INTERVIEW: "The Engine 2 Diet" author and "Forks Over Knives" star Rip Esselstyn
Meal Ticket touched base with plant-based diet advocate Rip Esselstyn, author of 2009's best-selling The Engine 2 Diet and a featured subject of Forks Over Knives, to gain some insight into the film and the movement in general.
INTERVIEW: "The Engine 2 Diet" author and "Forks Over Knives" star Rip Esselstyn
In this week's CP food section, we told you about Forks Over Knives, a new documentary opening this weekend at the Ritz at the Bourse that advocates for a wholly plant-based diet as a means for Americans to combat chronic, widespread ailments such as diabetes and heart disease. Throughout the film, director Lee Fulkerson's two primary subjects, Drs. T. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., discuss in great medical detail the research that's led them to this conclusion, and we meet multiple individuals who've turned their health around for the better by cutting animal protein and dairy entirely out of their lives.
Meal Ticket touched base with plant-based diet advocate Rip Esselstyn, author of 2009's best-selling The Engine 2 Diet and a featured subject of Forks Over Knives (he is Dr. Esselstyn's son), to gain some insight into the film and the movement in general. Rip, a professional triathlete who up until last year worked as a EMT and firefighter in Austin, Texas, currently tours the country with Whole Foods, "spreading the plant-strong message." (He's hosting a screening at the Whole Foods location in Plymouth Meeting this evening.) We caught up with Rip on the phone last week as he ate lunch.
Meal Ticket: So what are you eating right now?
Rip Esselstyn: I am eating brown rice, on top of that some corn, some pinto beans … on the side, I’ve got a slaw of cabbage, kale, carrots and broccoli. Plant strong, baby.
MT: Growing up, did your family eat an entirely plant-based diet?
RE: No, we ate just like any other American family. We ate the trashy standard American diet in spades. BLTs, burgers, cheese pizzas. We would go to fast-food restaurants. Milk … although we always had skim milk, but milk out the wazoo. Everything changed in 1984, when my father started his research into reversing heart disease by eating this way. He decided, "If I'm going to ask patients to eat this way, we're going to eat this way, as well." So in 1984, mom and dad began eating this way.
At the time, I was off at college [at the University of Texas] from 1982 to 1986, eating at the athletic training table with the football players, basketball players, swim team. It was steak, chicken, burgers, just a lot of animal products, so I really didn't have the ability to [follow the diet]. I got exposed to it when I would come home for Thanksgiving, Christmas or parts of the summer. I didn't start eating this way full kale — I don't say full hog — when I started my career as a professional triathlete. I needed premium fuel, which was plants. I moved into my own place and I had a kitchen and fridge and all that stuff, and that’s when I started doing this very, very fulltime. That was in 1987. I didn't become a firefighter until 1997.
MT: The movie discusses the origins of the Engine 2 Diet, when you and your fellow firefighters made a bet to see who had the lowest cholesterol. After everyone was tested, you discovered one of your coworkers, JR, had an extremely high, deadly number …
RE: Yes, 344. You want to get it low — 150 is the number my father talks about. Just about anybody, once they start eating this way, can get that cholesterol down below 200. Two-ten to 230 is the average American — and the average American will have heart disease, 51 percent of us. It’s the number one risk. JR went from 344 to 196 in less than a month. That was basically the explosion that led to all the press and publicity and led to literary agents to contact me to write a book.
The guys [at my firehouse], we started eating that way in 2003. Austin is the 14th-largest city in the country now … we have over 1,000 firefighters in 44 stations. In 1997, when I joined, only one [him] out of 1,000 ate this way. In 2003, after we all basically rallied to save JR's life, now you’ve got six firefighters eating this way. Now, with the success of the Engine 2 Diet — [fellow firefighters] seeing one of their brothers on Good Morning America, or in Time and Newsweek — they think, "Maybe he's onto something." Now, in a culture that is so meat- and dairy-heavy, [a plant-based diet] is now accepted within the Austin Fire Department. It's been embraced, not ridiculed. It's very, very cool. There are hundreds of firefighters now that are eating plant strong. That's what I would like see in this country. Right now, you can eat whatever you want and nobody bats an eye. But if you even think about a pizza that doesn't have cheese on it, or has kale or something, it’s like, "What are you doing?" We need to get a society that embraces healthy living and healthy eating.
MT: But do you think it’s truly possible for this diet to catch on with a sizeable part of the American population?
RE: Absolutely. Look what happened with smoking cigarettes. People now know, 100 percent, that smoking cigarettes is not good for you. But in the '50s, '60s and '70s, when my parents would throw parties, they would put out ashtrays and go out and get cigarettes for the people that came. It was crazy. I think you can draw some similar parallels between dairy and meat, as to the truth about how these foods impact our health. It's a similar scenario. There are very, very powerful and very, very wealthy meat and dairy [industries], but make no mistake, lawsuits are going to be filed and more wealthy people are going to be getting behind this, and they're not going to let meat and dairy run this country into the ground. Just like what happened with Big Nicotine, this is going to happen with food. Milk does no body any good. They are making a claim that they cannot back up. It's basically false advertising and it needs to be taken down.
MT: The subjects of Forks Over Knives experience amazing health improvements by taking on a plant-diet diet. But are they just isolated success stories? Are there those who will not achieve such drastic results by taking on the diet?
RE: The problem is that nobody does it right. They always take little baby steps, and when you take baby steps, you get infantile results. If you make sweeping changes like everybody in this movie did — dropping all dairy, all meat, all processed and refined foods, all the good and none of the bad — the body responds so immediately, and quickly. The human body wants to be healthy. Just about everybody that does it right, they have these transformational results.
Dr. Neal Barnard with George Washington University has shown that within one month, he can basically get Type 2 diabetic patients off their insulin and off all their oral medications. A study at the University of California San Francisco showed that within three months, you can change your genetic expression by turning off cancer-promoting genes. Through food, my father's research shows that you can not just halt, but reverse heart disease. In 14 days, you can completely change the amount of blood flow to the heart, and the only thing you've changed is the food you’re eating. The list goes on and on.
The reality is it's a very, very simple thing — but people do chicken, or non-fat dairy or yogurt, or a little bit of a cheese. And it continues to contribute to it. People believe olive oil is heart-healthy … olive oil epitomizes the triumph of marketing over science. Let’s pick on olive oil for a second. Here’s a product that’s 100 percent fat, the most concentrated source of calories on the planet, and 14.5 percent is artery-clogging saturated fat. It has more empty calories than white sugar or white flour. Americans eat the standard American diet … [and] then they dip their bread in olive oil, pour it onto salad or put it in stir fries, and they somehow think that olive oil is now going to negate all the things they've done to contribute to heart disease. You should get your fats from healthy, whole-food sources — don’t get it from olive oil, get it from the olive.
MT: One big area of controversy for advocates of plant-based diets is the subject of children, and whether or not a plant-based diet is healthy for them as they're growing up. What is your take on this?
RE: I've got a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, and we started them both on a plant-based diet once they could start eating solid foods, a little over the age of 1. We’re the only mammals that drink other mammals’ excretions. Once you wean your son or daughter off their mother's breast milk, they don't need milk again. That milk was meant [to be consumed] during that period only — but we do a crazy thing, we start drinking another mammal’s milk.
Milk has the composition of protein, carbohydrates and fat for a reason [providing developmental sustenance to infants]. But did you know when you're drinking cow's milk, you’re getting three times the amount of protein that you need, and 87 percent of that protein is casein, the number one carcinogen in the American diet? Everything you need, after the age of 2, you can get from a plant-based diet. Dr. Benjamin Spock, I defer to him. He wrote the second best-selling book on the planet next to the Bible [The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care]. He says that after the age of 2, a plant-based diet is the best diet for all children.
By feeding children cheese and meat and all these other products, people are doing a great disservice to their children. … One in five kids under the age of 8 are now considered obese. Once people know the truth, they’re armed with the information. We’ve been so bamboozled, brainwashed and duped that it's mind-boggling to me. If we can get to about 10 percent of America trying to embrace this, [that is a] serious tipping point. We’ll start to see a society that embraces it.
MT: One point that comes up multiple times in Forks Over Knives is the long-standing belief that consuming meat is necessary to gain protein, and consuming dairy is necessary to gain calcium. What are some of the best non-animal-based sources of protein and calcium?
RE: I like to tell people if you’re breathing air, you're getting enough oxygen. If you're eating food, you're getting enough protein. Your average grain is, on the low end, 10 percent protein. The average bean is about 24 percent protein. The average vegetable is 25 percent protein. Green leafies, like collard greens and mustard greens, are 35 to 40 percent protein. Baby spinach is 51 percent protein. You can get all the amino acids or proteins from greens and grains. There’s no such thing as protein deficiency, it just doesn't exist. You're getting your protein from the mother source if you're eating plants.
Calcium is a mineral, so the best way [to get it] is also from the mother source. Many cows are grain-fed, and they’ll throw in calcium supplementation into the grains, so if you’re getting calcium from a cow, it’s a third-class inferior product. Milk is not a good source of retainable calcium. Your greatest absorbable calcium, as far as everyone’s concerned, is from greens and beans, right from the mother source.
MT: How much dietary responsibility lies with policymakers, and how much is in the hands of individual citizens? You strongly stress personal responsibility in the film.
RE: The problem right now is education. When most people hear this message, it strikes a chord with them. People aren’t to blame. The blame is that there’s no nutritional literacy in this country — people are nutritionally illiterate. We’re very, very fortunate right now that we’re living in the midst of the information era. It can’t stay hidden — the truth is going to surface. There will absolutely be an uprising in the people. People are going to be clamoring for this. We know the answer is not another pill, not another procedure. The answer, basically, is what’s at the end of your fork.
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