Q & A with Rip Esselstyn: Best-Selling Author of The Engine 2 Diet
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.
2oz of whole grain pasta has around 9-10 grams of protein, so that’s another favorite.
In a day I easily go through a head of broccoli, which is about 20 grams protein. One of the best sources of protein is leafy greens.
I also have beans every day, and that ranges from 20-40% protein.
MBG: Favorite snack?
RE: A lot of times I’ll reach into my fridge where I keep a container of homemade hummus. It’s made of chickpeas, lemon juice, water, and maybe a little bit of turmeric or artichoke hearts. I’ll dip with hearts of romaine lettuce, bell peppers or cherry tomatoes. Sometimes I’ll just have a bowl of cereal for a snack, too.
MBG: Do you have a favorite protein bar?
RE: I’m not a big bar guy anymore, though I do like the Pro Bar, LaraBar, and some of the Clif bars.
MBG: What are 5 must-have items on your grocery list?
RE: I actually have more than 5:
1. Bobs red mill extra thick oats -- they’re such a mainstay of my breakfast bowl.
2. I’m a really big fan of broccoli. Whole Foods Market has a frozen 365-brand of broccoli florets. I can freeze them and eat them again and again. I’ve become a big fan of frozen fruits and vegetables.
3. Food for Life’s 'Ezekiel' bread -- I usually get the sesame seed flavor.
4. Almond milk.
5. A whole bunch of beans.
7. Leafy greens - I’ll get a bunch of kale or Swiss chard and throw that into my soup or pasta.
MBG: If you met someone who didn’t know a lot about food, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give them?
RE: Give up all dairy and limit processed, refined foods – and read the ingredients.
MBG: Why dairy?
RE: The majority of dairy protein comes from casein – the greatest cause of cancer in the American diet.
MBG: What’s the last great book you read?
RE: Born to Run. I read it 2-3 months ago and went to see the author, Christopher McDougall, speak. I love the story - how this tribe fueled themselves on these 100-mile runs with squash, beans, and berries. I would have never believed it, but in 2005 I went on a mountain biking trip and with my own eyes saw the Tarahumara Indians living in the caves. I saw how they eat, I saw them running everywhere. It was awesome.
MBG: Favorite quote?
RE: "Never, never, never, never give up." – Winston Churchill. Another one of Churchill’s that I use is, "The Americans will always do the right thing... after they've exhausted all the alternatives."
MBG: If it was your Last Supper, what would you eat? Who would be there? Where would the meal be? Would there be music, etc?
RE: I would have sweet potato lasagna -- it’s what I served at my wedding and it’s my favorite dish in the world. We’d also have a big old roasted vegetable salad, a side of vegetarian nori rolls, and then for dessert I’d have two varieties of date nut pies that are in my book: date nut chocolate mousse pie, and date nut fruit pie.
Everyone in my family would be there and we’d be at our family farm in upstate New York. The farm has been in my family for over 300 hundred years. We’d have it on the back porch, which is on top of the most beautiful hill -- one of the most gorgeous settings. There is actually a documentary coming out called Forks Over Knives featuring my dad and Colin Campbell (I’m in it, too), and they shoot a lot of the film at our farm. And for music I’d have Eva Cassidy playing Sting’s 'Fields of Gold.'
MBG: Why do our readers need to run out and buy the Engine 2 Diet?
RE: I don’t care who you are, your number one asset is your health. The data and the science is clear that the further you can move away from animal-based products, the better chance you have of eliminating heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s -- all the diseases that are bringing America down by the knees. This is the number one insurance policy out there. The more people who embrace this lifestyle, the easier things will get for us -- our health benefits, the planet benefits, it’s a win-win.
For more on Rip and The Engine 2 Diet:
The Engine 2 Diet on Amazon.com
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.