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 that 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 her fourth time to compete on the TV show.
Something else was wrong. Something she didn’t have time for.
So 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 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.
In November 2010, as owner of Sublime Bakery, Ruehle, then 41, was the most sought-after baker and custom cakemaker in Fort Worth, Texas. Her attention to detail, use of premium ingredients, willingness to bake for special dietary needs and generous donations to local charities had earned her accolades in the community. She and her small staff hand-crafted as many as 40 custom cakes a weekend, plus cookies and other baked goods.
Ruehle was also regularly booking “Food Network Challenge” spots and appearances on cable wedding shows such as “Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?” and “My Fair Wedding With David Tutera.”
“I started out with a three-year plan of being on the Food Network, and I did it,” Ruehle told the Fort Worth 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, it wasn’t.
The pain in her hands would not relent; it spread to her elbows, her legs, her ankles, her toes.
A week of rest didn’t help; the pain got worse. 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.
She went to the doctor, and 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 is not, she says, “a medicine person.” She had always tried to avoid taking medications if alternative, homeopathic remedies such as supplements and acupuncture could work just as well.
Ruehle is 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 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.
Confirming 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 ages 30 and 60.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, most scientists think that 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,” Ruehle said.
She went to the doctor in February 2011 prepared to present her research and her diet plan of anti-inflammatory foods — certain fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, salmon and raw juices. Her doctor confirmed a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and prescribed a steroid and another drug — one that she said was the “least nasty” of the options.
Diet changes, the doctor told her, would not help. She would always have to take medications.
Ruehle went to her car and cried. She decided to ignore her doctor’s prescription drug orders and follow 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, such as beets and kale.
She experimented for weeks to come up with just the right mix of foods that worked for her: 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 went to see an acupuncturist weekly, started taking more than 15 vitamins and supplements, and started regularly sitting in a sauna to sweat out toxins.
About eight months after adopting the new regimen, Ruehle’s pain went away. By summer, she was symptom-free.
Giving up the stress
In the midst of an RA flare-up last spring, though, it became clear that Ruehle would have to close her beloved Sublime Bakery. She no longer could live a life in which she couldn’t be in control of her schedule. Stress, doctors agree, is a significant trigger for painful flare-ups.
“On the weekend we worked til 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 said. “That was the worst, but it was common to be up all night Friday when we were doing cakes for multiple weddings.”
Ruehle’s 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 — Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra and Walter Willett, nutrition chairman 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 said.
She also has been writing about her experiences and offering nutritional advice on her blog, A Well-Nourished Life. Ruehle now is offering “culinary wellness” services through a new business of the same name (a-well-nourished-life.com).
“It’s really about getting people to go back to nature in kind of a way,” she said. “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.”
Whole foods – and cake
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 made her changes. 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 thinks, by a prescription drug that she was taking for her skin. 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 thinks her body needs salmon a few times a week, she said. She also doesn’t eschew packaged foods; in her pantry are bags of chips made of black beans and dark chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds.
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 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 said. “There’s much less chaos and stress. It’s just fun.”
And if another TV cooking competition called?
“I would probably do it, if it fit with my life,” she said.
“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.”