Americans love Paula Deen, and they love her recipes. That’s why Novo Nordisk, one of the world’s largest makers of diabetes treatments, thought she’d be the perfect person to reach the tens of millions of diabetics and pre-diabetics in southern and middle America – where her recipes are widely popular – and teach them how to prepare healthier meals. Novo Nordisk didn’t know it when they approached Paula, but it turned out that Paula was, in fact, one of those millions of diabetics they were trying to reach. Paula was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes approximately three years ago. She didn’t, however, publicly announce her diagnosis until she partnered with Novo Nordisk to launch the Diabetes in a New Light campaign and promote their blockbuster drug, Victoza.
The announcement of the Paula Deen – Novo Nordisk partnership received a tremendous amount of responses. According to Novo Nordisk, more than half of the responses were neutral or positive. But there plenty of unfavorable responses, too, many of which were scathing. How could the so-called Queen of Southern Cooking possibly be a role model for people with diabetes? The answer is that she’s not. “Paula Deen is not the diabetes poster child,” said Ambre Morley, associate director of product communications at Novo Nordisk. “She’s an everyday person with type 2 diabetes who struggles with it and is learning about it. She’s going to take the steps and make the changes to manage her diabetes. “
So Novo Nordisk took a gamble. They took a well-loved figure who created famously fattening dishes (which she says she doesn’t eat every day), and they’re employing her to change some of those recipes with the help of dieticians. Paula is going to provide people with diabetes options for good food and the company hopes that by telling her story, she will motivate people to make changes in their lives to better manage their diabetes. If Novo Nordisk made the right choice, they could make a difference – and someone really needs to make a difference. Diabetes is, slowly but surely, rotting Americans from the inside. The statistics are mind-boggling: 25 million diabetics and 79 million pre-diabetics. Often the people suffering from diabetes, or at high risk, are hard to reach. Education is scarce. Most people don’t understand just how dangerous diabetes is, and also how well it can be managed. But Paula has their attention, and she’s got Novo Nordisk’s funding. If together they can get people to soak up diabetes information, give up sweet drinks and take a walk every day, they may very well prevent them from getting diabetes or diabetes complications.
I had the opportunity to talk to Paula, and she kindly answered my questions about what it’s been like to live under such heavy criticism, and what I was especially curious about, her feelings about being diagnosed with diabetes and her diabetes care.
Why did you wait so long to tell your fans you’d been diagnosed with diabetes?
I had to kind of figure out how I myself was going to deal with this before I was going to just throw it out there. I had nothing to offer anybody. I had nothing to offer myself. Because I don’t harbor secrets, I knew that one day I would share it, but it had to be when I was ready. I feel like when Novo Nordisk approached me, I was getting ready. I knew that when it was time I would have an avenue and I would be able to bring something to the table. My family, my team, and I gave it a great deal of discussion before we went public.
Were you surprised at the negative reception to your partnership with Novo Nordisk?
I didn’t know what to expect. It seems to hurt people that I’m being compensated for my time. And of course I am. What they might not hear is that we’re giving a percentage of the money back to the American Diabetes Association and that the cornerstone of the campaign my boys and I are involved in, “Diabetes in a New Light” is lighter recipes that people can prepare for themselves where they don’t feel like they’ve been cheated.
I don’t know what everybody’s saying unless someone delivers it in person on their lips. I’ve been oblivious to a lot of it, which is probably pretty good. I’ve been told enough of the negatives to know it’s real and it’s out there. It can be venomous. But I really don’t care about those folks. Once I’ve made up my mind that I’m committed to doing something good for people that need help, I don’t care about the others, that are judging others. They’re certainly entitled to their opinions, but at the same time, I’m entitled to mine.
Why were you interested in this project with Novo Nordisk?
I want to give choices. I’ve had requests for them for years. People tell me “I love your shows, all that food, I could lick the TV, but I can’t make that because I’m diabetic.” They probably thought this was falling on deaf ears. But I knew as I got older that there was a good chance that I would end up with that problem, having lived long enough…
Did it scare you?
No. I wasn’t scared of it. I just knew that I was one of the baby boomers and for those of us who are lucky enough to have lived long enough there’s a good chance that you are going to have to deal with high sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, you know, it’s just part of living. So, no, I wasn’t scared. I was thankful as hell that I was 64-years-old, and it was just one of the things that was laid on me.
Can you tell us about your diabetes care?
The first thing I did was cut out my sweet tea. I haven’t had a glass since I left the doctor’s office. I was consuming about a cup of sugar a day just in my tea. I’m walking a mile to a mile and a half each day and I am habitual about taking my medicine. When I was diagnosed my doctor didn’t write me a prescription for the little blood sugar monitor, but I do go to the doctor and have the blood work done that gives me the three month average of what my blood sugar is. It’s always been under control and in line. Although I did go back and ask for a machine.
Are you using it?
When I can find it. If you knew how many people were in my house every day moving my crap around.
Are you just taking Victoza? Is that your only medication?
No, I take a small dosage of Actos and metformin. Then I take my Victoza.
I’ve read that many years ago you suffered from severe agoraphobia and panic attacks. You’ve come such a long way since then. Did any of that return when you were diagnosed with a serious illness?
All those years ago, I was at such a low point mentally. It was like being in jail, like being trapped. I tell people I’ve come full circle. The person I am was always there in those years, she just stubbed her toe and it took twenty years for the toe to heal. It was hard because there was no money for me to get help. I had to heal myself. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a slow learner. One day that serenity prayer went through my head and it took my breath away. It was a prayer I’d heard all my life, but that particular morning I understood what I was supposed to be asking God for, to have the serenity to accept the things I couldn’t change. And to have the courage to change the things that I could. Please God, give me the wisdom to know the difference between those two things. And then slowly I started getting better. My world started to extend.
My goal at the end of my life… If you hear the name Paula Deen, what is the first thing you think of? I hope it’s not butter. I hope it’s the world “hope.” Because I have come back and been victorious over some very low points in my life. And I want others to know that they shouldn’t give up hope, because hopelessness will destroy you.
That’s a great message.
I hope that’s how people will think of me.
Jessica Apple is co-founder and editor-in-chief of ASweetLife. She writes the blog The Natural Diabetic.