On cooking shows like The Chew and Burgers, Brew and Que, the charismatic Chef Michael Symon, with his signature bald head and contagious smile, whips up mouth-watering dishes with what seems like boundless energy and enthusiasm. What’s not so apparent are his painful hands, aching knees and ankles, and lurking fatigue.
Symon, 51, was diagnosed in his 20s with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and discoid lupus, a form of lupus that primarily affects the skin, but also the joints.
“Literally one morning I woke up with these two enormous butterfly splotches under my eyes,” Symon recalls. At first, he and his dermatologist focused on managing the lupus by staying out of the sun. But when his joint symptoms persisted, his dermatologist sent him to a rheumatologist, who diagnosed RA.
Growing (Older) Pains
Symon’s arthritis pain and stiffness affects his ankles, knees, elbows, wrists, and hands. Some of his joint issues stem from broken ankles and reconstructive elbow surgery from wrestling in high school and college – the reason he insisted his own son choose a different sport, he says with a laugh. The pain in his hands is worsened by “30-plus years of cooking, holding a knife butchering – doing a lot of that in coolers, 35-degree temperatures,” he says. Now that he has others do the precise cutting needed in the restaurants, he’s more than happy to give his hands a break at home by buying precut produce and using a food processor.
His primary care doctor suspects he also has osteoarthritis. “’There’ll be a point where you’ll have to get both knees [replaced], and your hips aren’t great either,’” he told Symon.
As Symon got older, he found himself taking increasing amounts of over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). “When you’re younger, you tend to grunt through some pains more. As I got older, I don’t know if the aches and pains increased or my pain tolerance decreased – one of the two [happened],” he says.
His Personalized Pain Therapy
Symon, whose grandmother had RA, knows the disease will continue to cause damage if he doesn’t take a disease-modifying medication to address it. “My grandmother, by the time she passed, it was crippling. I understand that certainly is something the future may have for me, but at [my age], I’m going to continue to do things as best as I can and still continue to enjoy it,” he says.
Instead — and counter to most medical professionals’ advice — he has leveraged his own professional knowledge to try to manage his overall health and arthritis through diet – with mixed results. He tried a vegan diet (he wasn’t a fan, although his wife is vegetarian) to try to lower the tendency to high cholesterol he inherited, but it didn’t budge his numbers. He ended up taking a cholesterol-lowering medication.
But for his RA, he focused on reducing the foods that cause his joint pain to escalate. His hands are a little “crooked,” he says, but he can generally manage the pain.
“I’ve thought about taking something for the RA, but there’s a point [where] I’ve been able to control the pain, I’ve found, with diet. So – right, wrong or indifferent – my choice would always be to take less medication,” he says. “I started playing around with my diet to see if I could reduce the aches and inflammation through diet. That’s what led to me trying to figure out what my own personal triggers were that affect how I feel.”
It also led to a new cookbook he co-authored, Fix It With Food: More Than 123 Recipes to Address Autoimmune Issues and Inflammation, released in late 2019. He is currently working on another volume of Fix It With Food, which will be released in November 2021.
The recipes are simple, even for those of us who are not savvy in the kitchen. “There’s a sweet potato and coconut stew in there that is really easy to make. Sweet potatoes are easy to find diced in the store and so are the rest of the ingredients,” he says. “You put everything in a pot and let it simmer and it tastes great. It’s probably my favorite recipe in the book from a flavor standpoint, and it’s not a lot of work to get a meal that feels special.”
Modifying his diet has eliminated about 80% of his joint pain, but “it’s not a cure, it’s maintenance.” And it only helps if he sticks with it.
Unfortunately for Symon, who has a particular love for cheeses and other dairy products, he discovered that what triggers his arthritis symptoms most are sugar and dairy. So now, instead of eating ice cream three times a week, he’ll indulge in ice cream (“a double whammy because it’s sugar and dairy,” he says) or cheese every couple of weeks.
“I’ve learned that dairy makes me feel pretty [bad]. That being said, ice cream makes me feel pretty happy, so there are times where I make a decision [that] I’m going to have the ice cream, and tomorrow I’m just not going to feel great,” he says.
“If I do the right things, I feel great on a daily basis. In the early years of me having [arthritis pain], I’d get aggravated by it and try to push through,” he says. “Now I understand I have to live a certain way to feel better. Instead of getting frustrated, I just get back on track now.”
Adjusting to the Pandemic
During the pandemic, he hasn’t been eating as healthfully as usual — “more stress eating than normal,” he says. He owns and/or manages 15 restaurants, which have had to adapt to the pandemic strictures and economic consequences. The majority are back open but are now facing shortages of protective gear and challenges of winter weather.
Filming for Food Network has also changed dramatically for him. He already had given up intense competitions like Iron Chef, but he’s a regular on other shows and has his own string of productions as well. He shot the latest, Symon’s Dinners, with help from his culinary director and social media manager on a cell phone at his home. “In 25 years of doing TV, that was a first,” he says, laughing. “The shows actually came out really good.”
As a chef and restaurateur, he’s typically constantly on his feet and moving. “There’s rarely a day that I take less than 20,000 steps,” he says. With the pandemic, he isn’t on site in the restaurants as much, but a puppy he and his wife adopted earlier this year is helping him make up any shortage of activity.
“We’ve always had mastiffs and those kinds of dogs that you walk them to the end of the driveway and they’re exhausted. This is our first terrier. I walk him two or three times a day and he’s never tired,” Symon says, so he still clocks more than 20,000 steps a day. “I try to play golf twice a week just to keep my mind straight,” he adds, and “I do a lot of stretching and a lot of meditation and breathing. Once you realize it makes you feel better, you just get in the routine.”
A benefit of the pandemic is the extra time with his wife and his son and daughter-in-law, whose baby is nearly 2 now. “I’m not a huge fan of all the travel that sometimes work brings,” he says. “Our granddaughter only lives about five minutes away, so I get to see her several times a week and spend time with her, which is great.”—JILL TYRER
Chef Symon’s Holiday Cooking Advice
Plan ahead and start preparing your holiday meal a week in advance. “There are a lot of things you can do five days in advance so you’re not on your feet 10, 12 straight hours or whatever trying to get it all done the day before and the day of,” he says.
Consider what you can make ahead and freeze, like casseroles, he suggests, so you’ll just have to warm them up before serving. “Get vegetables cut, make your stock, do the kinds of things you can do in advance,” he says.
“If you’re super stressed, that doesn’t help things,” he says. “Really, at the end of the day, one thing COVID’s taught me is to enjoy your family, so the last thing you want on a holiday is to be stressed out and achy and in pain and not enjoy the people around you.”