NEW YORK — Paula Deen, the Southern belle of butter and heavy cream, is making no apologies for waiting three years to disclose she has diabetes while continuing to dish up deep-fried cheesecake and other high-calorie, high-fat recipes on TV.
She said she isn't changing the comfort cooking that made her a star, though it isn't clear how much of it she'll continue to eat while she promotes health-conscious recipes along with a diabetes drug she's endorsing for a Danish company.
"I've always said, 'Practice moderation, y'all.' I'll probably say that a little louder now," Deen said Tuesday after revealing her diagnosis on NBC's "Today" show. "You can have diabetes and have a piece of cake. You cannot have diabetes and eat a whole cake."
Health activists and one fellow chef called her a hypocrite for promoting an unhealthy diet along with a drug to treat its likely effects. Deen added her support of the Novo Nordisk company to a collection of lucrative endorsements that include Smithfield ham and Philadelphia Cream Cheese.
Deen, who will turn 65 on Thursday, said she kept her diagnosis private as she and her family figured out what to do, presumably about her health and a career built solidly on Southern cooking. Among her recipes: deep-fried cheesecake covered in chocolate and powdered sugar, and a quiche that calls for a pound of bacon.
"I really sat on this information for a few years because I said, 'Oh, my gosh, what am I going to do about this? Is my life fixing to change? Am I no longer going to like my life?" she asked. "I had to have time to adjust and soak it all in and get up all the information that I could."
While Deen, who lives in Savannah, Ga., has cut out the sweet tea she routinely drank straight through to bedtime and taken up treadmill walking, she plans few changes on the air.
Government doctors say that being overweight (as Deen is), over 45 (as Deen is) and inactive (as Deen was) increase the risk for developing Type 2 diabetes. Growth of the disease in the U.S. has been closely tied to escalating obesity rates. Roughly 23 million Americans are believed to have the most common Type 2 diabetes; patients' bodies either do not produce enough insulin or do not use it efficiently, allowing excess sugar, or glucose, to accumulate in the blood.
Deen is the pitch person for Novo Nordisk's new online program, Diabetes in a New Light, which offers tips on food preparation, stress management and working with doctors on treatment. She has contributed diabetes-friendly recipes to the website and takes the company's drug Victoza, a once-daily noninsulin injection that had global sales of $734 million in the first nine months of 2011.
A recipe for Lady and Sons Lasagna, on her diabetes-conscious site, uses extra-lean ground beef and cans of unsalted tomato sauce and diced tomatoes, for a dish estimated at 260 calories a serving. Turn to Deen's collection of recipes on The Food Network's site and find Grandmother Paul's fried chicken, with Crisco shortening for frying, or baked French Toast casserole, with two cups of half-and-half and a half-pound of butter. No calorie counts are estimated.
The Novo Nordisk site links to promotional materials for the drug Victoza. Company spokeswoman Ambre Morley and Deen declined to disclose how much she is being paid.
Deen said she had no help or advice to offer the public when she was first diagnosed, but feels she's making a contribution now.
None of that matters much to outspoken chef Anthony Bourdain, who has never been a Deen fan. He told Eater.com of her diabetes announcement: "When your signature dish is hamburger in between a doughnut, and you've been cheerfully selling this stuff knowing all along that you've got Type 2 diabetes ... it's in bad taste if nothing else."
In Yuba, Wis., Judd Dvorak watches Deen cook on TV all the time with his wife. He thinks Bourdain has the right idea. Dvorak said it's wrong for Deen to accept money to become a paid spokeswoman for a diabetes drug after espousing a cooking style that helps lead to diabetes.
"It would be like someone who goes on TV and brags about how wonderful it is to smoke two packs of cigarettes a day and then when he or she gets lung cancer becomes a paid spokesperson for nicotine patches," Dvorak said. "I feel it is in very poor taste and if she chose to become an unpaid spokesperson for the American Diabetes Association, that would be a better way for her to make a difference and help fight this horrible disease."
Deen also smokes, but she considers her heavy-handed food only one piece of the diabetes puzzle, with genetics, lifestyle, stress, age and race. She said she would never advocate smoking and her diabetes is "well under control."
While making changes in her personal life, she doesn't think her TV shows — there are three — will look much different. She spends about 30 days a year taping, "so I'm not cooking and eating that way every day."
That's something the public doesn't necessarily know. The food, Deen said, isn't really to blame.
"I am who I am," she said. "I think the South gets a bad rap sometimes, saying our food is very unhealthy, but frankly I don't think that's the case. I think it's like any other food, whether it be Italian, French, Cajun. They all can be very high in calories and that's where we have to practice portion control and moderation."
Morley said the company didn't know Deen had diabetes when it approached her about promoting the new health initiative.
"We really just wanted to ask her, 'Hey, Paula, do you think we could challenge you to change up some of your recipes and make them diabetes-friendly," Morley said. "And her reply was, 'How did you guys know I had diabetes?'"
It was a surprise to the Food Network as well. Network officials found out only last week, said spokesman Jesse Derris.
"As part of the Food Network's family, our only concern is for Paula's health. We will continue to support her as she confronts this new challenge, taking her lead on what future episodes will offer her fans," he said.
Some health experts question the delay between the time Deen was diagnosed with diabetes and her move three years later to promote a healthier way of cooking and living.
"A more responsible approach would have been that once she was diagnosed with diabetes to really emphasize to her viewers the importance of eating a healthy diet," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.