McDowell County native blazing healthy path through home state

HUNTINGTON - Jeremy Mullins’ professional success has presented opportunity after opportunity to take his family and leave West Virginia.

Carving out a career in nutrition and wellness in one of the most unhealthy states in America may at first seem like an impossibly tall task. But as is the case for many of those like him who have persevered and dug their heels into the Mountain State, something indescribable and unnameable, yet unmistakable, has compelled him to stay.

And in the process, the 38-year-old McDowell County native has blazed his own path toward promoting health in his home state - notching more than a few firsts along the way.

“I do feel that calling to make West Virginia healthier because growing up in a rural county and seeing the health problems that people had, a lot of that can be changed with diet and exercise,” Mullins said. “We’ve had opportunities to leave, but there’s something that tugs us to West Virginia.”

Growing up in the hardscrabble town of Iaeger - about 25 minutes west of Welch on U.S. 52 - Mullins was always athletic, though admittedly a bit overweight. While that extra bulk was great for sports, it was enough to get him teased.

After graduating from the now-closed Iaeger High School in 1998, Mullins enrolled in Bluefield State College for nursing, though he didn’t have any real career direction beside the health field. It was when he took the required dietetics class that he knew what he wanted.

With that two-year degree in hand, Mullins first came to Huntington and enrolled at Marshall University to study nutrition.

“I just remember it feeling like a big city compared to back home,” Mullins laughed about his first days in Huntington in the early 2000s. “I remember thinking ‘Man, I’ll never figure out my way around this place.’”

But he did, and he eventually found a job as a clinical dietitian at King’s Daughters Medical Center in Ashland after graduating in 2004. Mullins found himself treating people with existing cardiac problems - those who were already suffering from their lifestyle choices, he explained - and it became frustrating to think these conditions could have been prevented.

“I felt like I wasn’t helping people in that role as a clinical dietitian.”

Mullins eventually left to work with a bariatric surgeon in Charleston - a position with more flexibility to teach wellness and a gym in the office to do it in. It was there Mullins caught the bug, as he put it, to pursue his own ventures.

After a one-year teaching stint back at Marshall in 2009, Mullins opened CrossFit West Virginia in Charleston - the state’s first CrossFit gym as the program’s popularity began to take off. Mullins also opened Firebreather Fitness in Teays Valley that same year, which remains open.

Mullins is now a co-owner of CrossFit Thunder on 5th Avenue in Huntington, but has taken a step back from the entrepreneurial role - and it’s day-to-day business tasks - to focus on teaching wellness through fitness and nutrition.

“That was sort of a learning curve - that owning a business wasn’t my passion. Helping and educating people was my passion.”

With the fitness aspects up and running, Mullins shifted his focus to creating sound nutritional options, which lead to the creation of Butter It Up, a farm-to-table style restaurant and health food provider now open in The Market complex in downtown Huntington.

Butter It Up wasn’t necessarily founded to make money, Mullins explained, but to solve a community problem. He could lecture people on how to eat better, but it meant nothing if they couldn’t find healthier food.

“One of the biggest problems that we have is finding high-quality foods locally, and quick options for healthy meals.”

Mullins’ career just recently created another first as he was commissioned to be the U.S. National Guard’s first-ever full-time dietitian, attached as a first lieutenant to the West Virginia National Guard’s Medical Detachment. Though Mullins has contracted with the National Guard for fitness and nutritional training since 2015, the new full-time role tasks him with creating diet plans and training soldiers.

“We have already seen success from having 1st Lt. Mullins on board through soldiers and airmen who have made huge changes in their lifestyles,” Sgt. Maj. James Allen said in a news release. “Some have lost as much as 50 to 80 pounds of weight, meeting the Army standards, enabling them to continue service in the WVNG and providing them the tools for success in fitness and nutrition throughout their career.”

But one of the biggest problems in the field of nutrition is dietitians who claim their way as the only solution to health, which Mullins said is simply not true. What works for one person may do nothing for another, making an already overwhelming situation all the more disheartening.

But small steps, literally, can go a long way toward starting a healthier life - it isn’t a 0 to 60 jump, as he put it. Walking just a half-hour a day, a few days a week, is enough to make the beginner’s body respond. Replacing a sugary drink and a high-carb snack with something better can do likewise.

“I don’t think people realize that can be the first step - walking,” Mullins said. “We can make these small steps to getting people to make healthier choices.

I just think that a lot of times in our society, it’s either all or none with these approaches.”

Mullins also drops helpful tips online daily through his Facebook blog, “MacroEd with Jeremy Mullins,” which has more than 6,000 followers.

“What I try to do is to make things as simple as possible and make it available to the community.”

Mullins lives in Barboursville with his wife, Katie, and son and daughter, 5-year-old Brady and 2-year-old Bri.

Follow reporter Bishop Nash on Twitter at @BishopNash.

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