SUSAN LEVIN: Paula Deen's new mantra won't beat diabetes

By Susan Levin

It’s not the sweet tea. It’s the butter, the beef and the bacon. Paula Deen has finally confirmed rumors that she has diabetes and laid out a plan to fight it – and she even wants to serve as a role model for the millions of other Americans battling this condition. But as a dietitian, I have serious doubts that Deen’s plan will put even a dent in our the diabetes epidemic.

Deen’s main mantra is moderation. You can have that bacon-doughnut burger, the idea goes, as long as you accompany it with a side of pills to counter the effects of this egregiously unhealthy meal. Deen’s personal lifestyle changes include cutting down on her sweet tea intake, taking to the treadmill, and signing a lucrative contract to promote an expensive diabetes drug.

Can we get real? I grew up in Alabama, eating Southern cooking. I like Deen, and I’m sorry about her diagnosis. But it’s time to admit that modest reforms to profoundly unhealthy eating habits will not rescue anyone from diabetes and obesity – even if you throw in a heaping helping of expensive pharmaceuticals.

Sugary drinks and sedentary lifestyles may contribute to diabetes risk – but if Deen wants to get serious about beating this disease, she needs to take a close look at her own cook-books. From Deep Fried Lasagna to Bacon Cheeseburger Meat loaf, her recipes are loaded down with high-fat foods that increase the danger of diabetes. Conclusive scientific research shows that people who consume more animal products – meat, cheese, butter, eggs and milk – have a higher incidence of diabetes.

There’s good news though. By removing these same foods from her recipes, Deen may be able to reduce the symptoms of type-2 diabetes – and could even potentially reverse the disease. Studies find that diets free of meat, dairy products and eggs may help control blood glucose more effectively than a standard diabetes diet and may be more effective than diabetes drugs.

This is bad news for Novo Nordisk, the pharmaceutical giant that has made a deal with Deen. But it could actually save Deen’s life. In a clinical study our organization conducted, participants with type-2 diabetes who switched to a vegan diet saw pounds melt away. Their LDL (“bad”) cholesterol dropped, and many were even able to reduce or eliminate their diabetes medications.

Deen seems to realize that her diagnosis is not just a personal matter since so many North Americans suffer from type-2 diabetes – and since so many look to her for cooking guidance. More than 100 million Americans have either diabetes or pre-diabetes. But so far, Deen is offering poor guidance to others fighting this debilitating disease.

On her new Diabetes in a New Light web-site, Deen has rolled out “healthier” versions of some of her recipes, including Lasagna in a New Light. The new recipe contains eggs, beef, and seven kinds of cheese. Below the recipe, visitors find indications and usage information for the side dish, an injectable drug that may improve blood sugar.

Diabetes drugs come with a long list of potential risks. Studies show that the drug Avandia has serious cardiovascular risks and also doubles the risk of bone fractures in women with type-2 diabetes. Vegan diets have only positive side effects. According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians and vegans are less prone to heart disease, cancer, and obesity than meat eaters.

Many people initially balk at the idea of set-ting aside meat and cheese. But Southern classics actually translate very well into hearty, delicious vegan dishes. I hope Deen will consider cancelling the diabetes drug deal and instead encourage Americans to substantially change their diets – filling up on more black-eyed peas and collard greens and steering clear of fried chicken – to fight this deadly disease.

Susan Levin is the director of nutrition education with the vegan organization Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C.