The Truth Behind Why High Calorie Chef Paula Deen Is Pushing Diabetes Drug

Personal Health

When saturated-fat-slinging Food Network star Paula Deen publicly revealed she'd hid her Type 2 diabetes for three years, then simultaneously announced she was endorsing pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk's diabetes drug Victoza, public cries of "hypocrite" and "opportunist" expectedly followed.

But lost in all the media glare was the real reason Novo Nordisk chose Deen.

After the controversy ignited, in an interview for the podcast Pharma Marketing Talk, a representative for Novo Nordisk said the company had approached Deen before it knew she had diabetes. Initially, that might sound hard to swallow. Why would Novo Nordisk ask arguably the most famous unhealthy cook in America to promote its Type 2 diabetes drug, especially before it was aware she suffered from the disease?

Type 2 diabetes, the most common form of diabetes in America, represents roughly 95 percent of all diabetes cases and over 80 percent of people with Type 2 diabetes are overweight.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, pointed out to AlterNet that this doesn't mean that if you're overweight you have Type 2 diabetes, but among people who have it "the vast majority are overweight and could improve or eliminate their symptoms by eating better diets, being more active, and losing weight."

She added, "But nobody makes any money if they do."

As the old saying goes, there's no money in the cure. And as AlterNet confirmed with diabetes experts, there is also no cure in the treatment -- that is, in any pharmaceutical treatment currently available for Type 2 diabetes.

"Medications don't cure diabetes," said Caroline Trapp, director of diabetes education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and a clinician who specializes in treating diabetes. "They don't have diabetes because they have a deficiency of Victoza.

"Eighty-four percent of people who have Type 2 diabetes are on medication, either a pill or insulin or a combination, yet very few people have achieved control of their diabetes," Trapp told AlterNet in an interview. "And heart disease is the leading cause of death in people who have diabetes. We're not getting at the underlying problem with all of these diabetes drugs."

There's plenty of research, however, showing that for many people Type 2 diabetes can be treated and even reversed through diet without the need of drugs, such as in the landmark 2006 study funded by the National Institutes for Health and conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine with George Washington University and the University of Toronto. 

The study compared the effects of one group of Type 2 diabetes patients put on a vegan diet with unlimited portions to another group on a diet based on the American Diabetes Association (ADA) guidelines. The vegan group lowered hemoglobin A1C, an index of long-term blood glucose control, three times more than those in the ADA group, in addition to dramatic comparable decreases in weight loss and in their LDL cholesterol (i.e. bad cholesterol) levels.

But there is an eye-popping amount of money to be made in the thriving billion-dollar diabetes business.

Enter Paula Deen: No other national food personality is better poised to reach the millions of Americans who suffer from Type 2 diabetes and sell them on a "healthy" comfort food diet than the Queen of Southern Cuisine. Recipes that might not be quite as orgiastically fattening and seismically carb-laden as her infamous bacon cheeseburger sandwiched between a Krispy Kreme doughnut bun, but which, in the end, will still tether legions of diabetics to its drug.

Case in point is Novo Nordisk and Paula Deen's inaugural recipe for its "Diabetes in a New Light" campaign -- a semi-reduced-fat seven-cheese beef lasagna. 

In an interview with Ambre Morley, the Novo Nordisk representative who said the company approached Deen before knowing of her diagnosis, she reconfirmed this timing to AlterNet and defended the company's choice of Deen.

Why choose the national face of unhealthful cuisine to promote Victoza and dream up recipes for those suffering from Type 2 diabetes?

"Because she's also actually one of the most relatable, friendliest, warmest people in the country and people relate to her," said Morely. "And her food is something that a lot of people eat. So it was something that we looked at as a challenge to her."

In response to Morley and Novo Nordisk approaching Deen before knowing her diabetes condition, NYU's Nestle said, "Taking the rep's comment at face value, the mind boggles. Or perhaps the drug company was trying to convey the message, 'Take our drug and you won't have to worry about what you eat or all that pesky diet, exercise, and weight loss.'"

Nestle calls weight loss "the elephant in the Type 2 diabetes room."

She and other experts fault not just the drug companies but also the American Diabetes Association, the leading advocacy diabetes group, for not putting enough emphasis on weight loss for those suffering from Type 2 diabetes.

In fact, according to a corporate sponsor document examined by AlterNet, the ADA -- whose stated primary mission is "to prevent and cure diabetes" -- received a total $16.9 million from pharmaceutical companies in 2010. The document also reveals that the ADA's largest contributor was none other than Novo Nordisk at $3.4 million. 

Experts like Nestle point out that Big Pharma's money influences the ADA's suggested dietary practices, which once again, in the end, keep people dependent on their diabetes drug cycle and keep Novo Nordisk and other drug companies flush with revenue.

So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the ADA itself recently published a cookbook titled The American Diabetes Association Diabetes Comfort Food Cookbook, which seems to mirror the dietary approach taken by Novo Nordisk and Paula Deen. Or that Paul Deen, in an effort to quell criticism, announced that she will donate a portion of her Novo Nordisk earnings to the ADA. 

Nestle expressed shock at the $16.9 million figure uncovered by AlterNet, but she's had little faith in the ADA for years.

"As far as I can tell, the American Diabetes Association sold out to the drug industry a long time ago," she said, adding, "It's hard to imagine how the ADA could push non-pharmacological interventions and still get millions a year from drug companies."

Steve Wosahla, ADA managing director for corporate alliances, told AlterNet that his organization sees no issue with receiving this money.  

"We don't think there's a conflict of interest," said Wosahla. "We think that the funds that the drug companies, or really any company, can provide just helps us to enhance our mission and deliver better programs."  

He added, "Each grant or each agreement is really subject to our policies and our guidelines."  

Asked if he believed that the ADA's own internal policies and guidelines in accepting millions of dollars a year from drug companies would suffice to answer charges of untoward influence, Wosahla replied, "We're comfortable with the approach we're taking and that it's disclosed." 

In light of the Paula Deen controversy, ADA group director of education Geralyn Spollett recently told the New York Times, "You can't just eat your way to Type 2 diabetes," which Nestle said typifies the ADA's stance. 

"The ADA representative is ignoring the relationship between overweight and type 2 diabetes," Nestle said. "This is not just an association, it is causal."

Trapp of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine told AlterNet that people who have a genetic disposition to diabetes "can absolutely eat their way to diabetes."

She added, "And we know that because when we see people change their diets, they're often able to reverse diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is really a disease of lifestyle."

Morley, the spokesperson for Novo Nordisk, also defended her choice of Deen to revamp "diabetes-friendly" versions of her recipes by saying these were being done in consultation with the Diabetes Care and Education (DCE) group, a part of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Asked repeatedly if Novo Nordisk doesn't profit from keeping people on their medication or getting new people to take it, and whether that was the real reason the company tapped Deen, Morley declined to answer the question and instead repeated gushing praise for Deen as "beloved by millions" and someone who could help others still enjoy life with healthful but tasty food.

"Because that's one of the things that people are told, you know, when they're first diagnosed: 'You can't do this, you can't do this, you can't have it.'"

She added, "Does everybody like this? Absolutely not. But what this has done is strike a chord in this country about the debate about diabetes. And she is someone that we're proud to partner with and we're proud that there's honesty in this debate."

Regarding the choice of Deen and Novo Nordisk's "diabetes-friendly" recipes, Trapp said we shouldn't be looking at the drug companies to give us information about what to eat.

"Certainly, that's not in their best interest and not what their stockholders would want them to do," she said.

Trapp also pointed out that Novo Nordisk's Victoza, aside from being cost-prohibitive to many Americans at about $500 a month, also comes with a black box warning, an FDA label indicating the drug carries a significant risk of serious or even lethal effects. In the case of Victoza, she noted, the FDA warning was applied because it poses significant risk for thyroid cancer.

After the interview with Morley, AlterNet reviewed the Web site of the Diabetes Care and Education group, which Morley said was helping Novo Nordisk and Paula Deen create those "diabetes-friendly" recipes.

Under the group's list of corporate sponsors sits Novo Nordisk, in addition to multiple other Big Pharma companies as well as corporations and groups that no one would associate with good nutrition, including Kraft Foods, General Mills and the Corn Refiners Association. 

Finally, there's another familiar name on this group's list of corporate sponsors: The American Diabetes Association.

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