Star cake artist Catherine Ruehle changes course in her career because of rheumatoid arthritis

The giant Tyrannosaurus rex had never before intimidated her.

Not in practice, when she had conquered it in record time, twice. Not in planning, when she drew upon her 10-year-old son's dinosaur expertise to execute it just right.

But now -- with the clock ticking, the studio lights blaring and the cameras filming -- the master cakemaker found herself staring down a beast.

"My hands won't work," Catherine Ruehle told her assistant out of earshot of the cameras. They felt tingly. Tight. Frighteningly painful.

This was not the normal soreness contestants on Food Network Challenge feel on competition day, when they spend most of eight hours building, carving and hauling massive quantities of cake before facing a panel of judges. She knew about that kind of pain; this was, after all, her fourth time to compete on the popular TV competition show.

Something else was wrong. Something she didn't have time for.

She pushed through, wincing as she carved the 5-foot dinosaur for the cameras. But between her pain-riddled hands and a problem with the sugar, she couldn't finish the cake before the buzzer.

Judges told her they were disappointed. She felt devastated. If she'd won the $10,000 prize -- and she knew she could have -- she was going to take her son on a special trip, just the two of them.

Ruehle left the Denver TV studio that day 16 months ago sensing that she had a much bigger problem than a somewhat embarrassing TV competition loss.

What she didn't know was that her body was attacking itself. She was experiencing her first rheumatoid arthritis flare-up, right there on television.

Sweet success

In November 2010, Catherine Ruehle was living a life that she hadn't even dreamed big enough to imagine. As owner of Sublime Bakery, Ruehle, 41, was the most sought-after baker and custom cakemaker in Fort Worth. Her attention to detail, use of premium ingredients, willingness to bake for special dietary needs and generous donations to local charities had earned her plenty of accolades in the community. She and her small staff hand-crafted up to 40 custom cakes a weekend (as well as cookies and other baked goods) at her bakery in southwest Fort Worth.

Ruehle's star was rising far above the horizon of North Texas. She was becoming a bona fide TV star, regularly booking not only Food Network Challenge spots but appearances on popular cable wedding shows like Whose Wedding Is It Anyway? and My Fair Wedding With David Tutera. She was achieving all the goals that she had set for herself and her business.

"I started out with a three-year plan of being on the Food Network, and I did it," Ruehle told the Star-Telegram in an article published in March 2011.

More TV shows were in the works, and so was a cookbook.

Life was sweet.

Then, beginning with that day in Denver, in front of the Food Network cameras, it wasn't.

The pain in her hands would not relent; it spread to her elbows, her legs, her ankles, her toes.

"It was normal to go home from Challenge and feel rotten and get a cold or strep throat or something like that," Ruehle says, nestled on the sofa of her west Fort Worth home with her dog Spartacus on a recent afternoon. "It happens to all of us every time -- it's like a running joke: 'What did you get this time after Challenge?'"

A week of rest at a family home in Colorado didn't help; the pain got worse -- worse than a broken bone and worse, even, than giving birth. Just to brush her teeth or shampoo her hair, she would first have to submerge her hands in stockpots filled with hot water and rub them until they would loosen up.

The Christmas holidays were ahead, and she wanted to enjoy them with her husband, son and stepson.

"I went to the doctor and said, 'I don't know what's wrong, and I really don't want to know. I really don't want you to tell me today. But I want you to make me feel better for Christmas,'" she says.

Ruehle privately feared she had bone cancer. But a steroid and pain medicine that the doctor gave her did the trick -- within two days, the pain had subsided.

Ruehle began researching inflammatory diseases -- particularly rheumatoid arthritis -- and alternative treatments to steroids and other drugs.

She was not, she says, "a medicine person." She had always been relatively healthy anyway but had tried to avoid taking medications if alternative, homeopathic remedies such as supplements and acupuncture could work just as well.

Ruehle was also a foodie, a chef with enough experience in the kitchen to know that diet can have a significant impact on the body. In fact, while her own mother battled breast cancer several years earlier, Ruehle put herself on a restrictive anti-inflammatory diet so she could feel like she had more control over her own health.


the diagnosis

Rheumatoid arthritis is not, as is commonly thought, an "old people thing." It is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the membrane that lines the joints. As a result, fluid builds up around the joints and causes severe pain. It can occur at any age, but is particularly prevalent in women between the ages of 30 and 60.

There is no known cause for RA, but, according to the Arthritis Foundation, most scientists believe a combination of genetic and environment factors are to blame.

"As I did more research about arthritis and I found out there were all these triggers -- gluten, corn, dairy, sugar, anything fried, processed, artificial, chemical -- I thought probably the best chance of controlling RA would be to take an anti-inflammatory diet and pull out anything that could be a trigger."

She went to the doctor in February 2011 prepared to present her research and her diet plan chock-full of anti-inflammatory foods -- select fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, salmon and raw juices. Her doctor confirmed a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis that day and prescribed a steroid and another drug -- one that she said was the "least nasty" of the options Ruehle had.

Diet changes, the doctor told her point-blank, would not help. She would always have to take medications.

Ruehle went to her car and cried.

She cried because she knew RA was chronic and progressive; she pictured herself with gnarly joints and disfigured hands. She cried because she didn't want to "poison" herself with medication that caused side effects that could do further damage to her body. She cried because her doctor wouldn't listen to her ideas about ways to try to control her own health.

She mostly cried because life was changing in pretty dramatic ways that she wasn't sure she was prepared for.

Ruehle spent the next several weeks being angry -- at her doctor, at God, at her hands. Her body was betraying her, punishing her, even, for working so hard to achieve success, she thought.

Armed with research that substantiated her idea that she could treat the causes of RA by making dietary and lifestyle changes (rather than, she says, merely controlling the pain with drugs), Ruehle ignored her doctor's prescription drug orders and followed her nutritional instincts.

She pulled from her diet anything that could be a potential arthritis trigger and started to add in healthy foods that she had never eaten much of, like beets and kale.

She experimented for weeks to come up with just the right mix of foods that fit her nutritional needs: She could have a bit of dark chocolate and a bit of red wine, for example, but she couldn't have them together or she would feel a flare-up come on.

She continued to see an acupuncturist weekly, she started taking more than 15 vitamins and supplements, and she started regularly sitting in a sauna to sweat out toxins.

About eight months after adopting the new regiment, Ruehle's pain went away. By summer, she was symptom-free.

Becoming a 'wellness warrior'

In the midst of her RA flare-up last spring, though, it became clear that Ruehle would have to close her beloved Sublime Bakery. As an RA patient, she no longer could live a lifestyle in which she couldn't be in control of her schedule. Stress, doctors agree, is a major trigger for painful flare-ups.

"On the weekend we worked till 3 a.m. Thursday, then Friday I took my son to school at 8 a.m., worked until Saturday night with no sleep, then worked again Sunday," she says. "That was the worst, but it was common to be up all night Friday when we were doing cakes for multiple weddings."

The stress of meeting customers' needs, managing staff, creating fabulous, artful cakes and paying for the bakery was, quite literally, wearing her body out.

A press release issued April 29, 2011, announced that Sublime's storefront was closing but did not address Ruehle's health problems. It said cakes would be made in a private studio. "Due to the growing opportunities, Ruehle needed flexibility," the statement said.

Very few people knew what was really going on with Ruehle's health, says her publicist Beth Hutson.

"She was in so much pain and it was so scary, she just couldn't go public," Hutson says. "We just felt like things were in limbo; it was so debilitating."

Walking away from the bakery was like walking away from a loved one, Ruehle says.

"It was really weird," she says. "It took a couple of weeks to find my equilibrium."

But while one door in her life was closing in the midst of RA, she was already cracking open another. Her thoughts started to turn away from baking cakes for people and toward helping them with the rest of their diet.

"In the process of trying to understand the concept of nutrition in a holistic way, I kept coming across 'Integrative Nutrition,' and thinking, 'Hmmm ... that would be an interesting way for me to turn this into something that could help people.'"

She enrolled in the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and started a yearlong intensive online study program to become a certified holistic health coach. The institute, based in New York City, puts its students through rigorous courses that range from nutritional theory to spiritual wellness. Some of the biggest names in the holistic health world -- Dr. Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra and Dr. Walter Willett, nutrition chair of the Harvard School of Public Health -- teach the classes. Ruehle's entire curriculum is on a customized iPad provided by the school, and she also trains with her own health coach.

"This is exactly me, exactly where I want to be," she says.

She also has been writing about her experiences and offering nutritional advice on her blog, A Well-Nourished Life.

Although she won't be certified as a wellness coach until early next year, Ruehle already is offering "culinary wellness" services through her new business, A Well-Nourished Life ( These include personal chef services for those with dietary restrictions, restaurant consultations ("A sandwich shop just called me and asked how to do gluten-free food"), as well as "restaurant interventions," in which she helps clients make choices that can meet their dietary needs at restaurants, and "pantry purges," in which she examines the labels of foods in clients' kitchens and helps them decide what should stay and what should go.

Although Ruehle has shifted her career, she is still as driven to succeed as she was as a cake artist. Book concepts are in the works, and she has already pitched show ideas to TV production companies, says Hutson.

"I've always believed that I would have some type of food-based show," Ruehle says. "I thought it was going to be a cooking show on Food Network. Now I'm not sure it wouldn't be something on a different network that's more health-based."

Ruehle -- who wanted to be a veterinarian, then a psychologist -- calls herself a wellness warrior. She believes wholeheartedly in the power of food's impact on the body. She is a champion of natural foods. She decries the sneaky practices of food manufacturers, especially those that market their food as healthful but then include substances like hydrogenated oils or high-fructose corn syrup in products.

"It's really about getting people to go back to nature in kind of a way," she says. "If your grandma doesn't recognize it, you probably shouldn't eat it. If it hasn't been around for 100 years, you need to really look hard at that label."

A family living with RA

As for her own health, Ruehle says she's not cured -- the disease is chronic -- but she has been mostly symptom-free and pain-free since she adopted her new diet and lifestyle. She has not been back to the doctor who told her that drugs were the only option.

A few weeks ago, she experienced a flare-up, brought on, she believes, by a prescription drug that she was taking for her skin. She was in so much pain, experiencing so much stiffness, that she had to cancel a sold-out cake-decorating class she was to teach at Central Market. Instead of running to the doctor for pain medication or even taking over-the-counter medicine like Advil, she continued the natural diet and waited, in pain, for the prescription drugs to leave her body.

Her daily diet doesn't exactly fit a label. She describes it as "a whole foods, mostly organic diet that is also gluten-free and corn-free and dairy-free." She's not vegan, because she believes her body needs salmon a few times a week, she says. She also doesn't eschew packaged foods; in her pantry are bags of chips made of black beans and dark chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds, which her son loves, too.

She no longer has allergy or sinus problems. She also doesn't have cravings because, she says, she believes that she is giving her body exactly what it needs.

"I look at trying to make everything I put in my body mean something.... Every single thing I put in my body, I think about how it's gonna help me or hurt me," she says.

Cooking for a family of four while on a restrictive diet is challenging but not impossible; they all can sit down to a dinner of sweet potato chip-crusted salmon (see recipe) together, and all of them clean their plates.

"[The food] could be very restrictive and boring and crazy, but she's finding a way to make it delicious. I eat the food she makes," says Ruehle's husband, Van Quattro, who is a local actor. "I saw her in a lot of pain, and I saw somebody at an age where that kind of pain shouldn't be happening -- someone who's so young and so vital. And I saw how hard it was on her. Not just physically but mentally, thinking, 'This is my life here on out.' And then as a result of some of her research and changing her diet ... it actually went away, and that's something I witnessed firsthand. It was fascinating and interesting to watch her pursuit of the diet and the lifestyle."

The closing of the bakery and Ruehle's increased focus on her health have meant other changes for her family. Just before New Year's this year, they moved into a home half the size of the one they lived in previously. Moving into a smaller house, Ruehle says, is a metaphor for her whole life now, a life whose new motto is "Keep it simple, silly."

"Now I feel like it's all kind of come together. Everything that I feel like I love and that I'm good at is all in this moment, and I'm in a much better position to actually enjoy it because I'm not that hamster on the wheel anymore," she says. "You hear stories about people who say a health crisis was a blessing and you just kind of cock your head and go, 'OK.' And certainly going through the process was painful on so many levels ... but, thank God I got arthritis because I made so many changes that had to be made that I couldn't see, and I'm so much happier and my family life is so much better."

Ruehle still makes cakes out of her home -- and she is still filling orders booked a year-and-a-half ago. But she is much more selective about which new projects she will take on. She prioritizes time each day to enjoy the sunshine outdoors, go to lunch with a girlfriend or sit down and savor a cup of goji-berry tea.

"I love [cake-making] more now than I was loving it for a while at the bakery because everything is so different now," she says. "There's much less chaos and stress. It's just fun."

And if another TV cooking competition called? Would she seek redemption for the dinosaur-cake debacle of 2010?

"I would probably do it, if it fit with my life," she says.

"Before, when they called to offer me a casting, I would say yes and then look at my calendar, and that was just the perfect example of how I was living my life -- say yes and then figure out how to make it work -- whereas, now I say, 'Does that work?' before I say yes. It's a much more sane way to go through life."

Catherine Ruehle's healthful recipes

These are two recipes that Ruehle prepares on a regular basis as part of her anti-RA diet. Her 11-year-old son loves the salmon witha sweet potato chip crust.

Sweet potato chip-crusted salmon

4 salmon fillets

Olive oil

2 cups sweet potato chips

1/2 cup panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs)

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place the salmon fillets in a glass or ceramic baking dish and drizzle about 1 tablespoon of olive oil over them.

2. Using your hands, crush the sweet potato chips into a bowl. You want coarse pieces, not meal, so don't use a food processor or blender; using your hands works best. Add the panko, salt and pepper and combine with fingertips. Drizzle in a little olive oil, barely moistening crumb mixture, about 1 tablespoon.

3. Pat and press the crumb mixture on top of the salmon fillets. Bake at 375 degrees until salmon is opaque and it flakes easily with a fork, about 15 minutes.

Kale salad

1 bunch kale, washed

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup shredded Pecorino-Romano cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Remove the tough inner stalk from the kale leaves, then shred them and place in a large bowl.

2. Add the remaining ingredients to the kale and toss well. Set aside for at least 15 minutes before serving to allow the kale to soften and mellow in flavor. Can be kept in the refrigerator for 3 days.

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