An Interview with Paula Deen: Adjusting to Life with Type 2 Diabetes



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.

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11 years ago

Thank you for this article.  I believe that Ms. Paula is doing all that she knows how to do with her diagnosis.  As a Diabetic myself I am glad that she and her sons are working on a cookbook that will help all of us be able to eat better.  I applaud her for all that she is dong to reach out and be an example of taking control of her own life.  She will make the choices that are right for her.  Lets all remember that we are responsible for our own choices and make the ones that are… Read more »

11 years ago

It’s not her high fat cooking that caused her diabetes; it’s the enormous amounts of carbs and sugar she ingested.  Cutting the fat out of your diet will not make you healthier. Cutting carbs will.  

She’s donating to the ADA?  Anyone who follows the ADA recommended diet will never ever have their blood sugar under control.  The only way is to cut carbs.  Period.  

marth clark
marth clark
11 years ago

We can really relate to Paula Deen on a personal level because a few years ago my husband had a wake up call to start eating better and taking better care himself.Since then we don’t go out to eat all the time,stopped going out to buffet style eating unless there’s a special occasion that calls for it. She is a true Southern Belle and we appreciate her honesty and she is like so many of us. We share our food and drink water now when we go out to eat. It is always more than enough and we’ve come to… Read more »

leah mcgrath
leah mcgrath
11 years ago

Yes, there are a few things in this article which caused me as a dietitian to shake my head – not only about Paula but her doctor … In fact Paula sounds like many patients I’ve come in contact with over the years.  I’d love to hear she has or is seeing a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator.

11 years ago

Thanks for the nice feedback.  And yes, definitely some eyebrow raising moments.  But I appreciate Paula’s honesty.   Let’s hope good things come of this effort!  The more Paula learns about diabetes, the more she’ll be able to help others. 

Michelle S
Michelle S
11 years ago

great interview Jessica.  I do find it concerning that Paula Deen, and maybe many other North Americans, believe high sugars, high cholesterol etc are inevitable if you don’t die young….  but this is why Americans can relate to Paula Deen and love her. She is like so many of them. So hopefully she does raise some awareness and set a positive example of making change in some way.  I wish she recognized the obvious relationship between her diet and her disease but that would be tricky given she has built an empire based on that way of eating!

Sysy Morales
11 years ago

I’m with Sarah, you did a great job on this interview, I really appreciated it.  She said what she said about living long enough to have these issues because that’s what she really believes-and many others.  I’ve heard doctors say it.  

I do hope we can keep working to prove that a healthier lifestyle really does make a difference and that high blood pressure, sugar, cholesterol are not something we will all automatically get by 65.  

11 years ago

Thank you so much, Jessica, for doing this interview with Ms. Paula. Though some of her answers could raise an eyebrow or two, I’m thankful that your questions weren’t derogatory or embarrassing to the DOC.

11 years ago

wow – a few very strange statements there. “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.” I’ve news for you Paula … no its not. Unless of course you’ve been dining on high sugar high fat food all your long life. The fact that she only checks her blood sugar level using a meter “when I can find it” is hardly responsible behavior for someone supposedly putting out a positive message… Read more »

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