Paula Deen

Did Paula Deen's diet cause her diabetes?

Jan. 17, 2012 at 8:11 AM ET

In light of Paula Deen’s disclosure on TODAY that she’s been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, fans and foes alike are wondering whether the celebrity chef’s own cooking might have caused the condition. After all, how can bacon-doughnut-egg burgers possibly be good for you? 

Seriously, y'all: A fried-egg bacon burger on a glazed doughnut bun is NOT doctor-approved.

Deen defended her fattening cooking style -- and her decision to keep her diabetes diagnosis a secret for three years -- to TODAY's Al Roker. "I have always encouraged moderation," she said. "I share with you all these yummy, fattening recipes, but I tell people, in moderation... it's entertainment. People have to be responsible."

Deen continued, "Like I told Oprah, 'Honey, I'm your cook, not your doctor.' You have to be responsible for yourself."

Experts say you can't draw a straight line from someone's diet to their diabetes. While weight, activity level and genetics all contribute to type 2 diabetes, it’s not what you eat that's most important, but rather, how much.

Related: Deen says diagnosis won't change the way she cooks

Three factors push a person toward diabetes, said Dr. Robin Goland, an endocrinologist and co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.

The most important factor is genetics – whether you’ve inherited a susceptibility to the condition.

“Now I’m not recommending this, but if you don’t have those genes working against you, you could gain weight and not exercise and your blood sugar would stay normal,” Goland said.

The other main risk factors are being overweight and not getting enough exercise. Your risk also increases as you age -- Deen is 64. Experts aren't sure exactly what causes type 2 diabetes, in which the body becomes unable to metabolize sugar correctly, causing the sugar to build up in the bloodstream. It used used to be known as adult-onset diabetes and left untreated, it can be deadly. But it can be managed -- and prevented.

While Deen's recipes -- which promote prodigious amounts of butter and fried foods -- may not specifically cause diabetes, eating that kind of high fat and high sugar food regularly can make it very difficult to maintain a healthy weight.

Related story: Struggling to overcome 'diabetes shame'

And for people who did inherit a susceptibility, lifestyle can make a difference. That means they may stave off diabetes by maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly.

Further, Goland said, you don’t have to exercise for hours every day or be twig thin. A large study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that just modest changes in diet and exercise could prevent diabetes in nearly 60 percent of people at high risk for the disease.

Even among people whose blood sugar has moved into the danger zone, small changes can make a big difference. 

“If we take the hypothetical person who weighs 300 pounds and has high blood sugar when she enters my office, blood sugar can be brought down with a weight loss of just 5 to 10 percent,” Goland said. “That means if she gets her weight down to 280, her blood sugar might return to normal.”

What’s important when it comes to diabetes prevention is not what you eat, but rather, how much, said Linda Siminerio, director of the Diabetes Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“To my knowledge no particular food has been linked to an increase in the risk of diabetes,” Siminerio said. “It’s being overweight and inactive.”

Siminerio sees some possible good coming out of Deen’s diagnosis.

“She’s a star on TV and she has a lot of power,” Siminerio explained. “This would be an awesome opportunity for her to come up with recipes for great tasting foods that are healthy. She could use her influence to teach people about healthy eating. Then the dark cloud could turn into a little bit of sunshine.”

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