The messenger matters as much as the message. When Warren Buffett advocates taxing the rich, the idea registers with a different audience than when it comes from a bunch of protesters camping out in tents. Similarly, Magic Johnson’s admission that he had contracted HIV helped society accept that AIDS wasn’t just a “gay disease.” In his stunning news conference on Nov. 7, 1991, Johnson, then 32, said he wanted young people to understand “that safe sex is the way to go,” adding: “Here I am, saying that it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson.”
It’s easy to see why Deen balked at her opportunity, of course. You don’t build a multimillion-dollar empire glorifying sugar and lard, as she has, and then turn around and tell people to skip the fried chicken and pie. Like many of her Food Network peers, she has lucrative endorsement contracts with big food companies — Smithfield pork and Philadelphia Cream Cheese — that might not appreciate a strident eat-less message.
Paula Deen, known for her many decadent recipes as one of Television's most infamous cooks, has revealed that she has type-2 diabetes.
But a dialogue about sensible eating doesn’t have to embrace an all-organic, all-from-scratch philosophy. And that wouldn’t have worked for her fans, anyway. Deen could have tossed in one healthy recipe per show as proof that she does, as she claims, “encourage moderation.” (Her son Bobby has cooked up his own show, “Not My Mama’s Meals,” with lighter versions of Deen’s favorites.) She could have stirred up a debate about portion sizes, which are arguably a greater contributor to obesity and diet-related disease than Twinkie pies, burgers sandwiched between doughnuts or any of Deen’s other jaw-dropping recipes. According to a 2004 study, portion sizes are responsible for American women consuming as many as 335 more calories per day than they did 30 years ago, and for men adding an extra 268.
Instead, Deen’s only concession was an offer to donate an unspecified percentage of her celebrity endorsement fee from Novo Nordisk to the American Diabetes Association. (And that came a day after the criticism boiled over.)
Deen has missed her chance to become the Magic Johnson of American food reform. But it’s not too late for someone like her to step up. Guy Fieri, can you hear me? How about a show called “Juice Bars, Health Food Joints and the Gym”?
, formerly a food writer at The Washington Post, is currently at work on a book about food culture and class in Huntington, W.Va.
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For more on what we eat, read “Five myths about school food.”