Around the Table: A Dinner Host’s Responsibility With Paula Deen

Recently, I was cuddling my sleeping toddler and watching a recorded episode of The View. If you’ve never seen the show, five well-known women discuss “hot topics” and interview guests. On the day I watched, their guest co-host was Paula Deen, the Southern chef who is best known for adding endless sticks of butter to her recipes.

Paula has been criticized for hiding her type 2 diabetes diagnoses from her fans. It is only in recent months that she’s shared her disease and discussed it publicly. She’s lost 30 pounds, as she stated on The View, and still enjoys comfort foods, but only one day a week. This is where the problem lies.

Now before I share the rest of Paula’s story, let me tell you that I’m no saint. I have type 1 diabetes, and I work hard to keep it under control by eating a generally healthy diet, exercising daily, and getting enough sleep. But, I do have my faults. For one, I love dessert. For another, I love dessert. Oh, and did I mention, I love dessert?

I fight my dessert-obsession every day, and not just for my own benefit. I am raising two little girls who are watching my every move. How I react to my diabetes, how I speak of my body, even how I gaze at myself in the mirror, is being scrutinized and repeated by my children. They are learning how to view themselves and their health through me. Therefore, I understand that it’s ok to mess up sometimes, but it’s not ok to let all proverbial hell break loose. I am a role model for my girls and, therefore, I have a responsibility to treat my body in a way I wish for my girls to treat theirs.

Which brings me back to Paula. She continued by saying she allows herself to indulge just one day a week, the day her family comes over to her home to eat. My heart sunk a bit.
It amazes me how many family dining hosts believe that preparing and serving unhealthy foods to their family members is a way to show love. Gather around the table and heap your plate with steaming piles of fat and sugar. Once you are so full you could burst, here’s some pie, cake, and cobbler. Would you like ice cream with that?

Paula stated on the show that she was shocked when the doctor told her she had diabetes. The show hosted a slew of other guests, many of them medical professionals, who shared the devastating effects of diseases like diabetes. As shared, diabetes is the gateway to many other major health problems—stroke, heart disease, kidney failure, amputation, blindness—the list goes on and on.

So why in the world would Paula, a woman who can afford the best medical professionals, a woman who can afford to buy the healthiest foods available, and a woman who can turn rocks into gourmet food, use Sundays to indulge herself and her family in her old habits, habits that lead her to a life-altering and potentially deadly disease?

No doubt, diabetes is confusing and misunderstood, and not just by the general public. Even many medical professionals are bewildered by diabetes and its complications. The diabetes web is cast over many aspects of life—nutrition, exercise, sleep, hormones, other illnesses, medication, It’s complicated. It’s ever changing. It’s exhausting.

However, once someone gets past the initial shock of the diagnosis and is becoming increasingly armed with knowledge, is there an excuse to not make positive and permanent changes in the way one prepares and serves meals to family members? At what point will someone like Paula decide that enough is enough, and that now is the time to create new family traditions that promote, not destroy, her family’s health?

I’m not talking about a slice of pie or a serving of mashed potatoes. I’m talking about a continuous acceptance and promotion of an unhealthy lifestyle. 
You might picture a family dinner at Paula’s house as a joyful and entertaining experience. At least I do. I imagine her home is like her—full of Southern charm and incredible hospitality. Her dining room must be a dream, decorated like it’s from Better Homes and Gardens magazine. I bet the home is noisy—full of laughter stemming from family jokes and shrieks coming from the grandkids. It’s a happy place where relatives plop on the couches to watch a ball game or sink onto a kitchen stool to watch Paula peel vegetables. There is probably much love and sharing.

The funny thing is this same experience can be had without unhealthy foods. Food, no doubt, is the center of many of our celebrations, even our times of mourning, such as a funeral dinner. Food brings people together. Over steaming plates, we laugh, we cry, we argue, we share, we learn, we joke. When did we decide that lean meats, raw veggies, homemade whole wheat bread, and a no-sugar added fruit cobbler wasn’t enough? Why do we have to pour soda into grandkids’ glasses instead of water? Why does the consumption of known unhealthy food and drink (known even to those who don’t have diabetes) an acceptable form of loving?

The pro-diabetes food table will evolve over the years. (If you haven’t heard already, the current generation of children will be the first to have a shorter lifespan than their parents.) More chairs will be empty, because family members will die of heart attacks or strokes. One family member, blind at the young age of fifty-five, is being lead to the table by her daughter. Meanwhile, a few children sit together on one end of the table; three of the four of them are overweight. They lack the energy to play outside, so instead they sit, each playing with their own hand held video game system, empty glasses of lemonade in front of them. An aunt wheels her husband to the table in his wheelchair; his left lower leg was amputated earlier that year due to his diabetes. Finally, grandma waddles into the scene. She’s carrying a bowl of steaming white pasta, and she’s out of breath from walking the few feet it takes to get from the kitchen to the dining room. She takes a seat in what used to be her husband’s chair. 
And so it continues. But it doesn’t have to.

I’m not saying it’s easy to change, nor am asking anyone to eat perfectly healthy at all times. But I think it’s time we stop sugarcoating the realty of diabetes and its complications. And it’s also time to stop passing the disease on to children and grandchildren, one family dinner and one heaping plate at a time.
—Information taken from ABC’s The View from 5/21/2012

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