World-class triathlete turned firefighter Rip Esselstyn is used to responding to emergencies. So when he learned that some of his fellow Engine 2 firefighters in Austin, TX, were in dire physical condition (several had dangerously high cholesterol levels), he sprang into action and created a life-saving plan for the firehouse.
While on shift at the firehouse one day, Rip and a few of his fellow firefighters made a few bets in friendly competition. The topic of who had the lowest cholesterol came up, and after a bit of blood work, it was discovered that one of the fireman (JR) had a dangerously high score of 344! Rip then made it a goal to introduce his friends to a healthier, longer life. By following Rip’s program, everyone lost weight (some more than 20 lbs.), lowered their cholesterol (Mr. 344’s dropped to 196), and improved their overall health. The Engine 2 Diet was born.
For many years Rip, a University of Texas All American swimmer, was one of the world’s top professional triathletes. He took first place in many major events, including the 2001 Police and Fire World Games, the world’s largest athletic competition. He also won the Capital of Texas triathlon eight times and was the leader and top-three finisher at many televised events, including the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, where he was first out of the frigid, shark-infested waters six years in a row.
Rip comes from a family steeped in medical knowledge. His great-grandfather George Crile co-founded the world renowned Cleveland Clinic, where his father Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn was chief of surgery and completed one of the most extensive studies on the relationship between the heart and diet–proving that a plant-based diet can reduce and even eliminate heart disease.
MindBodyGreen: You've had such an interesting career transition from triathlete to firefighter -- how did this change come about? What is it about firefighting that you love?
Rip Esselstyn: When I graduated from the University of Texas, a 9 to 5 job sounded excruciating. I knew I was a good athlete -- I was an accomplished swimmer, I biked everywhere my whole life, and it was then that I became a triathlete. Some fellow triathletes who were also firefighters steered me toward firefighting as it might be something I’d enjoy. It’s a job in which you help people, you do good deeds, and you bond with other firefighters. It sounded pretty good to me at the time. I was looking for an adrenaline rush, something that would be satisfying, something where I’d be helping people, and firefighting seemed to fit the bill. It took me two years to get into the fire department.
80% of our calls are medical calls. We see up close and personal the effects of cancer, diabetes, heart disease. When a woman knocks on the door of the firehouse at 5am because she needs to give birth, and you and four other firefighters deliver the baby on the floor of the firehouse, it touches you to the core. The level of intimacy, the bond that is created between you and your team at the firehouse is unparalleled. Ironically, it’s this bond that allowed us as a group at the house to rally around JR and eat this way to save his life.
MBG: When and why did you make the switch to a plant-based diet?
RE: It started full force in 1987 with two motivating forces. The first was my father, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, and his groundbreaking research at Cleveland Clinic demonstrating how a plant-based diet could reverse heart disease. At about the same time, my hero, Dave Scott, had won Ironman for a sixth time and he was a hard-core vegetarian. That did it for me.
MBG: What's the biggest misconception among athletes about eating a more plant-based diet that you'd like to clear up?
RE: That you can’t get enough protein. Nothing can be further form the truth. Whether through grains, beans, or even fruit, there’s plenty of protein. We only need 5-8% of our calories from protein, and since protein is the one macronutrient that we can’t store, when you get above 15% it either stores as fat or we excrete it.
MBG: What is your favorite source of protein?
RE: I have a few:
One favorite is my morning breakfast bowl. I’ve had it for 20 years and it has about 30-35 grams of fiber.