent than real sugar. That means a sugar-free candy can still cause a spike in blood sugar levels.
What's more, sugar can sound healthful, but often have a great deal of calories from carbohydrates and fat. The American Diabetes Association recommends restricting foods that have more than five grams of sugar alcohols.

Healthy Snacks Are Fine, But Not Imperative
Many people believe that diabetics must have a high-sugar snack on hand at all times, in case of a hypoglycemic episode. But that's based on outdated medications that were used by diabetics to treat high blood glucose levels. Newer medicines can bring blood glucose to healthy levels without over-regulating into a sugar slump.

And while there's nothing wrong with healthy snacking, some people have a tendency to overeat or make poor food choices when they eat between meals. There's no reason to force it.

Think Less About Food, More About Exercise
Exercise helps you burn glucose, not just during a workout, but for up to 24 hours after it. A fitness routine can also decrease insulin resistance, lower blood pressure, improve levels of "good" HDL cholesterol. Those last two are particularly important for heart health: diabetics are two to four times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke, according to the American Heart Association and high blood pressure, high cholesterol and lack of physical activity increase this risk even more.

The bottom line? Diabetics should do what we all should be doing: improving our diets and exercise patterns. But a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis is an indication that the need is not only urgent, it's dire. Below is Deen making the announcement on the "Today Show" this morning: