5 Tips for Cooking with Rheumatoid Arthritis

(Image credit: Cutting tomatoes via Shutterstock)

The holidays are a time to gather in the kitchen, but for people with arthritis, cooking can be painful.

Chef Seamus Mullen, who has appeared on the TV show "The Next Iron Chef" and other cooking shows, says there are ways to make life in the kitchen easier for people with arthritis.

About eight years ago, Mullen started to feel exhausted all the time — his body ached, and he generally felt unwell. Acute attacks of shoulder pain sent him to the hospital a half dozen times, and each time, he received a steroid or pain medication, and was sent home, Mullen said.

One day, an attack of pain in his hip left him unable to stand. He was admitted to the hospital and was finally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a condition in which the body's immune system attacks the lining of the joints. (In contrast, osteoarthritis is pain caused when cartilage between the joins wears down over time.)

Because symptoms of RA can be mistaken for other diseases, and because each person experiences RA differently, many people with the condition can go months or years before they are diagnosed, just as he did, Mullen said. [5 Surprising Facts About Pain]

After his diagnosis, Mullen wondered if he would be able to continue his career as a chef. "I felt like the rug had been pulled out from underneath me," he told LiveScience.

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But over time, Mullen committed to taking better care of himself, and learned more about his disease so he could take it into his own hands, and not settle for a life of constant pain. Now 39, he owns Tertulia restaurant in New York, and has joined "Rethink RA"; a campaign launched by pharmaceutical company Pfizer that aims to help people with RA better manage the condition.

Although there's no "miracle food," eating healthy is especially important for people with RA, Mullen said.

"My body's already dealing with systemic inflammation," Mullen said. "If I pile more work on top of it by eating unearthly food … I'm just making it that much harder on my body."

To make cooking easier, Mullen's has developed tips for people with RA, which he says can help anyone with mobility problems.

1. Have a food processor and a good knife

Chopping and slicing vegetables can be difficult and painful, Mullen said.

"[For] anyone who's dealing with inflammation, repetitive motion can be really challenging," Mullen said.

A good food processor and a high-quality knife make these tasks easier, Mullen said. He noted that a dull knife requires more effort to use, which may result in accidents.

2. Prevent cutting board from sliding

Holding foods in place while cutting them can also be a demanding task. Placing a damp paper towel under the cutting board can keep it in place, and prevent sliding, Mullen said.

3. Use kitchen mats

Standing on a hard surface for hours causes Mullen to experience back pain, so he places several cushioned mats in his kitchen.

"These anti-fatigue mats are great because they will absorb some of the shock, redistribute your weight, and lessen the pressure and stress on your feet, legs and back," Mullen said.

4. Organize the kitchen for accessibility

People should think about the ingredients they use frequently, and put them in places that are easy to reach. For instance, don't store things you often use under the counter, because you'll be bending over a lot, Mullen said.

People thinking about getting a new refrigerator should look for one that has a side-by-side freezer and fridge, or a freezer below the fridge, Mullen said.

"Chances are that you're accessing your freezer much less frequently, so it makes no sense to me that most freezers are at eye level, forcing me to have to stoop down to see what's in my fridge," he said.

5. Divide up heavy loads

You might buy food in bulk, such as a large container of olive oil. But it's not a good idea to lift such a large container all the time, Mullen said.

Dividing the contents of heavy containers into smaller containers makes them easier to use.

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook &Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.