There’s a lot of judgment floating around right now about Paula Deen, the queen of southern cuisine, who recently announced she’s a Type 2 diabetic and the new spokesperson for an injectable diabetes drug called Victoza.
The big gripe is that Deen’s cooking and eating style not only contributed to her own disease, it probably contributed to others getting sick, too. And, even worse, now she’s making money from it. To paraphrase Anthony Bourdain, it’s like breaking someone’s leg and then selling the person a crutch.
Deen claims she’s always advocated eating in moderation. Even more defiantly, she says she’s not going to change her cooking style just because she’s sick. In response, former foodie fans are just saying no to Paula Deen. After all, she kept her diabetes a secret for the past three years, and then she sold her soul to Novo Nordisk, the makers of the drug she now endorses.
Deen, however, is not the badass we make her out to be. Rather, she reflects a basic lack of awareness that’s shared by many. For example, most people believe in the power of drugs to make up for all kinds of lifestyle indulgences, so to speak. Of course, drugs help but they also hurt, and the message about harm is relentless. Day in and day out on TV we hear about the side effects that come with every drug, and Victoza is no exception. Last year the FDA issued a warning about all liraglutides (the common name for all similar drugs) about the increased risk of thyroid cancers and damage to the pancreas. Technically, Victoza is glucagon-like peptide 1, or GLP-1, which stimulates the pancreas to make more insulin after eating.
Victoza is also a sure thing for good business because the type 2 diabetes business is booming. In 1958, the diabetes population was 1.6 million people, which was less than 1% of the total. As of 2010, the diabetes population is estimated at 26 million people, 11% of the adult population. That doesn’t include another 74 million who are “pre-diabetics.” Altogether, the type 2 diabetes universe comes to about 100 million people or 44% of the adult population. That makes Victoza a pretty good bet, and the CDC projects the uptrend to continue.
Type 2 diabetes is the kind of diabetes where your body either doesn’t make enough insulin or isn’t able to use the insulin it makes. Insulin is an important and necessary hormone that gets the sugar out of your blood and into the cells that need it. The underlying problem is a condition known as insulin resistance. The cells in your muscles, liver, and fat simply stop responding to (or resist) the insulin that your body makes. The pharmacological solution is to get more insulin in the body or to artificially provoke the body to produce more insulin. Sometimes people have such raging type 2 diabetes, they get more than one type of drug to keep high blood sugar under control.
Unfortunately, putting more insulin into the bloodstream doesn’t do anything to solve the underlying problem of insulin resistance. It just makes it possible for the type 2 diabetic to control blood sugar levels and to more or less live with the underlying insulin resistance. Predictably, the reliance on drugs never ends. In fact, there’s a progressive need for more and more drugs as time goes on.
Another approach is to control and self-manage blood sugar production before it becomes excessive and problematic. When you don’t have excess sugar in your bloodstream, you don’t need excess insulin to deal with it. The foods that contain the most caloric sweeteners like sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (or the foods that quickly convert to sugar) are the very same substances that dramatically contribute to high blood sugar levels, which then require high levels of insulin to move it into the cells. When you eat less sugar, you have less sugar in your blood. It’s not really rocket science.
Paula Deen and the majority of American adults don’t understand the relationship between sugar through the mouth and sugar in the blood because it’s not the message we’re hearing from major health organizations or from our government. Almost 50 years ago Robert Atkins, the famous diet doctor, warned that “sugar is metabolic poison.” At long last the scientific establishment is coming around to embrace this basic and essential understanding.