The author of Real Food Heals shares his path toward a happier, healthier life

By Kat Kinsman
Updated February 13, 2018
Credit: Photo by Colin Clark

Five years ago, Seamus Mullen’s doctor presented him with a decision: Change his entire lifestyle or die. The now-43-year-old chef was at the lowest point of his physical and emotional existence, nearly immobilized by rheumatoid arthritis, in constant agony from chronic inflammation, and emotional eons away from the athlete he’d once been. He opted for the former, overhauling every aspect of his diet, undertaking an increasingly intense exercise routine, and examining all the factors that had gotten him to this place. With the help of a health coach, Dr. Frank Lipman, Mullen has reversed the biological markers for a supposedly “incurable” autoimmune disease, taken up cycling and yoga with a vengeance, and found his path to an almost unimaginably happier and healthier body by using food as fuel for healing.

In his new book Real Food Heals: Eat to Feel Younger and Stronger Every Day, out today, Mullen shares his path so that others might follow.

Extra Crispy: Not everyone has a fork-in-the-road moment like you did to force such a drastic change. How should someone who feels just kind of OK find the motivation?
Seamus Mullen: A lot of people don't even know they feel crappy. Society tells us it's normal. I had spinal surgery on my back years ago and my surgeon said, "It's pretty normal for a man in his 30s to start to have back problems and degeneration." I thought oh, OK. In hindsight, I ask what's normal about that? Mother Nature didn't design so that our backs would fall apart at age 32. That's a byproduct of not living in tune with nature, of sitting in a chair at 90 degrees my whole life, of taking a dump on a toilet, of wearing shoes that have far too much lift in the heel, of not learning how to squat or have open hip flexors, or letting my abdominal muscles atrophy. These are all lifestyle choices that lead to our bodies breaking down.

For me it was easy to make the decision because my choices were change or die. For the average person who doesn't even know that they're not feeling so great until they make a change and they're like, I can see through walls and walk on ceilings—that’s the moment that everyone needs to experience.

How might they get started?
For the average person who is feeling meh, give yourself a challenge and see what happens. Go for a week and cut all sugar out. Take a break from alcohol and eat really cleanly. We need to also redefine what "clean eating" is because there are a lot of different notions of what constitutes clean eating. Giving yourself a week of eating nutrient-dense vegetables and high-fat and no-to-low carbs and no-to-low sugar requires quite a bit of discipline at first, and I know from experience that I used to think I don't eat very much sugar. When I really started documenting and being strict about it I realized holy shit, I do eat way more sugar that I thought.

It can be easy to feel sorry for yourself when you’re giving up some of these foods. How do you move past that?
We love being victims. When you're a victim, it takes the responsibility off of you. I got sick, why am I sick? I don't deserve this. Maybe it's a lot of things you're not actually aware of. I have this notion of health being a Venn diagram of three different spheres. One is genetics, which we can't do a whole lot about. Then there's environment which we can do a little bit about sometimes. The third is lifestyle, and that's where we can exercise the most dominion. Where those three spheres overlap is the garden that health either flourishes in or that illness takes root.

Bad decisions catch up with all of us. I wish the 43-year-old Seamus could talk to the 23-year-old Seamus. I'd give him some serious life advice. I was lucky enough to survive. A lot of people aren't. When it comes to the choices you make around food, you're really messing with your life.

So much of what we see in media and social media encourages becoming obsessive about healthy eating, and conflating it with thinness. How can a person go about this in a way that’s good for the mind and the body?
I try not to ever use the word "diet." The first three letters are not exactly my favorite word. One of the problems we've historically had with diet and the notion of so-called healthy eating is that they promote an antagonistic relationship with food. We eat food that we feel obligated to eat. We avoid foods that we think we love, and when we end up eating the foods that we allegedly love, we feel guilty about eating them so we feel bad about ourselves and and the decision we made and then we shame ourselves.

I imagine a world—and this happens to be the world that I live in—where I eat as much as I want of the foods that I absolutely love and there is zero downside to it. For me, that does away with body dysmorphia, orthorexia, any sort of food fear or anxiety around food simply because I've figured out all the foods that make me feel like shit and aren't good for me and I've learned to take them out of my world. They're not even food for me anymore.

Eating can be a very social behavior, but it’s hard when the people around you haven’t made the same changes that you have. How do you navigate that?
There are people in our lives who are like pizza. They taste pretty good at first but the reality is that the more they hang around, the less good you feel about yourself. I try not to make a big deal out of the way that I eat and not be a total asshole, and there are times when it is challenging, particularly if I'm traveling. But if I have an event that I'm going to or I'm traveling, I make it really clear that hey guys, this is how I eat. Usually, that's pretty well respected but sometimes there's miscommunication. In those situations, it sucks. But the asshole is actually the other person who didn't look out for you. I never ever think anyone should feel obligated to eat something. Obligation is the wrong word to be connected to food. It's hard. You have to learn to pick your way through a menu and that comes with time.

We always think of disease being contagious, but I really think health is more contagious. When you feel well, you want to feel even better. When you feel well, the people around you see what's going on and they want to feel better, too and they tend to benefit. It's a lot easier to go through a change of lifestyle with someone else than to try to do it on your own.

How do you do this when you're broke?
It's really hard to put any food in your mouth when you're broke. I hate the idea that health and wellness is just something that is for the wealthy. It shouldn't be. We really need to democratize health. Guess what? It's actually not as expensive as you might think, but it might require making food a priority. People tell me all the time that they can't afford to eat healthy but they can afford to buy three lattes a day at Starbucks, and the luxury of spending $280 a month on cable. Ditch the Spectrum/Time Warner and get HBO On Demand or something else. Instead of the $180 you would have spent on a new pair of shoes that month, put it into the food fund.

The young New Yorker, for instance, how many of them go out every night and get drinks? Cancel three of those drinks that you're having and instead exercise or go to a yoga class. Find social things that contribute to your health like group fitness rather than going out and getting hammered. Reduce the amount of meat you're eating. Eat smaller portions of it, but in really good quality. Buy yourself a head of broccoli and smear it with gochujang, coconut oil, and sea salt and roast it in your oven. It costs you $3 and you have a whole meal. If you really want some meat to go along with it, fry up a piece of bacon.

How about people who aren't making those expenditures and who are already as close to the bone on their budget as they can get?
Vegetables are vegetables whether they're fresh or frozen. Frozen vegetables, even organic, are much more affordable than going to a farmers' market, and probably much more accessible. Even if someone does have access, it might not be part of their daily routine, and it's a lot to expect someone to start to do that. Food prep can be really time-consuming for a lot of people who are struggling with two jobs or are maybe a single parent. It becomes about getting cheap calories, but there is a cumulative serious negative effect to consuming those. It's important to understand what constitutes healthy food and get someone on board with the importance of cooking for the health of their kids or themselves.

Focusing on vegetables is really hard for a lot of people because it's something we've kind of forgotten about how to cook properly. But if you're using your EBT card, buy as many vegetables as you can, and cook in bulk—making a big stew or a braise on Sunday and then portioning and freezing it in Ziploc bags. Roast a chicken—a decent quality one is relatively affordable—make two of those on Sunday night so you have dinner with some vegetables and then you have lots of leftovers that you can use throughout the rest of the week. You can pick the carcass and simmer it overnight with some vegetables and have a chicken broth that you use to make a soup.

Unfortunately cooking requires time and attention and there is no shortcut. You have to make the commitment to actually cook. Eating around the table is the second most important part and it almost doesn't matter what you're eating. Just getting people to come together and sit down and eat a meal together—that's almost as important as the content of that meal.

This is Extra Crispy, so I am duty-bound to ask: How can you apply all of these principles at breakfast?
First and foremost: Eat salad for breakfast. When I know I have a really big day, maybe a bike ride or a race, I do a lot of my prep the night before, and it's simple. Last night for dinner, I had Japanese mountain yams and I roasted a whole bunch of them and I've got three that are already roasted that I'm going to take out and then I'm going to render some bacon and fry the yams up in the bacon fat and crack some eggs and have some avocado on top of that. To me, that with a little kimchi is like an extraordinary breakfast. That's super easy to make and it'll take me all of maybe five minutes.

If you're lazy and don't want to roast them, you can microwave them, cut them up and just fry them in bacon fat or grass-fed butter or coconut oil in the morning, add some spice. That can be anything that makes the vegetables sing and gives them a completely different dynamic flavor and makes it exciting to you. Crack an egg over the top and you've got a delicious, nutrient-dense breakfast.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.