The Fireman Behind The Engine 2 Diet
By Melissa Bryant
South Florida Opulence sat down with Rip Esselstyn, a former firefighter turned healthy-eating activist, to hear firsthand how he convinced a group of Texan firemen to eliminate eggs, dairy, animal products, and processed foods from their diet.
“The Engine 2 Diet originated at a firehouse in Austin, Texas, of all the crazy places,” said Rip. Ironically, his Save-Your-Life eating plan began with the fight for another man’s life.
The Chilling Story
It all began on a quiet winter evening at Central Station, a firehouse in Woodlands, Texas, jokingly referred to as the “Animal House” because of bizarre antics for which the men were notorious. The heavy box alarm sounded at 4:20 a.m., alerting firefighters that a local building was burning.
Rip’s senses went into overdrive as he prepared for the worst – an adrenaline rush not unlike the start of an athletic competition. When the firemen of Engine 2 arrived on scene, they were told the apartment fire was already extinguished. But Rip’s good friend and fellow firefighter, Josh Miller, wasn’t convinced the danger was over. He told Rip to put on his bunker gear when – moments later – the building exploded into flames wildly more virulent than Rip had ever witnessed. He and fellow firefighter Alphonso “Ax” Dellert raced into the inferno, following the screams of a victim, “Help me, I’m burning!”
Rip and Ax surmised the cries were coming from a room off the balcony, so they raced up a ladder. There they found Fire Captain John Butz lying paralyzed on the apartment floor. The explosion had flung him across the room where he lay crying out for help. Ax and Captain Butz narrowly escaped the fire by following Rip’s shadowy silhouette waving in front of the window signaling escape.
This terrifying real-life drama proved an epiphany for Rip. “We can’t take anything for granted – especially our health,” Rip thought. He decided it was time to take action in another important issue besides fighting fires.
The Intriguing Challenge: Good Nutrition
An All-American swimmer in college and world-class triathlete, Rip was not one to turn down a challenge. He relished friendly competitions at the Engine 2 firehouse. Tussles ranging from ping-pong matches to climbing the fire pole without using their feet kept the burly firefighters entertained in-between calls.
So in 2003, it’s no wonder that a conversation about cholesterol among fellow firefighters quickly turned into a competitive challenge. Rip and James “JR” Rae and Josh decided to make a contest out of who had the lowest cholesterol level. Rip focused on winning. He knew from a young age – having grown up with a cardiologist father – that a low cholesterol level (less than 200 mg/dL) was heart-healthy. He felt certain his cholesterol level was the lowest among the competing firefighters.
The next morning, Rip and his friends went to the pharmacy to test their cholesterol levels and were blindsided – not from the fact that Rip did not win (his cholesterol level was 199 and Josh’s was 168), but because JR’s was a walloping 344! He was virtually a walking time bomb.
From that moment, instead of fighting a fire, the two men were put in a battle to save a friend’s life. A battle caused by a poor diet. “The standard American diet is loaded with deleterious things. According to USDA Economic Council, 94 percent of American’s calories come from a combination of processed and refined foods – which prove little more than empty calories virtually stripped of vitamins, minerals and fiber.”
The Engine 2 Diet
After the cholesterol scare, the Engine 2 firemen implemented a plant-based eating schedule during their 24-hour shift. Rip formed the basis of the diet from findings in his father’s 12-year research study showing a plant-based diet significantly reduces heart disease risk. The eating plan eliminates dairy products and meat, as well as processed and refined foods. “Right now, only about 6 percent of the average American’s diet comes from fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans – but that’s the mother source right there.”
Rip no longer fights house fires, but he does fight another danger: an unhealthy diet. Using his father’s dietary research, along with data from two additional studies Rip initiated himself, the firefighter has written two books: The Engine 2 Diet and My Beef with Meat. He is the Healthy Eating Ambassador for Whole Foods Market, and he currently travels the country educating others on how they can improve their health through good nutrition.
A Manly Man’s Diet
It’s no small feat to give up meat, eggs, seafood, dairy, and processed and refined foods even when you are aware of their hazardous effects. In fact, giving up those “manly” foods has made the brawny firefighter the butt of an occasional joke – which he gladly lets roll right off. “If you’re ready to give up a few things to embrace a healthy lifestyle where people are gonna make fun of you, then the Engine 2 diet is for you.”
Want to eat like Rip? SFO asked Rip about his favorite E2 recipes. “The first recipe in the book, “Rip’s Big Bowl,” has been my mainstay breakfast for the last 25 years,” Rip said. “My other favorite is the Sweet Potato Lasagna, which my wife and I served to 150 guests at our wedding.”
“Raise the Roof” sweet potato vegetarian lasagna
• 1 onion, chopped
• 1 small head of garlic, all cloves chopped or pressed
• 8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
• 1 head broccoli, chopped
• 2 carrots, chopped
• 2 red bell peppers, seeded and chopped
• 1 can corn, rinsed and drained
• 1 package Silken Lite tofu
• ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
• 1 teaspoon oregano
• 1 teaspoon basil
• 1 teaspoon rosemary
• 2 jars pasta sauce
• 2 boxes whole grain lasagna noodles
• 16 ounces frozen spinach, thawed and drained
• 2 sweet potatoes, cooked and mashed
• 6 roma tomatoes, sliced thin
• 1 cup raw cashews, ground
Preparation: Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.
Pre-heat oven to 400°. Sauté onion and garlic on high heat for 3 minutes in a wok or nonstick pan. Add mushrooms and cook until onions are limp and mushrooms release liquid. Transfer to a large bowl. Reserve mushroom liquid in pan. Sauté broccoli and corn until softened. Add to the bowl. Drain the tofu by wrapping in paper towels. Break it up directly in the towel and mix into bowl. Add spices and mix.
To assemble the vegetable lasagna:
Cover the bottom of a 9×13 inch casserole with a layer of sauce. Add a layer of noodles. Cover the noodles with sauce. Spread vegetable mixture over sauced noodles. Cover with a layer of noodles and another layer of sauce. Add spinach to the second layer of sauced noodles. Cover spinach with mashed sweet potatoes. Add another layer of sauce, the final layer of noodles, and a last topping of sauce. Cover lasagna with thinly sliced roma tomatoes. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil, sprinkle with cashews, and return to the oven for 15 minutes. Let lasagna sit for 15 minutes before serving. Makes 10 – 12 servings of sweet potato lasagna.