This Fireman Helped His Squad Go Vegan: 7 Years Later, They’re Plant Strong!
Rip Esselstyn is a triathlete, firefighter, the creator of the Plant-Strong program, and the best-selling author of The Engine 2 Diet. He sits down remotely with The Beet’s "Awesome Vegans" interviewer, Elysabeth Alfano, to dish on his diet, being featured in the movie The Game Changers and his experience as a vegan firefighter.
Vegan for almost 30 years, Rip was a full-time, world-class triathlete for over 8 years after competing for the Olympic swimming trials. During that time, plant-based foods allowed him to train harder and recover faster. It doesn’t hurt that Rip had a little bit of guidance from his father, the world-famous plant-based cardiologist who treated patients at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. You may know him from the documentary Forks Over Knives or as the world-renowned pioneer of reversing heart disease through a plant-based diet. Ok, so he had a head start. Still, Rip’s journey is a fascinating one.
After years as a plant-based athlete, in 1997 Rip became a firefighter in Austin, Texas. As a firefighter, he ended up mostly doing EMT assistance instead of running into burning buildings. The people he helped were usually in life-or-death situations because of health emergencies that arise from complications related to their diets. They dialed 911 in response to shortness of breath, fainting, or chest pain, but the underlying health conditions causing these symptoms were a combination of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease, in other words, all lifestyle-related illnesses. Sadly, by the time the EMT arrived on the scene, most people were beyond saving. This had a profound effect on Rip.
In a far-reaching interview, Rip shares with Elysabeth that he launched his Plant-Strong programs to help people lose the meat, dairy, and processed foods, in the hopes that they don’t find themselves calling 911 in distress. Making the connection to complications from COVID-19, Rip underscores that most of the people who are hospitalized or have died from the virus have had at least one preexisting health condition, such as heart disease, obesity or diabetes, all of which can be abated with a plant-based diet.
As Dr. Dean Ornish told The Beet with Elysabeth, 70% of our immune system resides in our gut. Eating a diverse amount of plants to get enough fiber creates a better immune system helping us fight and ward off disease. (It's not protein, people. It’s fiber!) And to be clear, Rip is a fiber expert: He recommends 30 different types of whole plants a week.
More than anything, Rip is probably best known for transitioning his entire squad of manly firefighters over to eating plant-based. As documented in The Game Changers, Rip challenged his tough guys of Engine 2 who were used to eating meat–but also who didn’t feel so great anymore–to go plant-based for 28 days. It led to them continuing that diet for seven years. Engine 2 became a plant-strong culture that people in the Austin firefighting community came to recognize. It created spillover into the firefighters’ families who saw them begin to gain their health and strength back due to a plant-based diet. Despite getting ridiculed initially by other fire stations in the area, the men of Engine 2 began to wear it as a badge of pride that they were healthier than the other stations. Plant-strong and proud of it!
Rip details his start to every day: his breakfast (lunch and dinner) of champions!
Elysabeth: I want to give people some insight into just what you eat every day. So, clue us in, tell us about that breakfast that has twelve different plants in it already.
Rip Esselstyn: Oh my gosh. Well, so I take my commercialized “Rip’s Big Bowl Cereal” that actually will be available online soon on our own website. That just in it of itself has four different varieties of whole-grain cereals. It’s got walnuts and then, with that, I microwave frozen blueberries, peaches, raspberries and blackberries. All these are frozen, and I throw them in the microwave for maybe thirty-five seconds. Throw that into my bowl and then I do a scoop of ground flaxseed meal, chia seeds, and hemp hearts. And then I do oat-based milk.
Elysabeth: So it’s sort of a smoothie?
Rip Esselstyn: Well, I just want you to know, your listeners aren’t going to like me for this, I’m not a fan of smoothies. We’re supposed to masticate our food. I mean your digestive process starts in the mouth when you chew, and I find that it’s just way too easy for people to take in liquid calories because our brain and our stomach don’t register those calories as calories.
One of the things that we do in our workshops and our immersion programs is we teach people why we want to chew our food and the predominant thing we want to drink is water, right? We don’t want to drink alcohol. We don’t want to drink smoothies. We don’t want to drink, you know, soda pops. We don’t want to drink, you know, muscle milk, protein shakes. All that stuff adds up and most Americans, believe it or not, Elysabeth, are drinking one thousand liquid calories a day. One thousand.
Elysabeth: In the form of Coca Cola or orange juice or?
Rip Esselstyn: All of it. Your smoothie, your green juice, your glass of alcohol, your apple juice, your coffee with sugar and creamer, you know it all adds up in a hurry.
Elysabeth: I’m just going add to this because you and I have similar breakfasts-although I am no Rip Esselstyn, that’s for sure. But I take tofu and I add hemp hearts, which I love, and then I add whatever berries I’ve got, usually raspberries, but blueberries or strawberries- whatever I’ve got, and a half a cup of raw oats. I love raw oats and a tablespoon of date syrup and it’s so fast. It’s got gobs of protein. It’s got fiber, it’s got omega 3s and 6s, and I just love it.
Rip Esselstyn: And so you put it in a bowl and eat it?
Rip Esselstyn: And then is tofu raw or is it cooked?
Rip Esselstyn: It’s raw. Is it an extra firm or is it firm?
Elysabeth: I like extra firm because I don’t want it to kind of fall apart on me. Soft tofu won’t fall apart, but it goes towards the creamier side and I want it to be chunky. And it’s fast, I mean this is another thing, I don’t have time in the morning for breakfast, so it has to be like go-go-go! You and I are on the same page about breakfast, which I just love.
Rip Esselstyn: Well, that sounds delicious and it sounds sweet which is, you know, right up my alley.
Also, I just learned, I have a podcast called the Plant-Strong Podcast, from Dr. Will Bulsiewicz right, who’s a gastroenterologist - he’s brilliant, was that 70% of our immune system resides in our gut. 70%! And what’s the best way to form a really strong, healthy, basically microbiome and gut? You’ve got to eat a diverse amount of plants to get all those different types of fiber. His recommendation and I’m going lay it out there right now, is if you’re not getting more than 30 different types of whole plant-based foods into your diet on a weekly basis you’re not getting enough, and that includes you know nuts, seeds, herbs, stuff like that. But I mean just in my breakfast cereal this morning I had twelve different types of whole plant-based foods.
Rip on Being an EMT rather than Fighting Fires.
Elysabeth: Of course, you did. I just want to backtrack a second because you have unpacked a lot of stuff and I want to make sure that people hear it. So, basically, you’re saying, you know, the numbers aren’t good out there for people. Not just those that have flatlined that you’re trying to save but obviously the rest of us that are eating these very unhealthy meat and dairy heavy diets. You haven’t said it exactly, but I think it really bares letting everyone know, and please don’t be embarrassed, listeners, because I didn’t know until I went vegan: meat has no fiber. You cannot have a healthy diet without fiber. We have these incredibly long intestines and when you eat something with no fiber, it just is going sit there for two or three days. This is the opposite of what you’re talking about which is a healthy diet including 30 different types of varied plants and fiber- whole plants, of course.
Rip Esselstyn: I can tell you as a firefighter, you know, I thought that every shift we’d be taking on a big ol’ barn burner, we’d be going in slaying the dragon. The reality is, and any firefighter will tell you this, 80 – 90% of our call volume we are responding as emergency first responders, as EMTs, given the huge amount of heart attacks, obesity, lifting assistance calls, low blood sugar from type 2 diabetes. You know, we have people take their medical history and we hear about all the shots across the boughs they’ve had with cancer, all about the medications they’re on, the prescription drugs. So, we see it up close and personal this chronic Western disease and how it’s hammering not only America, but, you know, each city and town in America.
"We would go on these 911 emergency calls for people that had chest pain, for people that had angina, for people that had shortness of breath, for people that actually had keeled over and they had flatlined and so now we’re pumping on their chest, you know, we’re intubating, we’re doing whatever we have to do to try and bring these guys back to life, and I can tell you the percentage is not very good. I probably tried to bring back over a hundred fifty people and of those one hundred fifty, I think we had three. Maybe three or four days where we were able to bring them back.
Elizabeth: Virtually everyone dies?
Rip Esselstyn: "When you get there and they’ve flatlined right, so they’re not breathing, they don’t have a pulse, you do everything you can, but usually it’s not good.
"So save yourself and put out your own fire: Get in 30 types of varied plants, whole grains, and seeds so you’ll never need to call in the vegan firefighters, no matter how sexy they might be.
For the full interview with Elysabeth, click here. To watch more Awesome Vegans Influencer Series, click here. Elysabeth Alfano is a plant-based expert for mainstream media, breaking down the plant-based health, food, culture, business and environmental news for the general public on radio and TV. Follow her @elysabethalfano on all platforms.