Eating These 8 Anti-Inflammatory Powerhouses Helped Heal My Autoimmune Disease

Photo: Tatjana Ristanic

Seamus Mullen is an award-winning chef and restaurateur—and he suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that once landed him in the hospital. In his new book, Real Food Heals, he details all of the recipes that have contributed to his journey back to optimal health—here, he shares the eight foods that have made the biggest difference.

My relationship with food has always been a key component of my identity. I was born and raised in Vermont on a diet of fresh, whole foods, and was the pinnacle of youthful health. As soon as I left Vermont for boarding school, then college, then cooking school, however, my healthful habits devolved, and I began relying on junk food and carbs to get me through the long days. I soon found my health rapidly deteriorating.

Initially, I wrote off feeling like crap to the notoriously difficult life of the professional kitchen, but eventually it became clear that there was something seriously wrong with me. After several trips to the emergency room, I was finally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease that can affect your joints, skin, eyes, lungs, heart, and blood vessels.

I struggled for years feeling generally horrible while following the conventional treatment for RA. Finally, I hit an all-time low and was rushed to the hospital once again. By the time I arrived at the emergency room, my temperature had hit 106 degrees. The only thing that kept my brain from frying in the intensive care unit was plunging in and out of an ice bath. I knew that something had to change or the next time this happened, I wouldn’t survive.

Through this experience, I began to understand the central importance of diet in improving one’s well-being. I met and became close friends with forward-thinking functional medicine doctors like Frank Lipman, M.D., and I realized that my poor health was directly linked to my carb- and sugar-driven diet. Thus, the Real Food Heals lifestyle was born. I started exercising and eliminated gluten and grains, refined sugar, factory-farmed meat, and dairy from my diet, instead eating mainly vegetables, good proteins, and fats. Since then, not only have I avoided the emergency room—I’ve shocked doctors and everyone who knows me with my great health. At every checkup, the biomarkers of my disease are now nonexistent. And I’ve experienced this incredible joy throughout the process because my transformation has revolved around mindfully cooking and eating delicious food.

While there are countless foods and ingredients that I consider important to a healthy diet, there are a few in particular that truly turned my life around:

1. Coconut.

I use coconut constantly in my cooking in its various forms, from unsweetened desiccated coconut to coconut oil and coconut cream. Coconuts are a fantastic source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants and are known to be antiviral and antibacterial as well. Additionally, coconut oil is a great replacement for highly inflammatory cooking oils like canola and corn oil, which can damage cells, especially in those with autoimmune disease. Plus, it tastes great!

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2. Avocado.

Once upon a time, avocados were mistakenly thought to be an artery-clogging fatty fruit that should be avoided. Turns out, they’re one of the healthiest foods we can eat, thanks to their high nutrient value (a single 100-gram serving of avocado contains between 15 and 25 percent of your daily required amounts of vitamins K, C, B6, and E). They’re also dense with good fats, fiber, and potassium, while low in carbs, cholesterol, and sodium.

3. Asparagus.

Photo: Tatjana Ristanic

Asparagus is a great source of fiber, folate, vitamins A and C, and prebiotics (foods that promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms in the intestines). This nutrient-dense vegetable is particularly useful in coping with autoimmune disease because it’s a rich source of glutathione, a detoxifying compound that helps break down carcinogens and free radicals, which helps fight against cancer and inflammation.

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4. Eggs.

Eggs are a miracle food. Even though I’m not a big breakfast eater, eggs are often the first thing I have on any given day. The protein and good fats in eggs make them a filling and satisfying way to get your daily zinc; iron; and vitamins A, D, E, and K. No matter how you prepare them, eggs can help improve cardiovascular health; prevent metabolic disease; and boost eye, liver, skin, and brain health. A note: Both the yolk and the white are nutrient-rich, so make sure you’re eating the whole egg!

5. Oily fish.

Oily fish like anchovies, sardines, and mackerel have their fair share of skeptics, but these heart-healthy fish are a powerhouse, especially for people with RA. In addition to reducing blood pressure and preventing fat buildup in arteries, the consumption of oily fishes can also reduce joint pain and stiffness and has been linked to preventing and reducing RA symptoms in a study with middle-age participants. If you’re looking for a way to incorporate oily fish into your diet, the Deviled Eggs with Anchovies and Rosemary from my new book combine two of my favorite healthful foods in one.

6. Root vegetables.

Carrots, radishes, turnips, and other veggies in the root vegetable family are all staples of my new diet, especially as a replacement for grains. The vital nutrients found in root vegetables are key to fighting inflammatory-based diseases like RA (along with heart disease, cancer, and diabetes). I love to swap out traditional spaghetti for carrot, celery root, or sweet potato noodles made with the spiralizer.

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7. Macadamia nuts.

Almonds and cashews may dominate the spotlight in the American diet, but the little-celebrated macadamia nut deserves some attention too. Macadamia nuts are a rich source of antioxidants and contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which support gut health and can reduce the chronic inflammation associated with RA. I love to throw a handful of these powerful nuts into my granola, atop a fresh salad, or just munch on them raw as a midday snack.

8. Pastured chicken.

From a nutritional standpoint, chicken is relatively lean healthy protein. It’s still got some good fat on it, which is extremely important for overall nutrition, so I like to keep the skin on whenever I’m preparing it. That it’s delicious doesn’t hurt, either. As with all animal proteins, I always try to consume it consciously and with knowledge of where it’s coming from. The difference between factory-farmed and free-range birds is tremendous in both the quality of the product and the life of the animal. For me, that means buying chickens from small farms I trust that allow their chickens to openly roam the pasture.

Reducing inflammation can greatly help with the management of autoimmune diseases, so be sure to avoid these eight super-inflammatory foods! Plus, all of the ways Chef Mullen uses avocado in his daily diet.

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