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"Deen Has an Opportunity to Set an Example"

Posted Jan 27 2012 7:28am
By Jason Lewis and Chef Robert Lewis
"Deen Has an Opportunity to Set an Example"
When Paula Deen announced this week that she had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, it seemed to come as little surprise to critics of the popular celebrity chef and her notoriously calorie-laden all-American comfort food. There's no question that the Southern-themed dishes Deen presents on her TV show and website make generous use of ingredients high in sugar and fat calories-- a big reason for their appeal. It's hard to defend Deen and other curators of decadent, over-indulgent trends in modern American food culture when obesity levels in the country continue to increase with a consistency to which you could set a deep-fried chocolate pound cake timer. Why, then, do I find myself empathizing with Deen as her critics sing, “told you so” in response to her recent health revelations? Twelve years ago, my own career trajectory as a professional chef was unexpectedly altered by a diabetes diagnosis.

During my time as a student at the Culinary Institute of America in 1976, I was taught to value food quality, presentation, and taste. We learned to construct outstanding dishes on a flavorful foundation of sugar, oil, and butter. Health was simply not a priority to me in those days. In the mid 80's I was hired to train and develop recipes for the Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel restaurant chain. Let's just say traditional, waist-expanding Southern fare will always have a special place in my heart, though that proclivity is not the only thing Paula and I share. Like her, I was blindsided with a type 2 diabetes diagnoses at a time that could not have been less convenient for my career as a chef. At Cracker Barrel and other corporate gigs, my mission was to create food that would satisfy the budget and taste buds of a large swath of Middle America who crave affordable comfort food. "Just add a little slab of butter to those green beans!"

For a guy whose world was about beautiful and great tasting food, the diagnosis of diabetes seemed to me in those early days like the beginning of the end of my career. I spent some months in denial telling people I had a "mild case" or I was "borderline" before I finally decided to take personal responsibility. I learned which foods diabetics can and should eat, and I began adjusting my old recipes for people suffering from insulin resistance. So far Deen's mantra has been portion control, which while important, does not take into account general nutrition or the effect that certain types of carbohydrates have on blood sugar levels. The fact is that diabetics can continue to enjoy good food through smart substitutions. Get rid of blood sugar-spiking refined grains like white bread and white rice, and replace them with slower-digested whole grains, resulting in glucose being released into the bloodstream at a more tolerable rate. Eat foods high in fiber, as fiber curbs hunger and helps prevent quick absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. Find ways to incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet. These are a few of the principles I've applied in the creation of diabetic-friendly cookbooks-- a result of my work with several nutritionists and endocrinologists combined with my 30+ years of experience as a chef. I meet many diabetics at the cooking seminars I host across the country, and it's always my pleasure to dispel the popular notion that healthy food is either bad tasting, or too expensive.

The popular perception would be that Paula Deen got what was coming to her, but I don't necessarily fault her for being patient in getting her personal and professional affairs in order before making the news of her diabetes public. This month she plows ahead full steam with a new message, a modified business plan, and an endorsement from Novo Nordisk, makers of the blood sugar regulating drug Victoza. If she's able to successfully manage her disease while surviving the critical onslaught from vocal detractors like Anthony Bourdain and others who are making the most of this opportunity to get in a cheap shot or two, this whole situation might end up being a win-win for both Deen and her audience. This is an opportunity for Deen to speak candidly to her loyal fans about the role that her diet played in her current health situation and the real risks of a diet high in processed and refined sugars. Adult type 2 diabetes affects millions of Americans, many of whom know nothing about the disease and are yet to be diagnosed. As one of the most prominent figures in the world of food, now a face of adult type 2 diabetes in America, Paula Deen has a new moral imperative to raise awareness of the disease, and to promote healthy food alternatives for her viewers who already struggle with it. My message to Paula and others is that “good-tasting” and “diabetic-friendly” are not antithetical concepts. It's the same game, just with some new and interesting rules.

Chef Robert Lewis ,The Happy Diabetic R is a classically trained Culinary Institute of America grad and a nationally-known diabetic cooking expert.

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