A Minute With: Triathlete, Firefighter and "Engine 2" Author Rip Esselstyn

By , SparkPeople Blogger
World-class professional triathlete turned firefighter Rip Esselstyn knows how to eat right and stay in shape. The son, grandson, and great-grandson of renowned physicians, he had been eating a plant-based diet for years.

So when he discovered that one of his fellow firefighters had dangerously high cholesterol (344), he created and implemented the Engine 2 Diet to help others at his fire station reduce their cholesterol and improve their overall health.

His fellow firefighters adhered to a fully plant-based diet for 28 days. They significantly reduced their cholesterol levels and lost weight by eating foods that were nutrient-dense, naturally low in calories and high in fiber--not to mention delicious and easy to prepare.

The results were astounding.

That firefighter whose cholesterol was a whopping 344 dropped his levels to somewhere in the 270s a year later. Then he agreed to try Rip's plant-based plan. Three weeks later, his cholesterol was down to 196! In 2008, 15 people started the second 28-day Engine 2 pilot study. At the outset, the group's average cholesterol was 196. By the end, participants' average cholesterol levels declined 62 points. The average weight loss was 14 pounds.

Rip's book, The Engine 2 Diet: The Texas Firefighter's 28-Day Save-Your-Life Plan that Lowers Cholesterol and Burns Away the Pounds, comes out today.
We recently chatted with Rip about his healthy eating habits, the book, and how anyone can adapt the Engine 2 Diet for their lifestyles.

Q: The diet started because you were helping some fellow firefighters lower their cholesterol. Is the Engine 2 Diet primarily for people who are trying to lower their cholesterol? Can anyone adhere to this diet?

A. The E2 Diet is the easiest and most delicious way to lower your cholesterol, but it does much more than that (although low cholesterol is one of the most important ways to stay healthy--itís the number one risk factor for heart disease). The diet is for everyone who wants to look great, feel great, and stay great--and anyone who wants to lose weight while learning to eat the best foods on earth.

And yes, anyone can do it: The diet is easy and fun to follow--so much so that many people report that once theyíve done it, their friends want to do it, too!

Q: How much resistance did you get when you started to help your fellow firefighters improve their health by changing their diet?

A. Not much. In addition to being firefighters we are a close-knit family. And as a family we wanted to do everything in our power to prevent firefighter James Rae from following in the footsteps of his heart attack-prone male ancestors--thatís how the whole thing started. When food is hearty, tasty, and beautiful, firefighters are happy people.

Q: You didn't arbitrarily adopt a plant-based diet. You have three generations of prominent doctors in your family. Tell us a little about your own family history and the research that led you to eschew meat and animal products.

A. On my motherís side, my great-grandfather, George Crile Sr., founded the Cleveland Clinic; his son, Barney Crile, was one of the worldís leading surgeons. And my father, Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. who was chief of surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, has over 25 years of research showing that a low-fat, plant-smart diet cannot only halt heart disease, but reverse it. Before writing my book I, too, did several pilot studies that proved the dramatic effects a plant-based diet can have on the body in as little as four weeks. The results were absolutely jaw-dropping.

Q: How important is fitness in the E2 Diet?

A. If you want to feel great, I highly recommend incorporating a combination of aerobic and resistance training each week, and thatís why I devoted a chapter in the book to the Engine 2 exercise program. Still, I believe a plant-sensible diet is the foundation of your health.

Q: Is the Engine 2 Diet a lifelong commitment? What would happen if animal products were reintroduced, even in small portions? Would all progress be lost?

A. My goal with the Engine 2 diet is to show people what they can do when they give themselves a fighting chance. I ask them to eat as close to plant perfect as possible for the 28 days--but after that, itís up to them how plant-strong they want to be--100, 90, 80, 70 or even 50 percent. Considering most Americans eat a paltry 10 percent of their calories from whole-food plant sources, an upswing of 40 or 50 percent is a huge improvement.

Q: These recipes look pretty hearty--filling enough to satiate a firefighter. Was that a consideration when you developed these recipes? Should "regular" people scale down the portion sizes?

A. The recipes are hearty, filling, tasty and firefighter friendly. I highly recommend people find their true appetite and eat until they are content. Remember that on the E2 diet, youíll eat as much as you want! Be smart and save the rest for leftovers the next day. There is nothing like healthy E2 leftovers.

Q: You liken the introductory period of the E2 Diet to the probationary period that rookie firefighters endure. You write, "You, too will have to be thick-skinned, because even some of your best friends may try to beat you down and get you to return to your old ways. You need to feel so good about the diet that you don't care what others say. After all, nobody on this planet cares about your own health as much as you should." What advice do you have for people whose loved ones aren't supporting their decision to commit to a healthy lifestyle?

A. It can be a real challenge when your loved ones donít support you on your quest for better health. Understand that they may be threatened by this change; give them space until they come around. Donít badger them and donít take a holier-than-thou stance. Just set a wonderful example and in time they will either come around or they will end up respecting your decision when your cholesterol level drops, you lose weight, and you look great!

Q: Firefighters are thought to be strong, fit, and brave. "Vegetarian" in our society tends to have a connotation that is quite different from that of "firefighter." How do you reconcile the two? What do you say to people who say "real men eat meat" (one of the myths you debunk in the book)?

A. We need a real paradigm shift here: Real men eat plants and not meat! In my world view, little boys eat meat, and once they discover the benefits of plants and eat them regularly, thatís when they turn into real men. ... I say it again: real men eat plants! (Just as do the biggest, most powerful members of the animal kingdom, such as gorillas, elephants, and giraffes.)

Q: While the E2 Diet has seen incredible results, it seems like you're fighting an uphill battle by trying to get the American public to give up meat, dairy, and eggs. What is the most compelling reason you can offer to stick a plant-based diet?

A. I donít think people know the truth about the root of chronic disease in this country. We have the best hospitals and the greatest medical advancements on the planet and yet our health continues to deteriorate. ... On a personal level you can save yourself from ever acquiring heart disease, diabetes, obesity, a major cancer, and Alzheimer's by sticking to a plant-strong diet. I love this quote from Winston Churchill: ďHealthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.Ē I would submit to you that what is potentially our greatest asset has become our greatest liability. By starting and sticking to a plant-healthy diet, Americaís health can rise from the ashes like a Phoenix.

Q: The book Skinny Bitch has been credited with enticing more women to adapt a plant-based diet. Will the E2 Diet have a similar effect on men?

A. I want to make it very clear--this diet works for everyone, women, men, and children. Since my pilot study with the firefighters, who were mostly male, I have worked with female firefighters, housewives, career women, and all of them love this diet. This is not a manís diet. But I do hope that men will join in when they see that so many of Austinís top firefighters and athletes have tried the E2 diet, and even better, are sticking with it!

Q: Just before your initial cholesterol test, you mention eating your "once a year" cheeseburger. You're obviously the epitome of healthful eating and fitness. Do you still allow yourself this indulgence? If not the cheeseburger, then do you have another non-E2 indulgence?

A. I havenít done the cheeseburger thing since 2001. Hey, Iím not perfect (although I am close--dietwise, that is). About once or twice a year Iíll have a piece of salmon and maybe now and then some non E2 desserts. Look, if you really need to eat a piece of cheesecake, nothingís going to stop you. But thatís OK. This isnít a constant test. Itís a diet thatís fun and easy. I donít want people to be plant-perfect. I just want them to be plant-smart.

Rip has also shared four recipes from the book:
Almighty Healthy Wrap
Dark Chocolate Brownies
Healthy Homemade Hummus
Picadillo Pick Ax Burrito

Would you try the Engine 2 Diet? What percentage of your calories do you think come from vegetables and other plants?

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I am concerned about the high carb count of this diet. When I eat oatmeal, bread, grains, etc., my blood sugar goes way up. Report
Okay, he'll run into a burning building to save people, has the skills to actually get in and get out, cooks, AND is secure enough to try to get Texas "real men" to go vegetarian? This man is HOT! Report
Eating more plants is a good thing, although the words "eat plants" gives me the image of a housecat chewing on a potted plant more than a person chowing down on a salad. I think that if this isn't enough to convince people to eat more plants, the price of meat and eggs versus plant-based protein sources should.

Speaking of eating green, I'm going to be making some brown rice and lentils tonight to make lunch with tomorrow. Mmm. Love me some plants. Report
I live in the Midwest and LOVE a good steak or hamburger on the grill. But my high cholesterol cries out in pain whenever I do. So I've been trying to "EAT CLEAN" for the last few weeks. Not entirely vegetarian, but I only have red meat about once a week or so now. Hopefully, my lab work will be better in March! Report
Amen to plant based diets. My six year old is one of those cases with an inherited for of high cholesterol levels. I have to be very mindful of what he eats which is not easy when relatives farm and make uninformed comments about depriving him of a good steak or pork chop. I don't mind when the comments come at me, but hate the comments they make to his face. Report
I'm vegan so 100% of my foods are plant based. I've been vegan for 6+ years and feel great. Even when I was heavier (damn you, soy ice cream and vegan cookies!) I never got sick or FELT as run-down/sick/bad as I did as an omnivore. Everyone's body is different, of course, but mine really likes veganism. Plus, I went vegan and my heartburn (that I was on prescription meds for!) disappeared. Woo hoo, that was quite the bonus.

I'm vegan for the animals, the planet and THEN my health but I'm very passionate about this being a healthy way to eat. Report
I went out and bought the book the same day it came out based upon this article in Sparkpeople. I have always ate a diet high in vegitables because I have always liked them. However I also ate the normal American diet with lots of meat.
I have been on this diet for 9 days at this point and really like it. For one thing it is a nice change of pace for me. I highly recoment getting the book. It will answer a lot of the questions that appear in the earlier post. Report
I just might try it. Most of my calories (at a guess, without looking at my spreadsheet, about 75%) come from plant-based foods, and I almost never eat red meat (maybe once a month). My real problem is too many high-glycemic carbs; it's never been the fat or cholesterol. Report
I am a butcher's daughter and was raised with the axiom that a meal was not complete without a large portion of it being meat. My mother, who was Finnish, and raised mainly on a fish diet, would slip us fish whenever she could. The fruits and vegies were thrown in any which way. I have, over the past 15 yrs, been trying to change my attitude. I now enjoy meatless meals, even ones without fish/seafood. My son claims that our ancestors were originally "hunters and gatherers" and depended mainly on the gathering aspect as hunting was a very difficult and dangerous thing to do. I still love my cheeseburgers and steaks but I also enjoy meals now without meat including pizza. It has taken me a long time to readjust my thinking and now I am working on my husband - that will probably take longer! I will get the book, because I am always looking out for meatless but tasty meals to cook. Report
I eat a lot of veggies and it's very expensive. People will have a tough time sticking to this diet plan. It might be easier to move away from a largely meat-based diet slowly and steadily. Over time, dieters might find the lifestlye change easier. Report
I ordered this as soon as I finished reading the blog. Not to follow a complete diet plan, but because if he has come up with vegan-vegetarian recipes fireman can be happy about, I can throw them into the mix a few times a week and my husband ought to be able to be happy about it. If we could go about 35% meatless, in the short term, that would be nice.
This was not an expensive book either. I spent 13 euros, delivered, to have it shipped to France. If I get some winner recipes out of it, it will have paid for itself. Sparkpeople has taught me that it isn't necessary to follow anything religiously, but also that I should keep an open mind to new things, and having my husband happy with some new vegan recipes would be great. I like it that it is a 'guy' writer and book. Report
I think I will give this book a look see. I have been getting away from meats and eating more whole grains and veggies. I am one who has to bring my cholesterol down. I have brought it down from 232 to 226 and the doctor has put me on a statin drug. I did not tolerate it well so decided to continue to work at it on my own. I have until the end of March before my next blood test. I have to bring it down more before I confess to my doctor that I stopped taking the pills Feb. 14. Report
I think the whole idea is to show people that you can eat great food without eating all the meat and dairy. Now, I am a huge fan of meat and pretty much all dairy products, and I eat them everyday. So I am not just defending the book as a vegetarian. I might buy the book just to get ideas for stuff to compliment the meat that I eat, which is almost always boneless, skinless chicken breast.
STEPHANIEK2-I think Spark posted this not because they are condoning a 28 day diet, then back to old bad habits, but because this is a great way to introduce people to a new idea. I think Spark's hope was to get people thinking more about eating better for life...hoping that if they tried this for the 28 day period, then maybe good eating habits would stick with them. Maybe not 100% plant based, but like the author said a 40-50% increase would be great. Report
This really looks A LOT like the "Eat to Live" diet from Dr. Joel Fuhrman... Report
looks terriffic!! Report
With my love of vegetables and fruits (in that order), I've eaten a fairly healthy diet for decades--never as good as it could be, but then it never is. The point I would like to make (that I've posted before, sorry) is that even healthful food can make you fat if you eat too much and don't exercise. I know we are all different and have to find what works for us individually, but Spark has helped me with my two issues--portion size and the need for regular exercise.

The recipes sound tasty--not like diet food at all--which brings me to my next point, I hate having "diet" in the title. But of course the publisher knows what it's doing. everyone is looking for the new "diet" that will solve weight problems. And "diet" in the title. sadly, is still a great marketing word, right up there with "free" and "new," among others. Report
I think this looks like a great plan. I have been a vegetarian for 18 years. My cholesterol is totally fine but just to be more balanced with some great looking recipes would help me to incorporate a variety of ingredients. I'm going to be on the look out fir this book... but I also want to know where to get a few of those ingredients Report
I don't think I would try this especially after looking at the recipes.They are too high in soduim. the soduim in one of the recipes is 3/4 of my soduim allowance for the day. Although I don't have cholesterol problem at this time. Report
not something i'd try. i need to change for life not 28 days... Report
I just wrote a column for Examiner.com on this two days ago. http://www.examiner.com/x-1442-Balt

I think the idea/food behind this diet is commendable. It's no secret that eating plant-based foods is healthy and can lower cholesterol levels. However, I am leery of "diets" and diet books. There are very few, if any, unique ideas behind the popular diets we hear about. It's the same things we've already seen in the past, repackaged in different ways to sell diet books. In this case, this is the vegan way of living (which has been around since 1944) with a firefighter angle. Report
I am skeptical of any diet that is touted as "easy and fun"
Really? I don't think anything worth doing in life is easy. Report
I always wanted to try a diet and now I know how to thanks Report
I wouldn't try the diet, only because I enjoy eating meat too much. I also don't have a cholestrol problem. I am impressed at the results of the plan, though. Report
STEPHANIEK2: From what I've read, the numbers won't "jump up" if you continue to eat a majority of plant-based foods. If you return to meals of bacon, burgers and white bread, then of course your health will suffer. This is meant to be a gateway to a lifestyle change. Report
What happens when people go off of the diet? Do their numbers jump back up? This is sounding too much like another fad or crash diet. I am surprised to see this on Spark People. I thought Spark People was about balance and a life long commitment to healthy eating - not 28 days of severely altering your eating habits and hope to stick to something like it after wards.

Don't get me wrong. We all need to eat more veggies. However, the overview of this diet does not sync with the information I have read and discussed with dietitians. Report
This diet looks completely reasonable from this write-up. Eating a plant-based, whole foods diet is a no-brainer -- it doesn't matter what you call it -- Engine 2, Mediterranean Diet, whatever gets people to do it. I just want people to set realistic goals and not strive to be perfect; it's about raising your batting average gradually and making true lifestyle changes. My blog, MindfulEats.com has a lot of practical how-tos. I have to say, SparkPeople is a great website too. :) Report
Years ago Dean Ornish and Neal Barnard introduced plant-based diets, and I have read both of their books. It's a great way to go heart-healthy and drop cholesterol levels. I am not a fan of beans, so I'd have a hard time getting in the protein that is essential for my post-op bariatric gastric bypass. But my folks follow Dean Ornish's plan, especially after my mother's cardiac scare last month (she had two stents placed in an artery over her heart), and they have already dropped their cholesterol significantly! Report
From the Bragg website: "Bragg Liquid Aminos is a Certified NON-GMO liquid protein concentrate, derived from healthy soybeans, that contains the following Essential and Non-essential Amino Acids in naturally occurring amounts." It tastes similar to soy sauce but contains a bit less sodium. You can substitute low-sodium soy sauce. Report
I am following Dr. Fuhrman's Eat To Live plan along with Dr. Esseltyens Reversing Heat Disease Diet. both are very similar, so I think that I will just stick with them. I do applaud his efforts in getting men to eat healthy too though. Report
I'm what my sweetie has referred to as a reformed vegetarian......but since making my lifestyle changes to lose weight and get healthy, I would have to say a rough guess of my daily intake would show I get at least half of my nutrients from plant based sources these days. Report
Sounds very similar to the way I already eat. Dr. Fuhrman's "Eat To Live" plan. Plant based, nutrient dense foods. I quit eating meat in 2000 and plan to go totally vegan this year. Report
I would try a few of the recipes just to mix things up in my food plan - I have nothing against a vegetarian meal every once and a while and incorporating more veggies into the diet is always a good thing - but not interested in giving up meat. In the end, this is just another "fad" diet plan that will come and go and only make someone other than me rich. I'll spend my hard earned dollars elsewhere. Report
What is this recipe ingredient? Bragg Liquid Aminos
I would be interested in seeing this cookbook. It sounds like Southwest cooking.
I can['t always find regional foods.
Sodium content is also a concern at my house. One way to reduce the sodium is to make the beans from the dried instead of using canned. Decent tomatoes are hard to find this time of year. Canned are super high in sodium. Hard to find low sodium products except in 4 oz cans plus expensive.
Speaking of dollars, when we increased the amount of produce in our diet, our grocery bill went up.
I'm afraid that with 1437 mg of Sodium (Picadillo Pick Ax Burrito) and 1027.5 mg of Sodium (Almighty Healthy Wrap), these are not healthy recipes for me. Report
I would like to work more veggies into my diet and read this book if it became available at my library. Report
I am trying to find good recipes to get more plant material in my diet but I don't like any kind of bean and I am pretty picky about a lot of fruits & vegetables. I would look at the recipes, but don't know about buying the book if I wasn't going to make too many of the recipes. Report
This would be great for my dad. Report
I plan to check this one out. I've been on a vegan diet for about 18 months. My bad cholesterol dropped more than 100 points and my blood sugar (I'm diabetic) has stayed in the normal range for a year. Report
Thank you for posting this. My husband's cholesterol is high, even though I have helped make changes in the diet and he is on meds. I will have to pick up this book! Report
I couldn't try this, as I have an anaphylactic allergy to soy and beans. I would have a lot of trouble getting my protein in. Report
Don't think I would try the diet. I am more concerned about being insulin resistant, I have cholesterol under control. Report
Just tried the Almighty Healthy Wrap - what a treat! (and the other sample recipes look equally tasty) I think I may have found the tool I've been looking for to help lower the cholesterol!
That isn't a big problem for me. I'm more concerned with my Insulin Resistance. (Metabolic Syndrome) Report
I saw an interview with Rip on TV while at the gym Tuesday. I'm impressed and am excited to try these recipes. Report
great recipes Report
I would give it a try but just the 28 days maybe do it when I have a wedding or a special event to attend (lol) but I could not do plant foods I know way back when humans did not eat meat but I like my fish, turkey, and sometimes a ribeye. Report
I like my veggies well enough, but my DH is a VERY picky eater, doesn't like onions, mushrooms, spinach, peppers, most beans and certain types of potatoes. I refuse to make 2 different dinners for the 2 of us, so I'll stick with the traditional omnivore diet with both meat and plant based products. Besides, I feel better with a slightly higher protein (meat) diet. Report
Here's a cool video I found on amazon.com about the book and the pilot study results. It tells a little bit more about the book and the diet if anyone's interested!

I eat a lot of raw vegetables and sprouts but I am not sure if I want to eat less meat. I love meat and that's what give me the strength, at least my mind thinks so. But if someone has high cholesterol I would say "go give it a try". Report
Just a note: While the first 28 days are without meat, you can incorporate some non-plants after that initial month. He's just trying to get us to eat our vegetables. Report
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