Talk to Rip Esselstyn for even a few minutes and it's impossible not to get fired up about plant-based diets and the possibility of a complete change in America's eating habits and health.
Rip is the former triathlete and firefighter who wrote the bestseller, "The Engine 2 Diet: The Texas Firefighter's 28-Day Save-Your-Life Plan That Lowers Cholesterol and Burns Away the Pounds."
He's now on a mission, working with Whole Foods Market and its Health Starts Here Healthy Eating Initiative program to share his "PlantStrong™" message to a nationwide audience, educating Whole Foods' team members, customers and community members on how to adopt a plant-smart diet comprised of whole grains, beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
"Basically, I tell people we want to avoid anything with a face and anything with a mother," Rip told me in a recent conversation. Those foods "unfortunately contain the three big building blocks that promote disease: animal fat, animal protein and animal cholesterol."
Rip knows getting the plant-based message across to others means overcoming some resistance.
"I tell people, right now we have a country that is plant-weak. If you were to look at caloric pie of how Americans eat, close to 60 percent of America's calories are coming from refined and processed foods. You know, the white stuff: the fried chips, the soda pop, fruit juices, doughnuts and cakes. Almost 30 percent comes from animal products: all dairy, all meat. And only 10 percent is coming from plants and half of what is coming from plants is coming from French-fried potatoes! So really only 5 percent is coming from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and a limited amount of nuts and seeds."
Rip wants to raise that 5 percent to "50 percent or 75 percent or whatever makes sense in your life," and recommends following the four pillars of Healthy Eating outlined by Whole Foods Market:
1. Be "PlantStrong," with raw and cooked veggies, fruits, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
2. Eat whole foods that are fresh, local, organic, seasonal and unprocessed instead of refined, highly processed and filled with artificial flavors and colors, preservatives, sweeteners and hydrogenated fats.
3. Get healthy fats from plants, such as nuts and avocados. Avoid oils and processed fats and, if you eat animal products, make sure that they're lean meats, seafood and low-fat dairy products.
4. Make sure your foods are nutrient-dense, with a high level of nutrients compared to calories. Look for your food to provide a variety of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants.
Rip coined and trademarked the phrase "PlantStrong" which Whole Foods adopted as one of their pillars. To me, it sounds like Lance Armstrong's cancer-fighting "Livestrong" phrase, combined with the message that a plant-based diet will make you stronger in so many ways.
"It's very inclusive," Rip says. "I don't use the terms that make people want to run in the opposite direction, like 'vegetarian' or 'vegan.' I stay away from using those terms and I use 'plant-strong' because I think it's inclusive inviting."
He's convinced that if people give him just 28 days, he can change their lives permanently. "The reason why I've come up with 28 days, Meg, is that it's not forever. They can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and this way it's my hook to at least get people to try it. Committing a month to eating plant-based, they'll have a newfound awareness of food and their relationship with food, and realize that, 'OMG, I'm not going to disappear and I'm not going to melt away when I don't have my meat.' In fact, life goes on and it goes on even better than before." After those four weeks, Rip says, people can decide just how plant-strong they want to be. Rip recently got a chance to put that into practice in Mercersburg, Pa., where he went to high school. A doctor in town saw an article about Rip's new book in the Mercersburg Academy alumni magazine and she invited him to come back to town to help her lead a community health makeover.
"The doctor said, 'We are just swimming with obesity and Type 2 diabetes and heart disease and would love it if you'd come and start planting seeds and help get these conversations about health and diet initiated,' " Rip says.
So, he talked to young schoolchildren, high school students, businesspeople and factory workers and more than 100 people agreed to take his Engine 2 28-day challenge. Local restaurants got into the act, too, offering "Engine 2 Plant-Strong" dishes. "The local tavern, yeah, they made the most amazing, different Engine 2 Plant-Strong options. I was blown away. Mercersburg -- a little town in south-central Pennsylvania -- I'm telling you, they rocked it!
"And when I came back 28 days later for the graduation ceremony, people's cholesterol had dropped 20, 30, and 40 percent and we had people that lost up to 37 pounds in 28 days! A lot of other things people reported, like acid reflux, went away. IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) went away. Constipation went away. Kidney stones went away," he says. "Their collective efforts to take action toward healthy, plant-based eating could be a model for small towns all over America."
It also reminded Rip of a simple truth. "People just don't realize how much power sits at the end of your fork."
For more information about The Engine 2 Diet, please visit Rip's website.
Would you consider trying Rip Esselstyn's Engine-2 plan? Do you already follow a plant-based way of eating? Tell me about your experiences. I'd love to hear from you!