I recently spent some time chatting with Rip Esselstyn, the Ironman triathlete and former firefighter behind The Engine 2 Diet. Rip filled me in on his partnership with Whole Foods, the real solution to the health care crisis and why Costa Rica is the country to be. (Click here to check out my interview with Gene Stone, Rip’s cowriter on the book.)
Roseann Marulli: Hi, Rip. I know you have a lot going on right now, so thanks for taking the time to speak with us. The book came out about a year ago, right?
Rip: Let’s see—no, officially it came out February 25, 2009.
Roseann: Okay, so it’s almost a year and a half now, and you’re still touring and talking to people. What’s the reception been like? Are people resistant because you’re asking them to take the things out of their diet that they think make life worth living: meat, cheese, the whole nine?
Rip: If we’re talking America in general, yeah, they’re very resistant—most people are resistant to change, especially when it comes to food, and especially foods that they’re very comfortable with. But what I’ve been doing—as of late October, I became a Healthy Eating Partner with Whole Foods Market, one of two Healthy Eating Partners in what they’re calling their Healthy Eating Initiative. Whole Foods is really determined to get back to their roots, they want to be the leader as far as healthy eating education goes. Their Healthy Eating Initiative has four pillars. First is whole foods—perfect, eat whole foods. Next is plant-strong—which they borrowed from me—which is, eat more plants, eat plant-strong. Next is healthy fats, and the last is nutrient-dense. And really, by eating a whole-food, plant-based diet, you get all those things in spades. So what they’ve done is—actually, let me backtrack. I retired from firefighting on September 25, 2009. The success of the book presented me with some opportunities that allow me to take helping people and saving lives to a whole other level. So now with this partnership with Whole Foods, I’m going around the country, the U.K. and Canada and talking to Whole Foods team members, customers and communities about all the reasons for eating a more plant-strong diet. So getting back to your original question, I’m finding that the people who are coming to see me aren’t that resistant, they’re actually pretty open-minded. I think that what you’ll find is, in reality, maybe 3-4% of America is either vegetarian or vegan, but there’s probably another 40% or 50% who are interested in doing it, they just have no idea where to start. So a lot of those people are coming out to see me speak, and I’m finding that most of the audiences are very receptive to this message.
Roseann: And Whole Foods doesn’t see it as a conflict of interest to push plant-strong when they’ve got meat, dairy and all the other stuff in their stores?
Rip: When you get down to it, Whole Foods is a business, and if right now they were to take out cheese, meat, fish and dairy, they’d probably go out of business in a hurry. What they want to do is—I think one of the greatest voids right now is education. Most Americans don’t know that egg whites are bad for you. They don’t know that skim milk has just as much casein, if not a little more, than 1%, 2% or whole milk. They don’t know that fish and chicken are filled with animal protein, and they don’t know why animal protein is bad. They don’t know that chicken has just as much cholesterol as red meat. They don’t know that olive oil isn’t a health food, it’s an unhealthy food. Who else is pushing this out to Americans? I think it’s very courageous and brave for Whole Foods to launch this initiative to try to teach Americans, This is what true health is. Yes, we sell some of those other things, but we’re going to label everything and let you know what’s healthy and what’s not healthy. And they’re doing a color-coded system, they’re doing something called Health Starts Here, they’re putting Engine 2 Plant-Strong Pick stickers on canned and packaged stuff that meets certain criteria when it comes to fat, sodium and sugar. They’re doing amazing things. It’ll be interesting to see where Whole Foods is in five years and what everybody else has decided to do, because Whole Foods is such a leader.
Roseann: So when is all this getting off the ground?
Rip: The soft launch started just a couple of months ago, but the hard push starts in January 2011.
Roseann: That’s really great. Now, one of the things I’ve been wanting to talk to you about is when the Texas Beef Council sent brisket to all the firehouses in Austin because of the success of Engine 2.
Rip: I know. Isn’t that incredible?
Roseann: Yes! At first I was pissed, but then I thought, This is amazing, because it shows how worried they are; it shows that they recognize that people’s consciousness is changing and that this is something for them to worry about. I thought, Wow, how ballsy of them!
Rip: It really was, wasn’t it?
Roseann: Did they send it to your firehouse?
Rip: Oh my god, they sent it to every firehouse in Austin!
Roseann: The other shifts must have loved it, because in your book you talk about them leaving meat products and beef propaganda for your shift when you came in. They must have been thrilled!
Rip: Well, the beef propaganda and all that stuff happened way before the Beef Council decided to do what they did. But yeah, it was just another reason for them to give us a hard time.
Roseann: Because oil and fat are such big offenders, what do you think about tofu’s being 40% fat, even though it’s a healthy fat? Do you think people should limit their intake of it? Because it is also processed, even if it’s not a processed food the way gummy bears are. Off-the-shelf stuff like hummus tends to have a lot of fat too. It’s difficult to find certain foods within the range of 2.5 grams of fat per 100 calories, as you recommend in the book, unless you make it from scratch. Do you suggest people give themselves leeway and just do the best that they can?
Rip: A lot of the label reading is for the canned and packaged goods. Where I do give some leeway is with, obviously, tofu, and nut butters. There’s not a nut butter out there, unless they start making a chestnut butter—
Roseann: I LOVE chestnuts!
Rip: Well, you know, chestnuts are only 5% fat, but almost everything else is 80% fat. So I would say you have to decide what your goals are, and if your goal is to lose weight, if you’re unhealthy and you’ve got some issues going on, if you have heart disease or are Type II diabetic or something, you might want to limit your intake of tofu, nut butter, those foods. But for the most part, that 2.5 grams out of 100 calories is for canned and packaged goods. I don’t really count tofu in there.
Roseann: So if you don’t add any oil to your food, what do you put on potatoes?
Rip: I love potatoes cut up and baked as french fries, or mashed with a little soy milk and nutritional yeast. Sweet potatoes I eat plain.
Roseann: What about Daiya? Have you had it?
Rip: I have, I’ve definitely tried it. If I’m not mistaken, it’s 70% fat; it’s loaded with canola oil. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve not been eating cheese for so long that even though it’s not dairy per se, to me it tastes just like cheese, and I find it revolting.
Roseann: I have to say, when it first came out, I was addicted. I was eating so much of it, I think I just bottomed out. It was definitely nice to have a meltable “cheese” again, but it does feel almost as heavy and clogging as actual cheese.
Roseann: In the book you say to avoid refined, white flours and that mock meats are okay, but when you look at the wheat in fake meat, it isn’t whole grain, plus there’s added oil and salt. And I haven’t found any vegan ravioli made with whole grain pasta. In those cases, where the bad stuff is minimal—
Rip: Are you talking about gnocchi?
Roseann: No, I think you’d mentioned Full Moon Rising or another vegan ravioli, but I haven’t seen them with whole grain pasta; it’s always white. Is it okay to make allowances for that kind of stuff every once in a while?
Rip: Keep in mind that this book is basically for someone who’s transitioning from the Standard American Diet to a plant-strong diet. So in the book, yes, I have the Gimme Lean sausage and some of that other stuff, which to me is—you know, they’re not really healthy food products. But they help you transition before you find healthier alternatives. I can’t even remember the last time I had a piece of Gimme Lean. It’s been a long, long time.
I’ve been able to find some whole grain gnocchi that are great, very clean, with no oil or anything like that. And then pasta—you know, when you’re traveling or are out at restaurants, I tell people to just do the best they can. You’re probably not going to be able to get whole grain noodles, a lot of times you’re not going to be able to get a whole grain pizza crust, but do the best you can. And for sure don’t get cheese, get a clean marinara sauce and get tons of veggies on top.
Roseann: So if you don’t eat mock meats, what’s a typical lunch or dinner for you? Do you spend a lot of time cooking?
Rip: Lunch is leftovers or an open-faced kale, cucumber and tomato sandwich. For dinner, I eat all of the recipes in the book. I don’t spend much time cooking during the week, but on the weekends, yes.
Roseann: What’s the logic behind making the program 28 days long?
Rip: It’s just a hook to get people to do it and realize how good they feel and how they’re starting to take back not only their health but their palates, which have been hijacked by big food and big business. But to me, in 28 days, all kinds of incredible things can happen: cholesterol droppage, weight droppage, energy increase, the gastrointestinal tract humming along perfectly, headaches, kidney stones, acid reflux; the list goes on and on. And so my hope is that after 28 days, people will have a newfound relationship not only with food but also with themselves and their body. And while they may not continue to the extent that they have been for the 28 days, my hope is that they will be forever changed. I’m sure you know the numbers. Right now, about 5% of Americans’ calories come from fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans. If after 28 days of doing Engine 2 almost 100% you go back to 75%, you’re doing so much better than you were before.
Roseann: So are most people starting with the Cadet level (where different foods are given up week by week) and working up to Firefighter, or are most people jumping in with both feet?
Rip: I would say it’s probably 75% Firefighter, 25% Cadet. And you’d be surprised how many people jump in as Fire Cadet and then after a week they’re like, You know what? I want to be a Firefighter, screw this Cadet stuff.
Roseann: That old competitive spirit wins out every time!
Now, I’m vegan for ethical reasons, and when people who want to change their diet ask me what one thing they should give up first, from an ethical standpoint, I say give up dairy or eggs because more animals are harmed to make them. But typically people think, You give up meat, you go vegetarian for a while first—it’s how most of us did it; that’s how I did it. But in the book you start off in Week 1, for the Cadets, by taking out dairy and processed foods, before meat, eggs and oil. Why do you suggest that people do it in that order?
Rip: Good question, and I would answer it the same way you did. To me, dairy is the most ubiquitous thing; it’s so ever present in breakfast, lunch and dinner, whether it’s milk, butter, ice cream, sour cream, cottage cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese, cheese… If people are going to give up one thing, it should be all dairy. Plus, dairy is loaded with casein, which is such a tumor- and cancer-promoter. So even for health reasons, I would say dairy.
Roseann: That was what struck me when Mark Bittman came out with the whole vegan before six thing. I thought, You’re talking to people who eat eggs, bacon, sausage, French toast, pancakes, omelets with cheese, etc.; breakfast is the most difficult thing to eat well when you’re out because it’s so laden with animal products. There are a lot of options in your book, but coming from somebody like Bittman, a New York Times food writer who’s not providing real nutritional help, it shocked me. Unless you’re holding their hand the way you do, that’s a really difficult thing to ask people to do. I know I get frustrated when I go out for breakfast, because there aren’t any vegan places around here, so it’s like, All right, I’m going to have the fruit cup, maybe oatmeal, if they’ll make it with water instead of milk, maybe toast with jam. Not very exciting stuff. And that’s when people throw up their hands and say, I can’t do this, this isn’t living, this is no fun. It’s really challenging for them.
So do you go out for breakfast or brunch? What do you eat?
Rip: Sure do. I go out for breakfast tacos, pancakes, migas especiales, etc., at a number of different vegetarian, vegan and macrobiotic restaurants. And when I’m traveling I’ll step into a Starbucks and get oatmeal.
Roseann: And what do you think about the whole hegan movement—all these men who are hegans, because we have to label everything!
Rip: Well, I want you to know up front that you’re talking to the ultimate hegan!
Roseann: Well, I knew that!
Rip: I think it’s a very clever little term she came up with. She got a lot of good press out of it, that’s for sure. And I got contacted by Nightline to do a story about that.
Roseann: Can we find it online?
Rip: We haven’t done it yet. Hopefully it’ll happen sometime this year. But what do I think about it? I think it’s fun and entertaining.
Roseann: So the “plant-strong” terminology—is that just a way of making the idea of a vegan diet easier for people to digest, so to speak?
Rip: Yeah. To me, it’s very friendly, it’s not polarizing, it’s very inclusive, and it doesn’t back you into a corner. And it’s like, Hey, just do the best you can. If you’re eating more plants, your health is improving and America’s health is improving, good on ya. So I love “plant-strong.” And it’s also a great double entendre. You know, eat plant-strong, meaning eat more plants, and also, I’m plant-strong—I’m eating plants, and I’m strong. Real men eat plants.
Roseann: That’s right!
Rip: Somebody e-mailed me the other day saying that they love Engine 2, and when people ask them what it is, they say it’s a vegan diet with balls—a vegan diet with cojones.
Roseann: So is there an ethical component in it for you at all, or is it pretty much—because I know you eat honey. There are some vegans who eat honey—beegans, as we like to call them.
Rip: Beegans! That’s great.
Roseann: Hegans, beegans, vegans—there’s a whole soup of us. So is there an ethical component for you in being plant-strong, or is it just a healthier way of living?
Rip: Well, I think that for everybody it starts out one way, then it bleeds into the other areas, especially the more you truly live it. And I can tell you that I do it for all the reasons now: I do it for the planet, I do it for the animals, everything. The more you read, the more you educate yourself, the more you realize that we’d be so much better off across the board if people just started eating plants. The solution to so many things, to so many of the issues we’re having right now as a country, it’s so simple, yet everybody wants to complicate it. I like to say that, for example, with the health care crisis, the answer isn’t more legislation, it’s not more doctors, it’s not another pill, it’s not another procedure. It literally starts with what’s at the end of your fork. And if people would just look in the mirror and deepen their personal commitment to their health, man—by eating more plants, it’s crazy what we could do with the $2.3 trillion health care costs, 75% of which are related to five diseases that are all food-related.
Roseann: Except that we have this mentality of play now, pay later. Just give me a pill.
Rip: I was in Costa Rica not too long ago, actually about two weeks ago. And I was amazed—Costa Rica has the highest rate of literacy of any country on the planet, 98% literacy. 30% of their country is national parks, and it’s because in 1948, the leader abolished the army, just did away with it. They can afford to because they don’t have any huge mineral deposits or anything like that. But they did away with their army, and they put all their money into education and eco, and look where they are 60 years later. So if we were able to have some sort of leader or movement where America got behind the whole plant-strong, plant-based vegan movement in a similar way, it’s crazy what we could do.
Roseann: Absolutely. Dennis Kucinich—woohoo!
Rip: Go, Denny!
Roseann: Exactly! Well, you obviously have a lot on your plate, but are there plans for another book, or is something else coming down the pike?
Rip: Yes, yes, yes. I’m working on another two books, but I’m not going to tell you what they are yet! I can tell you that one is going to be pretty much exclusively recipes, and the other will be very exciting.
Roseann: Oh great, keep us in the dark! Are you going to write them with Gene again?
Rip: I think Gene will be helping me with one of them for sure, yeah.
Roseann: Well, this is all very exciting news. I’m so glad we finally had a chance to talk, Rip. Thank you very much.
Rip: And thank you. Have a nice plant-strong weekend!
Roseann: Okay. You too!