What would you do if rheumatoid arthritis ended a thriving life as a star cake artist? Catherine Ruehle, a former contestant on “Food Network Challenge,” faced that situation. In this exclusive interview, she shares how her anti-inflammatory RA diet and lifestyle led to a new career…
Catherine Ruehle, 45, was known for creating one-of-a-kind cake masterpieces at her Sublime Bakery in Fort Worth, Texas.
So when the seasoned baker appeared on the reality show “Food Network Challenge” in 2010, her competitors were ready for a formidable opponent.
But Ruehle surprised everyone – including herself – when she had to withdraw from the show. The reason? Her hands stopped working as she was making a cake.
At first, she chalked up her symptoms to long hours in the bakery. But when her hand pain worsened, she saw a doctor. The diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic autoimmune disease that causes joints to become inflamed and painful.
“I was shocked,” Ruehle tells Lifescript. “I was 41 at the time, and always believed RA was an elderly person’s disease.”
In fact, RA most commonly begins between ages 30 and 60 but can occur even earlier, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Its symptoms can build slowly or strike suddenly, as it did with Ruehle.
Still, she couldn’t just stop baking, so she “plodded along in denial,” she says.
“When I first started experiencing pain in my hands, it was Christmas – the busiest season at my bakery – and I couldn’t take time off,” Reuhle says. “It became hard to do everyday tasks, such as [screwing] the top off a water bottle or bending my elbows to brush my hair.”
Finally, she had to close her bakery in 2011. But Reuhle’s food career wasn’t over. She now has a business helping other people improve their health with diet and lifestyle changes.In this exclusive Lifescript interview, Ruehle reveals how she has learned to manage her condition through an anti-RA diet.
What symptoms led to your RA diagnosis?
I had pain and stiffness throughout my entire body – it started in my hands and spread to my elbows, ankles, legs and toes. The pain was so bad that I initially worried I might have bone cancer.
Is that what led you to see a doctor?
I procrastinated when it came to making a doctor’s appointment. It was the holiday season and I was swamped. I convinced myself that my body was just tired from spending long hours in the bakery.
What convinced you to see a doctor?
The [symptoms got worse, so] I went to see my doctor. I asked if there was a way to alleviate my pain so that I could enjoy Christmas with my family, and then return for testing.
He gave me a shot of prednisone [an anti-inflammatory steroid], which immediately eased my stiffness.
After the holidays, I went in for tests, which included blood work and a rheumatoid factor blood test. The tests indicated that I had RA.
[Editor’s note: No single test can confirm RA, so Ruehle’s doctor asked about her joint symptoms, how and when they started, how severe they were, and what, if anything, made them better or worse. She was also given a blood test that measured her inflammation levels and the rheumatoid factor blood test, which measures the antibody most common in RA. Although high levels of rheumatoid factor are associated with more severe rheumatoid disease, it can also be present in patients with other conditions such as lupus or hepatitus and in people who have family members with RA.]
What was your reaction to the RA diagnosis?
While I was glad I didn’t have bone cancer, I was shocked to learn I had RA. I lead an active lifestyle, and have always eaten healthfully – I felt as if my body was betraying me.
I also didn’t [know] how severely it would affect my life. I wondered if I would eventually have disfigured, arthritic hands.
I immediately began to read everything I could find out about RA so that I could weigh my treatment options.
What did you learn about the condition?
I was intrigued by evidence that RA is caused by an overactive immune system. I realized my immune system was angry and attacking my body.
I wanted to see if I could treat the cause with anti-RA diet and lifestyle changes. I discovered a functional medicine expert, Dr. Mark Hyman, and adopted his mantra as my own: “Treat the fire, not the smoke.”
How did your rheumatologist feel about this idea?
[He] told me diet had nothing to do with RA inflammation. But my gut told me that [what I ate] would have everything to do with my long-term health.
What dietary changes have you made?
I [now] describe my diet as a whole foods, mostly organic plan that’s also free of corn, gluten and dairy.
I discovered evidence that foods, such as vegetables and omega-3 [oils in] fish, can ease an overactive immune system. And I decided to load up on nutrient-dense plant foods and drink green juice daily.But I avoid nightshade vegetables (such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants), because I found they set off my arthritis symptoms.
[Editor’s note: Some arthritis patients say these vegetables increase symptom flares; there’s little scientific proof that they cause inflammation].
While I enjoyed a couple glasses of wine for my recent birthday, I can’t drink it every night because it also exacerbates my condition.
With your anti-RA diet, was it hard to give up certain foods?
I’m a foodie, so it wasn’t easy. Rather than concentrate on foods I couldn’t have, I tried to focus on what I could eat.
What are some of your favorite healthy foods?
[In place of] cow’s milk, I now use coconut milk for cooking and in smoothies. It contains selenium, an important antioxidant that controls free radicals and has been shown to relieve the symptoms of arthritis.
[Editor’s note: Selenium-rich foods, which also include whole grains and shellfish, may be useful in preventing arthritis symptoms, according to the Arthritis Foundation.]
I also eat a lot of green, leafy vegetables. I had never eaten kale before [my diagnosis]; now I have it every day. I also eat hemp seeds, nuts such as walnuts and almonds, and cold-water fish including salmon and sardines – all inflammation-fighting foods.
What other lifestyle changes have you made?
I’ve started working to eliminate stress in my life, which has shown to be a cause of RA flare-ups.How do you combat stress?
I’ve become addicted to yoga and subscribe to an online service that streams yoga videos. I’ve found that practicing it daily not only strengthens the core and improves flexibility, it also helps me sleep better, feel more centered and clear-headed, and gives me more energy.
I went through a divorce this past year and lost my father, and I know doing yoga helped me cope better with the loss and stress.
Are you still working as a chef?
I closed my bakery shortly after my diagnosis, because [the business] involved long, unpredictable hours. I needed a schedule that was more manageable and less stressful.
How did your RA diagnosis lead to a career change?
In my quest to learn more about the effects of diet on health, I enrolled in a yearlong online study program through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where classes are taught by health experts, including Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Deepak Chopra.
I have a business, A Well-Nourished Life, where I create individualized wellness programs, including meal plans. My goal is to help [people with chronic illnesses] improve their symptoms and regain their health. I do custom meal planning and preparation for some clients.
And I just finished writing Gluten Free Cakes, a cookbook that will be published by Ten Speed Press [in September 2014].
Have you found any gadgets that make cooking easier?
One of my favorite tricks is using those nonstick squares that you place under rugs to open bottles. They make it so much easier! Oxo also makes a vegetable peeler with oversized rubber handles.
I also use a gel floor mat in the kitchen that can make it easier on your knees if you’re standing and cooking for long periods of time.
How’s your health today?
I’m doing great and continue to be primarily pain- and symptom-free – as long as I stick to my diet and exercise regimen.Here are three of Ruehle’s anti-RA recipes.
All recipes reprinted with permission from Catherine Ruehle’s A Well-Nourished Life.
Oven Roasted Beets & Brussels Over Kale with Raw Honey-Ginger Dressing
2 medium beets, washed, peeled and cubed
3 cups whole Brussels sprouts, washed & halved
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 head kale, washed and coarsely chopped
Pinch pink Himalayan sea salt (optional)
2 tablespoons pine nuts (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, grated
1 tablespoon raw honey
1 lemon, juice only
1-2 teaspoons organic oil, such as toasted sesame or extra virgin olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Toss the beets and Brussels sprouts with the olive oil in a bowl to coat well. Spread out on a foil-lined baking sheet in a single layer.
3. Roast in the oven until tender and darkened at the edges, about 25 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the cooking time.
4. While the veggies are roasting, combine the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and whisk together.
5. Toss the chopped kale with half the dressing and set aside while veggies roast.
6. Remove veggies from oven. Spread the kale on the serving plates. Place the hot veggies in the same bowl the kale was in and add the remaining dressing; toss to coat.
7. Layer the beets and Brussels sprouts over the kale on the serving plates. Top with the sea salt and pine nuts. Season with salt and pepper to taste.Zucchini & Herb Fritters with Mint-Yogurt Sauce
3 large zucchini, grated
1 teaspoon salt
1 shallot, diced
1 garlic clove, diced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese (optional)
1/4 cup gluten-free flour mix (I like Angel’s), or all-purpose flour if not gluten-free
Salt & pepper to taste
Olive oil for sautéing
For the Yogurt-Mint Sauce:
1 cup Greek yogurt (or nondairy yogurt like Amonde or So Delicious)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Place the grated zucchini in a colander and sprinkle with the salt. Allow to sit for about 15 minutes while you chop your shallot and garlic.
2. Squeeze the excess moisture out of the zucchini then place in a large bowl.
3. Add shallot, garlic, eggs, mint, feta and flour to the zucchini. Combine and season with salt and pepper.
4. Add enough olive oil to your saute pan to coat the bottom of the pan and heat over medium. While pan heats, use your hands, two spoons, or an ice cream scoop, to form balls of zucchini mixture.
5. Place 3-4 balls into your hot pan, and press down to flatten to about 1 inch tall. Make sure you keep at least 2 inches between each fritter so they will brown nicely and not “steam” each other.
6. Cook on each side for about 2-3 minutes until golden. Remove to a paper towel to drain.
7. Combine all ingredients for the Yogurt-Mint Sauce.
8. Serve fritters warm or room temperature with sauce on top or on the side.
Note: Fritters will keep in the refrigerator for 3 days or in the freezer for 1 month. Sauce keeps in refrigerator for 3 days. Vegan Chocolate Pudding
2 ripe avocados, peeled and pit removed
1 cup canned coconut milk, chilled overnight and liquid drained off
3/4 cup organic maple syrup
3/4 cup raw organic cacao powder
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch fine sea salt
1. Add all ingredients to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.
Note: you want to use only the thick coconut “cream,” reserve the liquidy coconut water for another use such as smoothie. Don’t skip the chilling step or you may not be able to separate the cream from the water, resulting in a thin pudding.