Feature Interview: A Health Overhaul with Rip Esselstyn

Photo courtesy Rip Esselstyn

Many of us who’ve forgone meat and dairy have, by now, heard of Rip Esselstyn’s book The Engine 2 Diet due to its enormous mainstream success in bookstores around the world. Since its release in 2009, Engine 2 has evolved from a helpful nutritional text to a sustainable lifestyle, overhauling unhealthy habits and mindsets. Rip Esselstyn has also become a renowned advocate for a plant-based, or “plant-strong” diet and has partnered with many influential organizations, some of which will sound very familiar. Vegan Mainstream had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Esselstyn recently about what exactly it takes to go beyond veganism and find new ways to stay healthy.

Vegan Mainstream: What made you gravitate toward a plant-based lifestyle as a triathlete-turned-fireman?

Rip Esselstyn: I first started a plant-based diet because of my father’s research (Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., M.D.) at the Cleveland Clinic in 1984.

[He was working] to show that you can not only help, but reverse heart disease through a plant-based diet. I got exposed to my mom and dad starting to eat this way whenever I would come home from the University of Texas for vacations. In 1987, when I graduated and didn’t know what in the world I wanted to do with my life, I decided to be a professional triathlete instead of [working] a corporate 9-to-5 job, so it was for health reasons and for performance reasons. The actual genesis of the Engine 2 (E2) diet and the book was from Fire Station No. 2 in Austin, Texas. Me and a bunch of Texas firefighters started eating “plant-strong” – a word to describe what we do, which is a whole-food, plant-based and nutrient-rich diet, instead of a vegan diet which [can contain] a lot of extracted oils and refined products. We started eating that way in 2003 and saved the life of a firefighting brother. [We] haven’t looked back. To be Engine 2 is about saving lives through “plant-strong” nutrition and education.

VM: Why do you differentiate between vegan and plant-based?

RE: If I were going to use that term in a firehouse, the other firefighters would hang me by my firefighting boots! A lot of it is about salesmanship. “Plant strong” is something they can get their head around. Vegan or vegetarian? They can’t, since they all think they’re macho men. They now know real men eat plants, but before that, they thought real men ate meat. The terms vegan and vegetarian are such pregnant words; sometimes they have baggage. Veganism is an ideology where some are ethical, some are dietary [vegans]. With “plant-strong,” the foundation of it is for health reasons. I’ve since expanded [“plant-strong”] to mean you’re not only saving your own life, you’re also saving the lives of animals and the planet. So it’s much more far-reaching [now]. Even if you are only doing [E2] for the selfish reasons, it still affects everything else.

I know vegans who eat French Fries, drink Coke, eat Jelly Beans and soak everything in olive or canola oil. For example, Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary got into it 100% for the animals. Over the last couple of years he’s been trying to become a more healthy vegan: eating whole-foods, not extracted oils, stuff like that. That’s the “plant-strong” way of eating.

VM: So, what do you tell athletes who think they won’t have enough energy eating only plants?

RE: I tell them they are grossly misinformed. If they want to start eating first-class foods (as opposed to second or third, i.e. meat, dairy and processed foods) and provide themselves with premium fuel to be the best athlete possible, they should transition to plants. Plant proteins are much friendlier: they don’t inflame your arteries, they’re not harsh on the kidneys and liver. As an athlete, you want to recover as fast as possible.

VM: How has the landscape changed since you first started promoting Engine 2 and “plant-strong?”

RE: It’s pretty amazing actually. I think you’re [going to see] a paradigm shift over the next 5 to 10 years, where people are going to start embracing this lifestyle. They’ll realize it’s the healthiest and most sustainable way to eat. There are more and more books, shows, and movies; it’s getting out into the mainstream. I can’t believe the amount of cookbooks that have hit the shelves in the last two years. Right now you’ve got a bunch of early adopters jumping in; this is the first big wave. I mean, anytime you have a former president [Bill Clinton], Ellen DeGeneres and Oprah all pushing these messages, I think we’re on the verge of something really powerful.

VM: The Holy Trinity of spokespeople. It’s certainly easier to find people to write about. How did your work with Whole Foods Market come about?

RE: Whole Foods Market (WFM) approached me about being one of their Healthy Eating partners [with their new initiative, Health Starts Here] to educate customers and [WFM] team members about eating more plants. WFM, one of the most influential grocery stores in America, has decided they want healthy eating to be their seventh Core Value. I’m going around as a Healthy Eating Ambassador talking to different stores, team members and customers and throwing 28-Day Challenges, led by a Healthy Eating Specialist. I’m also going to be coming out with a line of E2 “plant-stong” food products, anything from frozen entrees, to pasta sauces, and a whole lot more. A third thing we’re putting on are week- and weekend-long E2 Immersion Programs, initially just for Whole Foods team members. Starting in September, we are starting some [Immersion] programs for the public.

VM: What was your role with Forks Over Knives?

RE: Forks Over Knives (FOK) was picked up by theaters across the country and has done very well. The [FOK] companion book has been on the New York Times’ Best-Seller list. FOK is a “why you want to eat this way” movie. The two main story lines are my father, Dr. Esselstyn, and Colin Campbell – a scientist and a clinician came to the same conclusion at pretty much the same time about plant nutrition being king. FOK also shows some real-time success stories of people who started eating [plant-based diets] during filming and their amazing results, like myself; Ruth Heidrich, a six-time Ironman Triathlon finisher diagnosed with breast cancer at 47; Mac Danzig, a mixed martial artist [and many others]. [FOK] visited me and all the guys at the fire station in a little five minute clip. We also just came up with a companion version [of FOK] that shows people how to go in and clean out their cupboards, how to shop and do a little bit of cooking as well.

To purchase Forks Over Knives or the companion DVD, go here.

VM: A theme we recently had on our blog was called The Transitioning Vegan. Since Labor Day will be here before you know it, what are some tips for not falling off the wagon? 

RE: In my new book I’m going to have a great potato salad that uses a cashew cream instead of mayonnaise. One of the reasons I was so successful in getting a bunch of Texas firefighters to do this is because I took all the foods they love and “plant-strongified” them. For example, I took pizza and made a whole-grain crust with a clean marinara sauce. Everyone would customize their pizzas with healthy, plant-based ingredients. We would line up, in separate bowls, frozen corn, black beans, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, red bell peppers, green bell peppers, orange bell peppers, spinach, and broccoli. Then you just reach in, make your own pizza and add a little nutritional yeast on top. You can do the same thing with burgers, like the black bean and oatmeal burgers out of my book. Add guacamole instead of mayonnaise. Instead of fries dunked in oil, make sweet potato fries that are baked. I think there’s a time and a place, like Labor Day, where you can use the meat substitutes. For dessert, one of the things I’m really hip on these days is banana ice cream, with banana chunks, a little vanilla extract, and a little bit of water. Or maybe add some cocoa powder.

Rip’s companion book for The Engine 2 Diet won’t be out until 2013. Final title TBD.

VM: What do you think is the biggest catalyst for people to go vegan or switch to a plant-based diet?

RE: I think the biggest [catalyst] is people deciding to make the commitment to their health. Once you decide to do it, it’s a slam dunk. Everybody’s got belly buttons and everybody has an excuse – either “I don’t have time” or “Where do I get my protein?” The bottom line is once you have the information and decide to really respect and love yourself and take your health to the next level, it’s a cinch, no harder than riding a bike. Now, it’s so much easier because we have so many more recipes, and the grocery stores have so many more products. Once you have [plant-based knowledge] it’s hard to put that [other] stuff in your body knowing what it’s doing to you.

VM: With the increased availability of plant-based options, have you had to upgrade your message?

RE: I’m a student of this [lifestyle] and I will be until the day I die, so I am constantly reading and informing myself, and growing and learning as well. Some of the things I have learned since writing the book is that I’m not a big fan of processed soy food: soy crumbles, soy burgers, stuff like that. I think if people are going to eat soy products, they’re much better off staying away from processed soy and eating more of the natural soy, or closer to the original source. Instead of using veggie [soy] crumbles in a Shepherd’s Pie, I would say to use chopped mushrooms or lentils instead. And eat more leafy greens.

VM: What do you think about the claims that veganism or a plant-based diet is just a trendy or celebrity fad?

RE: What I’m trying to do and, for example, what Alicia Silverstone of The Kind Diet is trying to do, we’re all of the same mindset. We may be different denominations, but we’re all of the same religion. I don’t think this is a fad at all. Look at Bob Harper, one of the trainers on The Biggest Loser. He emailed me after my book came out and said The Engine 2 Diet has been his new bible and has since said his inspiration for going plant-based were E2 and Skinny Bitch.

If we don’t do something, and in short order, this country is going to have a meltdown. We also have this aging population, the Baby Boomers…coming down with diabetes, heart disease, cancer. The answer is not another drill, another procedure; it isn’t government involvement or anything like that. It’s people, on the ground-level, taking responsibility and educating themselves and making smarter, healthier decisions.

VM: Any last thoughts?

RE: I want people to know they can do this, they don’t have to be alone. So much of the success of this is having a support network. The other thing is that I encourage people to look in the mirror and decide to really, truly, love themselves. When you start eating plant-based foods, the ripple effect goes beyond just how you feel and your health, it spills over into every thing in your life. It’s really, really profound and well worth it. We need more people out there who are setting the “plant-strong” example. We are always looking for people to be part of the Engine 2 rescue team to help America take its health to the next level.

By | 2016-10-17T10:41:18+00:00 August 12th, 2011|Featured Interviews, Health & Fitness, Lifestyle|2 Comments

About the Author:

Graduate of MU Journalism program. Love mustaches, vegan-things, LOST and beer.
  • Willowdkr

    Yeah, yeah, yeah, there’s all that.  There’s also the fact that Rip and his pals got tired of risking their lives dragging your 200+ pound body out of a blazing fire, just to have you drop dead from a heart attack a few months later.  Kind of pales all the prestigious awards (and there are many).  When these firemen choose to save your life, THEY MEAN BUSINESS!   🙂

  • Diaakrisy

    Too bad she didn’t ask him about the ED connection.  AKA, ‘if you’ve got heart disease in one place, you have it everywhere’.  Plants promote virility in men (and the equivalent for women).  Not everyone wants to be plant strong just so they can do more chin-ups.  🙂