She wanted to "be armed to be able to help others" before revealing her condition, she tells PEOPLE
Credit: Beck Starr/FilmMagic

For Paula Deen, it was just another doctor’s appointment. She was going into the office for a regular physical exam, just like she does every six months. But that day, she left with a diagnosis: Deen, the celebrity chef with a knack for buttery recipes, had Type 2 Diabetes.

That was three years ago.

Now, as news of her condition breaks, the Food Network personality, who turns 65 Thursday, is also revealing why she kept it a secret for so long.

“I said, ‘The one thing that I think endeared me to so many people is I’ve been in very hopeless situations,’ ” Deen, who’s previously been open about her struggle with acute agoraphobia, tells PEOPLE. “I had to really get myself into a place when I made the announcement. I would come with information, and I would be armed to be able to help others.”

Fans, of course have their own opinions on the matter. One reader wrote on Facebook: “Obviously no one is perfect … just because Paula didn’t take better care of herself doesn’t mean we are going to get diabetes by cooking her recipes ONCE IN A WHILE.”

An opposing take just sees Deen out for money. One reader writes: “Paula has a lot riding on her diagnosis … she built an mega empire off of food. She has famous restaurants, household items, cookbooks … now they are promoting a diabetes plan. Profit is what its about. Bad press about health issues could make it all spiral downward.”

Dean, who’s collaborating with drug maker Novo Nordisk and just launched Diabetes in a New Light, says she wants to support her fans – the ones who tune in show after show to learn how to cook the down-home Southern way. Her secret, she says, had nothing to do with her reputation because “people are not going to quit eating.”

“I could’ve walked out and said, ‘Hey y’all, I have been diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes,’ and walked away,” she said on Tuesday’s Today show. To PEOPLE, she adds: “But having given myself time to work with my family, talk with my family, now I feel like I have something to bring to the table.”