Seamus Mullen: The Healing Power of Food

“Trust your gut. You are what you eat. You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.”

Seamus Mullen is a world-renowned chef, with four restaurants and a cookbook under his belt.

He begins his Speakeasy talk by describing a typical day in his current life: He wakes up, eats a breakfast of greens and seeds, rides his bike about 75 miles, and goes to work.

A few years ago, he tells us, this was far from typical: Seamus was about 50 pounds heavier. He would wake up soaked from night sweats, with swollen and painful feet, and spend his morning trying to work up the strength to get ready for work.

He had a healthy childhood and an above-average experience. His childhood included playing in the outdoors and racing bikes, which remained a hugely important part of his life all the way through adulthood. He would help his family with their livestock and crops, planting and harvesting, and learned to cook this real food at a young age. Their food was fresh and right from the ground or animal: bright, real, tangibly colorful and new. Seamus remembers first seeing a weak, pink tomato at school and being surprised at how insipid and tasteless it looked; this was not the food he was used to.

But this was the food he would be exposed to in school for the next several years, and eventually the food he would get used to eating. It was mostly brown and white, designed and engineered to be crave-able, nutrient poor, and far from the farm fresh food he had enjoyed as a child.

Within a few years of eating this way, Seamus began to develop health problems, including gastrointestinal (GI) issues and food allergies. He was often sick.

At 15 years old, he and 40 others at his boarding school became incredibly ill with salmonella from a batch of tainted hamburgers. His gut was ruined.

At this time, Seamus didn’t yet realize that the matter of food versus food-like substances was at the heart of many health issues.

Seamus grew up and his career progressed, but his health declined. He was frequently in the hospital for excruciating shoulder pain, for which the medical community had no answers. He told his mother he wished he could trade his body in.

Gone were his beloved days of bike racing.

The medical community had no answers, and the attacks became more serious, moving to other joints in his body. He ached all the time; he was swollen with chronic inflammation, couldn’t hold a knife, and couldn’t pick up a pan. This was not acceptable health for a young man in his early 30s.

In 2007, Seamus was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. He spent the next five years in self-described hell, undergoing six major surgeries and taking up to 16 pills per day. He had three near death experiences.

Seamus felt helpless and angry, at the mercy of a medical system that seemed unable to provide him with any relief.

At the bottom of his despair, he remembered wisdom from his grandmother: “you are what you eat. You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die.” He decided to look at food to see if there could be some answers to his pain there.

Despite the fact that he is a professional chef, it didn’t occur to Seamus that there was a direct correlation between food and his health. He began to eat more vegetables, turmeric, and ginger, and incorporate more colors into his diet, and eat less processed foods.

But he still didn’t feel well. He sunk further into despair: what was the point of forgoing the pleasures of alcohol and ice cream if he was still going to feel badly?

He found a TedX Talk by Ari Meisel, who had overcome a similar situation with diet and exercise.

Seamus had a lightbulb moment: if Ari could do it, he could too. He decided he was going to get better, and he believes that the first step in healing is the belief you can get better, because if don’t believe it, no amount of therapy or medication or supplementation or good food will make you better.

Shortly after this decision, Seamus met Dr. Frank Lipman, who believes in functional medicine, or treating the whole body as a system. Seamus was impressed with Lipman’s compassion and thoroughness: he took a medical history dating all the way back to birth, citing that the same immune system had been present and responsible for healing the same system.

Lipman began to connect the dots of Seamus’ health. His suspicion was that, over time, Seamus’ gut had become de-stabilized through a combination of poor nutrition and parasites.

Lipman said that, together, they were going to get Seamus feeling better in six months, by treating the causes of his rheumatoid arthritis and not just the symptoms: they were going to “treat the roots of the tree, not paint his brown leaves green.”

Seamus liked this approach because it included himself, instead of being a doctor directed approach. He was now responsible for his own well-being, and his decisions were directly responsible for whether he was going to feel better or continue to suffer.

Seamus became obsessed with understanding his microbiome (the bacteria in and on our bodies) and our relationship as humans with bacteria. As we’ve become more modern in many ways, we’ve disrupted the flow of nature by attempting to purify, or “Purell-ify” it: destroying bad bacteria, yes, but also destroying good bacteria that helps us. When we are able to understand how bacteria works and how our bodies work as biological systems, we are able to make better decisions because we see food as having direct consequences and effects on our biological systems. We are able to assess and decide if the effect of the food is desirable on our system, or not.

This way of living is not a diet, but a complex relationship in understanding how food affects us. Historically, we’ve found that we are healthiest when we consume less refined carbohydrates, less refined sugar, more vegetables, quality cuts of meat, and eat seasonally.

One day, Seamus woke up without pain. As he realized that this was the first time in over ten years that he was experiencing a life without pain, he felt like he had been given his life back. It was six months, to the day, that Dr. Lipman had told him he would feel better.

Seamus went for a bike ride. The next day, another. And he continued, until he was regularly riding 150-200 miles per week. A few months later, there were no markers for rheumatoid arthritis or any other autoimmune disease in his blood work. For the first time in 11 years, he was off all medication.

Seamus credits re-establishing his relationship with food as the reason why he is now healthier, happier, and fitter than he has been since he was a child. He believes that we should look to traditional cultures for examples: cultivating seasonal food, eating fermented foods, and sustaining a diverse population of healthy bacteria.

We can change how we view and eat food, and change our health as a result. Real food heals. Seamus is proof of that.

Video produced by Mitch Gerbus

Accompanying text by Kristin Diversi