The Three Pillars of Health That Saved My Life

Chef Seamus Mullen on how changing his diet changed everything else.

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Have you ever seen one of those movies, like Flatliners, where the character slips into a dreamy wonder light at the moment of death? I used to imagine that sensation to be Hollywood stardust—movie crap. Then, five years ago, I ended up with a 106-degree fever and experienced just that amid the beeping and buzzing of monitors and the clamor of the ICU. It wasn’t the work of some obscure virus; it was the end of a years-long descent into ill health, marked by countless ER visits and medications. In that weird, amniotic dream state, I made a commitment to myself to fight. I clawed my way back to the din of that hospital room, and I decided I would no longer be a sick person.

I’d been cooking in restaurants since I was 16 years old. By the time I was in my early twenties, I’d committed myself to become a chef. I went to Spain and, eventually, to N.Y.C., where I opened my first restaurant in 2006. Since then, I’ve gone on to open several other restaurants and learned the hard way that the life of a chef isn’t always the healthiest one. My early years in the kitchen were marked with long hours, unhealthy food, and far too much partying. In my late twenties and early thirties, my body started to break down. Initially, I assumed it was just the toll the kitchen can take on the body, but it was more than just the long hours and late nights. I had developed rheumatoid arthritis, and it was breaking me down. Years of conventional treatment weren’t working, and, by the time I got to the hospital with a brain-boiling fever, it was clear that something had to change.

Once out of the hospital, I consumed as much information as I could, in many ways becoming my own doctor. I read about how conventional treatment could slow the progression of my disease and suppress the symptoms without addressing the root cause. I came to believe that food had made me ill but food could also heal me. The process required a lot of discipline, dedication, hard work, guidance, and the belief that I could get better. I’ve met incredible teachers like the renowned health coach Dr. Frank Lipman, who helped me find a path and coached me along that path, but ultimately the lessons I’ve learned have largely been my own.

The past five years have been an amazing journey, marked by physical feats I never would have dreamed possible. I lost 65 pounds, reversed all the biological markers for an “incurable” autoimmune disease, and returned to my first passion—cycling. In 2014, I raced in La Ruta de los Conquistadores, a three-day mountain bike race that traverses Costa Rica and is often touted as being one of the most difficult bicycle races in the world. In my restaurants, my cooking shifted, subtly, to be more in line with what I was learning. I’d always cooked seasonally with excellent ingredients, but I learned that there is much more, as a chef, that I can do to ensure our food is truly nourishing. I cut the refined sugar and simple carbohydrates way back, increased healthy fats and started to change the proportions of proteins to vegetables on the plate, giving the vegetables a more prominent role. I’ve been slowly refining an approach to food that’s healing while still being crave-able.

My practices are not new, nor are they unique to me, but I know them to be fundamental to health. They form the backbone of my forthcoming book, Real Food Heals: Eat to Feel Younger & Stronger Every Day. My goal with this column is to share some of these practices along with recipes that are exciting and delicious as well as dense with nutrients and good stuff.

So, what are these practices I keep talking about? My three pillars are: nourish, move, and recover. Eat foods that provide us with all the nourishment our bodies need, focusing on the quality of those calories and forgetting about the quantity of the calories. Move every day, breaking out of the patterned movement and practicing new activities, whether it’s yoga, pilates, boxing, or climbing, making sure to have fun along the way. Recover from active life. When our movement and our nutrition are on point, recovery usually follows along. Sleeping deeply and recovering from the stresses of an active life are critical. It’s all about balancing the three-legged stool: The stronger the relationship we forge with our food and our bodies, the easier and more naturally recovery comes to us.

This journey didn’t happen overnight, but then again, neither did my illness. Getting sick was a slow and insidious march, and regaining my health has been a slow and methodical process. My approach is not a panacea. It’s not a guaranteed cure-all. But it is common sense.

Learn more about The Gut-Health Fix

Our gut may be the secret to better health. Learn to cook and eat to boost mood, supercharge your immunity and reduce inflammation with health and wellness expert Seamus Mullen. Join him for our 7-week course. You’ll learn about the science behind gut health, lifestyle musts and targeted supplements, and most importantly, you’ll get into the kitchen to gain key gut-healing cooking skills.

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