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Seamus Mullen: Healthy eating begins with joy and deliciousness

Photo by Mohammad Balatero

This is the second of a two-part conversation with chef Seamus Mullen about his experiences with inflammatory disease and how, after years of battling rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, he changed his approach to eating. He shares that approach, as well as recipes in his book “Real Food Heals.”

Michael Floreak. Could you talk about the experience that made you get serious about making changes to your health and diet?

Seamus Mullen. I had been filming a TV show. At the end of the day I had a headache. I just attributed it to being in front of the lights all day, but the headache progressed to being a fever, then to a headache the likes of which I’d never had before – this pressure within my brain and debilitating brain pain.

So, I called my doctor. He had me go to the emergency room and was waiting for me. My fever went up to 106. You’re cooking at that point and delusional. So, I was in the ICU and they were using everything they could to bring the fever down. In that 12-hour period, I experienced the classic near-death experience. For me, I was in a tunnel and I could see a very beautiful light at the end of the tunnel. It felt very pleasant going toward that light. Then I had a moment of realization where I figured out what was going on, that I was dying. That was when I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t ready to die and that I wanted to live. It really was a physical struggle to come back to reality.

The next day the doctor came to me and said, “You know, we almost lost you last night. You flat lined.” I said, “I know. I remember.” After that whole experience, I very much made a commitment to myself that I wasn’t ready to die and I needed to make a major change in how I was leading my life and how I was addressing the illness.

That’s when I met Dr. Frank Lipman who was introduced to me by mutual friends. I wasn’t quite ready to embrace taking on my health as a project. He really pushed me. He said we’re going to work together and you’re going to do all the work. And you’re going to get better. That’s where my story begins in many ways.

MF. By then, you had established a career and a life built around food – much of it indulgent. How did you reconcile being a chef with changing your diet in such a major way?

SM. Initially I didn’t realize that I had an antagonistic relationship with food. What’s more “foodie” than being a chef? So much of my career was based around providing experiences for other people. But what I didn’t know too much about was what happened to that food once I ate it and what a healthy relationship for myself would look like. I started to question the fact that I may have contributed significantly through the decisions that I was making in my life – both personally and professionally – to my own ill health.

But it was also hugely empowering because I was uniquely prepared in a way to use this medium for healing. I really learned to figure out what works for me. When I follow that program and that path, I feel great.

To put it in very blunt terms, I take a great dump every morning. That to me is an incredible gift. For 30 years of my life, I had diarrhea. It’s something that we are hung up on and we don’t like to talk about it, but that’s like the first and easiest indication of digestive health. To have gotten to a place in my life that that’s one of the great pleasures, amen.

MF. How did you change what you ate?

SM.The broad strokes are easy to highlight. I took sugar and grains out of my diet. I went from being a very carbohydrate-based diet to being a vegetable-, protein-, and fat-based diet. I integrated more and more prebiotic and probiotic foods.

Fast forward to today. When I woke up I had water, then coffee with coconut fat in it. Then I didn’t eat anything until 1:30 in the afternoon. I had a salad that had greens in it, radishes, avocado, persimmon. Carrots were in there. Some romanesco, some broccoli, some ox tail. Collagen and gelatin are really important right now for healing. Chicken wings. And then some lemon-lime relish. Totally delicious, really vibrant. I feel great after having eaten that. It was certainly not the health food of my childhood, but definitely is something I know is good for me and good for my gut and my inflammation.

MF. In the book, you reject the notion that denial and suffering should be part of a healthy diet. That’s counter to whole message of the diet industry and also the decadent eating promoted by the restaurant and food industries.

SM. It’s reward and punishment. It’s a cultural problem that definitely has its origins in, I hate to say it, the Judeo-Christian polarity of good and evil. You balance the good with the evil. We like the foods that we shouldn’t like which are all the indulgent foods of the restaurant world. And we don’t like the foods that we should eat. But we eat them because we’re supposed to. I hate this notion of “cheat days.” The only thing being cheated in a cheat day is your health.

MF. What do you see as some of the building blocks of a healthier approach to eating?

SM. I like having a good balance of healthy natural fats with nutrient-dense vegetables. If you think about liver from a grass-fed cow, that’s one of the healthiest, most nutrient dense foods you can have. But if you couple that with Brussel sprouts or broccoli or some sort of brassica or mustard greens, now you’re talking about a delivery system for those nutrients in the fats and protein of the liver that’s as close to a perfect food as you have.

I always think first and foremost, is it delicious and really enjoyable? Then the next step is, is it doing the right thing for my body? Are these foods helping me become the best version of myself I can be at all times? The deliciousness should trump everything. I can’t think of a single food that is really, really good for us that if handled properly doesn’t taste delicious.

MF. How do you sustain that approach in the kitchen?

SM.I think a big part of it is just learning how to make the foods that are doing the right thing for our body cravable.

It’s really easy to deep fry some bacon and have some gooey melty cheese and make it taste really delicious. The craft of cooking is being able to take celery root and make it something extraordinary. Having raw, shaved pieces of celery root dressed with olive oil and lemon will give you a completely different flavor than deep roasted celery root that’s pureed with bone marrow. One is rich and unctuous and long-lasting and full of umami and the other is bright and delicate.

And then there’s learning to break up with food that doesn’t make us feel good. I always try to lead with delicious. Lead with joy. Lead with pleasure. Lead with real food.