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Paula Deen's Diabetes: Are We Getting the Right Message?

The blogosphere was thrumming about whether the Food Network's down-home Southern queen, Paula Deen, has Type 2 diabetes. Yes, by now you know she does.
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The blogosphere was thrumming about whether the Food Network's down-home Southern queen, Paula Deen, has Type 2 diabetes. Yes, by now you know she does.

It doesn't bother me that she kept it "close to my chest" as she announced on the Today Show to Al Roker. She said she didn't want to talk about it until she had something to offer her public.

So I'm left to wonder, did the three years it took Deen to come clean mean she waited until she could help others by being spokesperson for a new Novo Nordisk campaign, "Diabetes in a New Light"? (Deen takes Victoza, a Novo Nordisk injectable, to manage her diabetes.) Or should we finally recognize and admit, just as Deen now has, that diabetes is a lot for a person to take in and learn how to responsibly manage?

No matter what Deen's real reason was for keeping her diagnosis mum, I applaud that she's now using her popularity to help inspire the millions of Americans who eat as she ate: an unhealthy high-fat, high-carb, excessive-calorie diet.

What I fear, however, is that too many Americans will still dismiss weight and healthy eating as inconsequential to managing diabetes. Already Deen appears to be dragging her feet on just saying that being overweight or obese, along with a lack of physical activity, is one of the most common causes of Type 2 diabetes. Together, these factors are responsible for nearly 95 percent of diabetes cases in the U.S.

When asked by Roker what the main causes of diabetes are, Deen seemed to fumble and then said genetics, age and lifestyle (an easy cover for unhealthy eating and excess weight), and put emphasis on stress.

In the USA Today article, "Paula Deen Spreads Word About Diabetes in Down-Home Manner," Deen answered who gets diabetes by saying, "It's about heredity. It's about age, lifestyle, race." Funny that weight has once again gone missing in this string of risk factors.

Let's also be clear: Age is becoming less and less relevant to who gets Type 2 diabetes, with increasing obesity in children. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, the number of overweight children in the U.S. has doubled and the number of overweight adolescents has tripled since 1980. The CDC reports 151,000 youths under the age of 20 have diabetes, and cases of Type 2 diabetes among youth and adolescents has been reported with increasing frequency. Understand there's a reason why Type 2 diabetes, once called "adult-onset" diabetes, is no longer.

I applaud Deen for coming out. I give her a lot of credit for putting her credibility and career at risk and for all she's overcome in her life, including crippling years of agoraphobia and poverty.

I also love the positive take of Novo's campaign, a new light -- diabetes is not a death sentence. We can live with diabetes and have a full life.

I only hope as Deen leads a nation of almost 26 million with diabetes and 79 million with pre-diabetes that she doesn't sidestep the importance of healthy eating, maintaining a normal weight and activity. Let's not soft-peddle the "lifestyle" bit and merely replace it with medicine.

As those of us in diabetes do know, the Diabetes Prevention Program in 1992 with 3,000 participants showed that 58 percent of participants -- across all ethnic groups, for both men and women -- reduced their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes with moderate weight loss and exercise. In those over age 60, the risk reduction was a whopping 71 percent! Those participants who were taking metformin, an oral diabetes drug, only reduced their risk by 31 percent.

So Paula, keep it going, keep it clean and keep it real. Let's not create more diabetes myths, and let us do recognize that managing diabetes takes a personal commitment to healthy eating, proper weight, activity, being well informed, yes, managing stress and yes, taking your meds if prescribed.

And let's particularly stress that healthy eating, weight and activity are the best tools the nearly 80 million Americans with pre-diabetes have to prevent or delay their diabetes diagnosis.

What do you think? Are we spreading the right message by having Paula Deen as a spokesperson for diabetes?

For more by Riva Greenberg, click here.

For more on diabetes, click here.

Riva speaks to patients and health care providers about flourishing with diabetes and is the author of "50 Diabetes Myths That Can Ruin Your Life and the 50 Diabetes Truths That Can Save It" and "The ABC's Of Loving Yourself With Diabetes." Visit her website