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If you look at Seamus Mullen now, it’s hard to believe the long-time cyclist and health-minded chef was once in a hospital bed fighting for his life.
In 2012, shortly after the release of his last book, Hero Foods, Mullen experienced complications stemming from his rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually led to a fever of 106°F, hospitalization, and a near-death experience. Fortunately, Mullen survived. In the days and months that followed leaving the ICU, he vowed to make a change—starting with his diet. Although he had been eating relatively well, and had just written a book on seasonal cooking, it wasn’t enough.
Mullen went on the offensive against inflammation, working with Frank Lipman, MD, to focus on gut-friendly, Paleo-inspired meals that limit sugar, carbs and convenience foods in place of vegetables, fruits, good fats, protein, whole grains like millet, and moderate amounts of grass-fed meats and dairy. It’s a new approach chronicled in his latest cookbook, Real Food Heals, and one that has left him radically changed, free of rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
Curious about his food-as-medicine approach, Clean Eating spoke with Mullen over the phone about his personal journey.
CE: Your recipes in Real Food Heals focus on foods that fight inflammation. Why should people care about inflammation?
SM: Inflammation – chronic, systemic inflammation – is extremely taxing on the body. Reducing foods that cause unnecessary inflammation is crucial to staying healthy and reducing pain.
CE: What distinguishes Real Food Heals from your first book, Hero Foods?
SM: Hero Foods is really about celebrating the idea of seasonal produce, of local produce cooked beautifully and of real food, not packaged foods. As I started working with Dr. Lipman, I realized that there were a lot of things that I had been cooking with that I really needed [to avoid]. I started to reduce the amount of carbohydrates and focus more on nutrient-dense vegetables and wild seafood and pastured meats. I really started to embrace healthy saturated fats as a tremendous, nutrient-dense fuel source. In Real Food Heals, [I focused on] foods that are going to satisfy you from an emotional standpoint, and for pleasure.
CE: What’s your favorite recipe from Real Food Heals?
SM: One of my favorite recipes is the Shaved Kohlrabi with Smashed Avocado, Anchovies & Soft-Boiled Eggs. There is an element to it that’s recognizable but it’s completely different from your average avocado dish. It tastes oh-so-slightly like guacamole, but you have anchovies in there that give it this great salty umami element. Everything in the dish plays some sort of incredible role in your health, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is that it tastes really, really delicious, indulgent, rich and good. It’s loaded with healthy fats that are good for the gut lining, like anchovy, egg, avocado and avocado oil, and kohlrabi, which is a great prebiotic food.
CE: What’s your take on the ongoing controversy about coconut oil (stemming from the American Heart Association’s recent statement on it being unhealthy)?
SM: You know, all they’ve done is just republished old findings. It’s completely out-of-date. If you look at any current studies on saturated fat, there is no correlation between saturated fat and coronary heart disease. When you eat fat, your body doesn’t produce fat. In fact, the real direct threat to coronary heart disease is low-density lipids, your LDL “bad” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is a direct result of insulin spikes and eating too much refined sugar, fructose and carbohydrates. The problem is that when you eat a diet that is really high in grains, carbohydrates and sugars, and when you also have a lot of refined, highly oxidated oils such as canola oil and so-called vegetable oils, then you are going to develop a very high level of LDL cholesterol.
CE: How do you find a balance between eating what’s healthy and indulging in foods that aren’t as healthy, such as the occasional sweet treat or pizza?
SM: The honest truth is that I’ve eaten enough junk food in my life and I no longer really crave it. I love the occasional ice cream or dark chocolate, and I do indulge in them. I just don’t do it all that often and I make sure that I’m getting the best ice cream, chocolate or potato chips that I can find! And then I don’t beat myself up about it afterwards; it’s all about balance and being honest with yourself.
CE: How do you eat healthy while you’re traveling? Do you bring snacks with you?
SM: I typically don’t eat anything until 2 p.m., when I eat a big nutrient-dense meal. So before I travel, I try to have a really big nutrient-dense meal. On the airplane, I will try to fast as best I can unless it’s a really long flight or it’s not realistic to fast. I always take snacks with me. I make mashed-up avocado and pack celery and carrots in Ziploc bags. When I travel, I tend to take beef jerky and some macadamia nuts, which are quite filling. I’ll also take a container of almond butter and sometimes a little bit of no-sugar-added dried fruit, usually something on the tart side like dried cherries or dried papaya. I also always travel with dried seaweed.
CE: What are you reaching for right now in your spice pantry?
SM: I have been gravitating a lot toward Middle Eastern spices lately. I’m really into sumac and Aleppo pepper. Aleppo pepper’s got this really nice, almost tacky, smoky flavor to it. I’ve really fallen for good-quality harissa because it’s a nice ingredient and spice to work with. I’m a huge fan of za’atar spice, and lately I’ve really been into coconut aminos. I use it like soy sauce to bring out salty umami flavor. And then, of course, fish sauce.
CE: What are the foods you can’t live without?
SM: Olive oil, avocados, anchovies and citrus.
CE: What is your favorite cooking technique?
SM: I love grilling food, especially delicately grilled vegetables.
CE: What is your favorite kitchen tool?
SM: I think without a doubt the Microplane. I will grate a little garlic, ginger and some roughly chopped herbs such as cilantro or mint into a jar, then add some mustard or a little bit of chopped up kimchi, some sesame oil, a little bit of rice vinegar, and make a vinaigrette that way. I finish almost all of my salads and a lot of grilled fish, meat and vegetable dishes with a Microplane of citrus zest of some sort, whether it’s grapefruit, lime or lemon. It brings out a nice pungent flavor.
CE: What is your go-to dinner after a long day?
SM: I always try to have good protein in the fridge or the freezer, and I like to have some cuts of pork or beef that are easy to pan-fry. Tonight I have a really nice frozen wild Alaska salmon, so I’ll take that out as soon as I get home and put it on the counter to start to defrost. Then I pan roast it on high heat, transport it into the oven skin side down at 290°F or 300°F, add some lemon zest along with olive oil, chopped herbs, sea salt and ground black pepper, and gently cook it for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, in the pan I seared the salmon in, I’ll sauté some broccoli, broth, sliced garlic and maybe some dried chile flakes or Aleppo pepper so that by the time the salmon is out of the oven my sautéed greens are done. I’ll serve the salmon over the greens and drizzle it with one of my homemade vinaigrettes.
CE: Clean Eating readers are very into gut health at the moment. Do you have any advice on gut health that you can share with our readers?
SM: Gut health is something that I’ve been focusing on a lot since I was sick. I started to understand that gut permeability is really an issue for most autoimmune diseases. General dysbiosis in the gut is one of the things that tends to drive chronic illness. I think the most important thing to remember is that when we’re eating, we are eating not only for ourselves but for the trillions of cells of bacteria that live on and in us. The name of the game with gut bacteria and gut health is diversity, so having a broad spectrum of bacteria in our bodies are far more important than just having a lot of any one type of bacteria. The good guys in our guts really love to eat prebiotic foods that are high in fiber that we don’t digest quite as well. Those are things like asparagus, radishes, chard, kohlrabi and leafy greens and fibrous vegetables. I always like to make sure that I am eating a diet that is both prebiotic and probiotic. I take a complex probiotic every day and then I try to make sure that I consume some sort of living food at some point during the day, whether that means I’m taking couple swigs of kombucha or having sauerkraut or naturally fermented vegetables. I’m just trying to make sure that every day I get a little bit of something. It’s kind of like planting seeds with probiotics then fertilizing those seeds and watering the garden by eating prebiotics.
CE: Why is helping others to get healthy and feel good so important to you?
SM: I wouldn’t have been able to get healthy had it not been for my friends, family, doctors and colleagues that supported me. But then there were so many other people that I never met or didn’t meet until much later who were an inspiration to me because they had gone through similar journeys. Ultimately, I can show you that with hard work, support and a little bit of information you can change your life. Because I did. And if I can do it then so many other people can do it as well. We are facing a healthcare crisis on many, many fronts and democratizing health is something that we need to figure out a way to do. One of the best ways we can do that is by the dissemination of information and telling stories because it doesn’t cost anything to tell a story and it doesn’t cost anything to hear a story. Anything that I can do to help contribute positively to a change in the landscape of health is really important.
Try a Recipe from Real Food Heals:
Recipe reprinted from Real Food Heals by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2017, Seamus Mullen