Seamus Mullen, Restaurateur With RA
Living with rheumatoid arthritis nearly ended this skilled chef's career until he came up with a new approach to eating.
By Dennis Thompson Jr.
Medically Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
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Celebrity chef Seamus Mullen opened his first restaurant, Boqueria, in New York City in 2006, but he was in so much physical pain that it proved difficult to enjoy his success.
"I was feeling pretty crummy all the time," Mullen, now 39, said. "I just wrote it off to the crazy lifestyle and the hours I was working, but I remember telling my mom that I wished I could trade in my body for a new one. I was 32, and it felt like my body was breaking down. Everything hurt all the time."
It turned out that while Mullen was working so hard to launch his new venture, he was developing rheumatoid arthritis. When he found out he had RA, he was convinced that the disease would spell the end of his career as a chef.
Instead, life with rheumatoid arthritis opened up new vistas for Mullen. He used healthy eating and exercise to control his symptoms and now features his RA personal story in a new book, Hero Food: How Cooking With Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better.
"It was remarkable to me, finding out that there are things I love to eat and cook with that are also very, very healthy to me," Mullen said. "You can eat really, really well; you can eat delicious food; and you can eat food that's good for you with just a little bit of thought."
Grappling With Rheumatoid Arthritis
Mullen gritted his teeth and worked through his pain at Boqueria until it landed him in the emergency room in 2007. The pain that was constant in his right shoulder suddenly occurred in his left hip as well. "The pain was so bad in my hip I couldn't walk," he said.
After two weeks in the hospital, Mullen received a diagnosis — rheumatoid arthritis. The moment his doctor left the room, Mullen grabbed his Blackberry and started searching the Internet for information on RA. The information he found seemed to indicate that most people diagnosed with RA end up disabled.
"I literally just felt like my life as a chef and as a physically active person was at its end," he said.
Mullen didn't give up though. He kept working hard to make Boqueria a success and even ended up competing on the second season of The Next Iron Chef in 2009.
"I made it down to No. 3 and I had a flare-up," he said. "I had RA at the time I was in this incredible challenge, and it really held me back. I was in chronic pain. In the last competition, I fell to the floor and had trouble getting up off the floor. I was in really bad shape. I remember cooking and feeling so horrible."
A Fresh Look at Healthy Eating
"The first few years were tough," Mullen said, recounting his personal RA story. "I did feel at times as though the disease had the best of me. I was fighting a daily battle with chronic pain. I felt awful all the time."
Swapping out medications seemed to do him no good. "I would have small victories where I would feel better, and then I would feel crummy again," he said. Then in 2012 he decided to make some significant changes to his diet and lifestyle to see whether he could better control his RA symptoms.
"Touch wood — I've been feeling really good here," Mullen said. "It's been a very positive year."
In his book, Mullen recounts many of his lessons learned as a chef with rheumatoid arthritis. They include specific steps he took to manage his RA:
- Eating on a regular schedule. "I would go days in a row where I wouldn't get a proper meal," he said. "I'd just grab a bite here and there." Eating late at night was a particular problem because it interfered with his sleep.
- Not drinking alcohol.
- Eliminating foods containing gluten, cutting way back on carbohydrates, and taking refined sugar and processed foods out of his diet. "To me, it's more about not eating the things that cause inflammation," he said.
- Eating more leafy greens, other vegetables, and foods like avocado and olive oil, which are high in natural unsaturated fats.
- Eating reduced portions of good-quality meat. Mullen urges people to get their meat from local farmers.
- Drinking lots of water every day. "That's a very basic thing a lot of us don't do," he said.
"I eat a lot less food, and I'm eating foods that are great sources of energy," Mullen said. "I've lost a lot of weight."
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are great natural anti-inflammatory foods, he said. Ruth Frechman, MA, RDN, CPT, a registered dietitian, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokeswoman, and owner of On the Weigh in Burbank, Calif., agrees, adding that turmeric and pineapple also have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.
"Patients living with rheumatoid arthritis also want to avoid excess calories found in fried foods or sweets," said Frechman. "If they eat too many of those, they may gain weight, and that can put extra strain on their bodies."
Looking Toward the Future
The changes in lifestyle paid huge dividends for Mullen as a person with RA. He now owns the restaurant Tertulia in New York's Greenwich Village and is preparing to open another one soon.
"I woke up one morning about six months ago and I told my wife, 'I feel great,' and she literally cried," Mullen said. "She'd never heard me say that. I feel strong and healthy and alert.
Video: Seamus Mullen's Hero Food: How Cooking Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better
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