As I write this, celebrity chef Paula Deen is being defended in some quarters against critics, including me, who have accused her of gross hypocrisy in taking on the nicely compensated role of shill for a diabetes drug. After not disclosing the fact that she had diabetes for three years while promoting foods that give diabetologists everywhere hives, she went on national television this past January to announce her malady. She then went on to say she had been signed on by the pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk to be a spokeswoman for its $500-per-month diabetes drug. The company says Deen can help us all see “diabetes in a new light.”
The company is right—but not about how Deen can be a light to us all. Rather, the reaction to Deen’s announcement and the criticism that it evoked tells us a lot about how many Americans have a distorted, dreamy view of self-determination, personal choice, and personal responsibility.
Deen has had a television show on the Food Network for many years. She has made a fetish out of hyping decadent Southern-style cooking. The food she promotes includes big portions of butter, heavy cream, sugar, shortening, cream cheese, and other heart-clogging ingredients. Krispy Kreme donuts feature heavily in her recommendations for how to make a cheeseburger—use donuts when available, not bread, for the bun.
Children are not exempt from her siren call to eat poorly. Her Cookbook for the Lunch Box Set presents a torrent of recipes for ensuring fat children, including cheeseburger casserole, breakfast cheesecake, sausage cheese muffins, bacon-cheddar meat loaf, gooey butter cake—well, you get the idea.
So when Deen came out and said essentially “Yeah, I’ve been promoting bad eating for years, making a nice living doing so, and have had diabetes for a long time while telling my fans to eat crap. And now, having fattened them up, I am ready to be a spokesperson, not for healthier eating or even exercise, but to get them all on an expensive medicine!” you might have expected some sneering. And there was. Lots of folks called Deen out, including some of her fellow TV chefs such as Anthony Bourdain. I wrote that she is an ethically nasty hypocrite. But then the backlash against being mean to Deen began.
Those bugged about pointing the finger of guilt at Deen all had pretty much the same thing to say. Matt Blondin, chef de cuisine at the Southern-influenced restaurant Acadia in Toronto, said, “Unhealthy food will always be out there (just like alcohol) and there will always be people with big bucks heavily promoting it…. It’s up to people who follow those things to consume in moderation.”
And how can we be moderate at the plate? Well, many Deen defenders echoed Richard Huff, who wrote in the New York Daily News: “A better question is what idiot eats [Deen’s] fat-laden, sugar-soaked meals every night without realizing it’s bad? Does Paula Deen, while on TV, make the kind of food that makes people fat and unhealthy? Absolutely. Does she twist the arms of viewers to eat it? Hardly.”
So in the minds of many, the problem is not Paula Deen or whoever is selling things to you and your family that are unhealthy. It is your fault for not exercising your will and indulging only occasionally. If you do anything less, you are an “idiot.”
What we have illustrated in the effort to exculpate Deen is delusion. Who amongst us is not influenced, lulled, duped, misled, and flamboozled into behavior that is not in our self-interest by slick ads, clever marketing, and promotional lying? If our only defense against an ocean of advertising for lousy high-calorie food is our willpower, then the obesity epidemic will never end. You don’t need a degree in cognitive psychology or behavioral economics to know that humans often act irrationally, are skilled at self-deception, find it hard to forgo short-term rewards for long-term benefits, have little skill at risk assessment, hate facing the truth, and love following the crowd in whatever they do. As the keen student of human autonomy P.T. Barnum is said to have noted succinctly, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
The defenders of Paula Deen are living in an Ayn Randian dream-world of self-aware, self-determining humans. You and I are not going to be capable of moderation if we allow ourselves and our kids to be sandbagged 24/7, 365 days a year with advertising, marketing, commercials, hype, and nonsense about food. If we are to have any chance of putting down that donut or giving up sugary soda, we need relief from the relentless selling of crummy chow. Moderation is a virtue, precisely because it is so difficult to be moderate when those selling the food know the addictive power of fat, salt, and sugar. Choosing not to go through the drive-through window for that Carl’s Jr. Bacon Cheese Six Dollar Burger or the Jack in the Box Sausage, Egg & Cheese Biscuit sounds easy, but it’s not if you are short on time and cash and have that jingle rattling around in your advertising-addled brain.
Shame on Paula Deen and her ilk for shilling unhealthy food. And phooey to those who say willpower is the key to controlling obesity in this country. The advertising industry that spends ten billion dollars per year just on marketing lousy food to children appreciates your support of moderation as the solution to our waistline woes.