01/25/2012 02:55 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

Paula Deen Wastes Her Teachable Moment

When the news of Paula Deen's Type 2 Diabetes diagnosis first broke, I was hopeful that it might provide a "teachable moment" for the millions of fans who cherish Paula and relish her over-the-top brand of culinary naughtiness. I mean, this is the women who thought up the "Lady's Brunch Burger," in which you top a burger with bacon and a fried egg and sandwich it between two glazed donuts!

While I have nothing against an occasional indulgence, a steady diet of the kind of calorie-laden food Paula glorified on her popular TV show leads to some very predictable consequences, such as obesity, increased risk of heart disease and, as Paula herself now knows first-hand, Type 2 diabetes.

Deen is, of course, first and foremost an entertainer. As she herself has tartly pointed out, it is not her job to be America's nutritionist. (That's my job.) Nonetheless, her diagnosis could have been an opportunity for Paula to lead her fans to a more balanced perspective on food. Instead of glorifying excess for its own sake, Deen could have shown how, in the context of a healthy diet and lifestyle, even the most decadent dish can be enjoyed -- in moderation, of course.

Diabetes Drugs: Not a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Pass

Instead, Paula seems to be sending a very different message -- one that I find quite dangerous. It turns out her diagnosis dates back to 2008 but was kept under wraps while Paula continued to promote the same gastronomic excess that almost certainly contributed to her diagnosis. Now she's come out of the closet as a celebrity pitch woman for the diabetes drug Victoza. It almost seems to suggest that diabetes is nothing to worry about and that drugs are a sort of get-out-of-jail-free pass... you just take a pill and continue eating what you want.

In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth!

What Causes Type 2 Diabetes

Unlike Type 1 diabetes, which is an autoimmune disease, Type 2 diabetes is primarily a "lifestyle" disease, brought on by a diet that's high in sugar and other empty calories, a sedentary lifestyle, and the excess weight that results from those things. Type 2 diabetes has become so common in recent years that it's easy to assume that it's just not that big a deal. But it is a very big deal, indeed. Type 2 diabetes is a chronic, degenerative disease that can lead to debilitating complications, such as blindness, kidney failure, even the loss of a limb. Type 2 diabetics have an increased risk of heart disease and -- there's no way to sugarcoat this -- a decreased life expectancy.

Although drugs like the one Paula Deen is endorsing can slow the progression of the disease, they are not a cure. More importantly, they do not replace the need to make diet and lifestyle changes. But the opposite is true: Losing excess weight, modifying your diet and developing a more active lifestyle can potentially make those drugs unnecessary -- even if you have already been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. And if you still need to take medications, a healthy diet and lifestyle can help them work better and reduce the risk of complications.

If you're taking drugs to manage Type 2 diabetes, don't make any changes in your medication without talking to your doctor.

Far better, of course, is to take action before your unhealthy diet and lifestyle results in a diabetes diagnosis. After all, the pharmaceutical companies probably aren't going to be offering you a million dollar endorsement deal. Best of all (and here's the message I wish Paula had delivered back in 2008), taking good care of yourself -- maintaining a healthy body weight, staying active and making healthy food choices most of the time -- buys you a little leeway to enjoy the occasional indulgence, without guilt or life-threatening consequences!

CORRECTION: This post previously said Paula Deen was a spokesperson for the diabetes drug Avandia. She is a spokesperson for Victoza.

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Check out the tips in my article "Can You Reverse Diabetes With Diet?"

For more by Monica Reinagel, MS, LDN, CNS, click here.

For more on diabetes, click here.