Have you heard this guy’s story? Rip Esselstyn, award winning triathlete turned firefighter, and now plant eating crusader, was concerned for the physical fitness of his comrades at Engine 2 Firestation in Austin, Texas. When he discovered the leading cause of early deaths among his fellow firefighters was heart disease, Rip embraced a mission of transforming his co-workers’ daily eating habits. He professed that eating vegetables, legumes, fresh fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds would not only reverse the trajectory of heart issues, but provide a cure for those that suffered heart attacks. Unmercifully, cholesterol culprits such as ice cream, butter, steak, milk, and all processed foods were banned from the Engine 2 kitchen. Rip led his friends at the station to a whole new way of thinking about food with a whole food plant based way of eating.
The firefighters who signed on to his meal plans received many health benefits, from weight loss to lower blood pressure, to more energy and positive cholesterol numbers. In his book, Rip backs up their stories with science and stats. Because I have zero experience and education in the world of a physician, I often have more questions than answers. Besides, the paleo people, the metabolism miracle folks, and Weight Watchers et al all have their seemingly just justifications. Each believe their diet is THE answer. So to whom do you listen?
For me, more important than believing in the latest book is listening to a doctor that I trust. A few years ago I consulted with a functional and integrative specialist who prescribed the Mediterranean diet: low-fat, complex carbs, lots of plants. Like Rip’s followers, I experienced success in lowering LDL cholesterol numbers through eating more fruits and vegetables. My total cholesterol came down sixty points and I lost a few pounds. My doctor and I were pleased, but my numbers wouldn’t satisfy Rip. His total cholesterol target for his clients is 150. Mine hovered around 200. Hmmmm….
Unlike the E2, on the Mediterranean I can eat chicken or fish twice a week and have a scant amount of oil/butter each day. So it’s not quite as radical as eating what Rip calls a “plant strong” diet, in which all meat and dairy are forbidden. Rip gets pretty snarky about milk, perjoratively calling it liquid meat. Yuk. To my surprise, he outlines problems with all oils, even coconut and olive. Smoothies are out because it’s better to “chew your calories.” Forget fish oil because it can break down and release disease causing free radicals.
Speaking of radical, I think many Americans would reject his teachings. In fact, his opening remarks in the front piece of his book address that the dismissal of his plan is more often than not. But I do find the evidence he uses to back his claims at the very least curious and often compelling.
While I occasionally eat other foods besides what grows in the ground (especially when I am at church, darn those dessert tables), what I like best about plant based meals is that I can eat until I am full. I don’t have to measure my portions or count anything. And I’m finally giving attention to those lonelier spices from my cupboard because bean, grains, and vegetable dishes are boring without them. Plus, this way of eating adds fiber which benefits my digestive system, if you get my drift. I feel good and I (finally) lose weight pretty easily.
What I like about Rip’s book is his discussion on the impact of food on health, a section on exercises I can do at home, and recipes with ingredients that aren’t foreign to me. I appreciate the anecdotes of healing that are sprinkled throughout the book. I learned something new about reading food packaging labels and the science behind the Engine2 Diet.
So is the tide turning? Are Americans moving away from the Standard American Diet? (Read: fast food, sugary drinks, and lots of meat.) Are more plant based foods making it onto the dinner plate? It’s a mixed bag in my circle of family and friends. My daughter is an excellent scratch cook and integrates a lot of whole foods into her meal planning. One of my sons is dedicated to adding nutrient filled foods to his diet and the other eats platefuls of vegetables most meals. On the other hand, I find myself in many social situations around a dinner table where high fat and processed foods are the norm.
What the food industry promotes is a mixed bag, as well. Perhaps paleo really is the answer, or counting carbs, or the “everything in moderation” philosophy, or eliminating grains, or, or, or. Perhaps what’s good for you isn’t good for me.
I guess only time, and our health, will tell.