Mad Cowboy Interview 07: Rip Esselstyn
(Part 01 of 02)



M:  "Let's start with the obligatory summery of your background.  How you got to where you are and so on..."


R:  "I come from an amazing line of ground-breaking thinkers and doers.  However, I was never compelled, for whatever reason, to go into Medicine like my father and grandfather and great-grandfather.  I was always drawn to Athletics.  That was the area I excelled in.  I went to the University of Texas on a swimming scholarship and swam there for four years.  I was a three-time All-American, I went to the Olympic Trials, was a two-time National Champion, and then I graduated.  Instead of getting a "nine to five job" I decided to go into Triathlons full-time, and I did that for almost eleven years, and I actually did this eating a "plant strong diet." 


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M:  "Were you always a vegan?"


R:  "Absolutely not!  The whole family would eat anything, except for white bread and soda pop, those were the only things never allowed in our household.  Everything else was okay, up until about 1984 or '85.  Then once my father started his study, showing that you could reverse and even halt heart disease, we as a family went to all plant-based food."


M:  "Was this difficult?  How do you take a whole family and convince them to eat only plant-based foods?"


R:  "Well, my father has always been interested in studying cultures that don't have disease.  I can remember him way back in the 70s studying the Eskimos and reading about vitamins B6, B12, and some other things.  Do when he decided to do this study [his father's website], it wasn't much of a surprise to the family, we are very very supportive, and I don't think anybody was "up in arms" or "upset" about it.  Keep in mind that I'd already gone off to college, so it was when I came home for the holidays or would visit, that I was exposed it.  I didn't graduate until December of 1986, so I was exposed to the diet in small doses for two or three years, and it wasn't until I graduated from college that I decided to "jump in full time."  I've been doing it since 1987.


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M:  "What led you to become a firefighter?"


R:   "Well, I got really spoiled traveling the world, competing, getting on an airplane at least once or twice a month, and it was an amazing adrenaline rush... going up to the Starting Line and then racing for prize money, a lot of these events are televised, and the thought of working a "nine to five" job behind a desk was just an excruciatingly painful thought.  Almost to the point where I thought I'd be dying a slow death."


Seriously, it's almost like you take an animal from the wild and put him in a cage.  There was this fear that this wasn't going to work with my personality and what I wanted. I had some Triathlete firefighter friends that said, "'Know what?  You'd love firefighting. It's awesome.You do good deeds, usually five to fifteen a shift, it's like a big ol' slumber party, and it's just a ball." Anyway, it sounded intriguing to me, but it took me three years to get hired by the Fire Department.  It's incredibly competitive."


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M:  "There were two things that got me wondering about your motivations when reading your book.  (1) You point out that the career with the greatest incidences of heart attacks is firefighting, and (2) that your own grandfather diet of heart disease in 1975.  Did this all work together to convince you that you could put together this opus?"


R:  "In some ways I feel like I've been primed my whole life for this moment in time.  To write this book, to be a different type of messenger of this plant-based or "plant strong" message.  I'm not a doctor, I'm not a nutritionist, I'm coming at it from a completely different perspective or angle.  I think it's one that will enable me to get people that never even bothered to listen to this message and turn their ear and get them to listen."

M:  "I've been talking with some friends and acquaintances about your book, work, and that I'd be interviewing you, and I've been taken aback by how many people (even those I meet in stores) who know about you!  Is this in part due to the "mystique" surrounding being a firefighter?"

R:  "Being a firefighter is a wonderful platform for shouting this message.  The fact that, by and large, firefighters have a fantastic reputation with the public... we're servants and we're prepared to get out there and risk our lives to save people.  After 9/11, which is so incredibly tragic, over 340 firefighters lost their lives.  It elevated the "firefighter mystique" and reputation to a whole new level."

M:  "You mentioned "shouting your message" and I have to laugh, noting that you are definitely not subtle in your book."

R:  "...neither is Howard!"

M:  (laughing)  "Touche!"

R:  "He tells it like he sees it.  It's intense."

M:  (still laughing)

R:  "One of the things I talk about in the book, and one of the things I honestly feel, is that there's almost nothing as gratifying in life as helping somebody out.  And I've been helping people out with this diet, literally since 1988, when after a year, I just knew that this was the truth and the right thing.  I started sharing the message and people would come to me.  I've been helping people, on and off... athletes to firefighters to friends and neighbors, family members, for a long time, so when the opportunity presented itself to write this book, and the fact that I could get out there and in one fell swoop, by writing a book, and help potentially thousands and thousands of Americans without having to wear my fireman's boots, it was just a dream come true."

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M:  "How would you best summarize your book?"

R:  "Well, it's broken up into three sections.  The first section is primarily "why you want to eat a plant-strong diet.  The second part of the book is "how," where I go into attitude, a lot of the basics --- what you'll need to eat this way in a society that makes it very difficult to eat this way.  Then, in the last section of the book there's over 120 mouth-watering recipes that make this a reality.  And when you get down to it, it's so simple... it's just about eating these plant strong, plant delicious foods."

M:  "I've read your book twice (and have been following your father's diet recommendations for about two years now), and you cover more than just diet.  It's really comprehensive.  You cover exercise, reading labels, recipes, theory, motivation, kitchen utensils, stocking up the pantry, eating out, weekly planner... it's the kind of book I would have "killed" for back in the mid-1980s when I first discovered Dr. Dean Ornish's work.  I mean, it's an incredible "one stop shop" and I don't think I've seen anything as complete as this."

R:  "Another thing I tried to do is make it an exciting read, so that's why I have a lot of fire stories.  I start the book with this riveting fire I made in 2000."

M:  "It's really fascinating in how you tie in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, with saving people in fires."

R:  "And then I have a whole section on diseases and the medical proof behind eating this way.  I go into each disease, and with each disease I try to tell a story about us helping out a Type II Diabetic, about us doing CPR on a heart patient, about us having to move a 550 lb. out of their bed and into an ambulance --- how do you go about doing that?  And I sprinkle throughout the book all kinds of what I think are fun and interesting testimonials from different pilot study participants that I had, that actually agreed to eat a plant-based diet for six weeks, and I took all kinds of before and after markers.  That was a whole other aspect that, to me, added a richness and depth to this book that, after writing it,  I can't imagine writing the book without having done the two pilot studies."

M:  "It almost seems autobiographical at times, and as you just now talked about your approach, I remembered the movie "Backdraft" by Ron Howard, and thinking maybe he should "option" your life for a movie!  It's almost like a documentary and it could be done."

R:  (laughs)

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M:  "I'm curious... how did you come up with the phrase "plant strong?"

R:  "I just have always thought that "plant based" sounded boring.  It's an accurate description, but I wanted to add flavor and character to eating this way, and so I was just sort of playing around one day with my writing and I said, "I eat a plant power,"  "I eat a plant savvy," "plant smart," "plant brilliant," and then "plant strong."  When I said it, it just clicked."

M:  "It's very effective, and although I use "plant based" a lot, it really hit me that it does lack the power of "plant strong."  Now, you told me in an earlier that that you're trademarking the phrase?"

R:  "That's correct.  I trademarked it, and I own "plantstrong.com, plantstrong.net, plantstrong.org....""

M:  "Wonderful!  Now, you break up your health program into "Fire Cadets" and "Fire Fighters."  The Cadets are not vegan, initially, and the Fire Fighters jump right in, doing the "full vegan."  Have you gotten a lot of flack from the vegan community about this?"

R:  "No, I haven't, or at least not yet.  And you bring up another point.  If you notice, I never use the term "vegan" in the book, unless it's in a quote that someone else has used."

M:  "Yup, caught that."

R:  "I intentionally stay away from "vegan" or even "vegetarian" as they are not accurate descriptors of what the plant strong diet is:  "a whole food nutrient-rich plant strong diet.""

M:  "I'd almost call it a "plant strong lifestyle."

R:  "Yes.  To me, "vegan" is kind of a loaded term."

M:  "It has a lot associated with it."

R:  "I think if I was to say "Hey, I want you to try this vegan diet" I would get a lot of people that would all of a sudden just turn away.  They wouldn't be interested.  But if I say, "Hey!  This is revolutionary plant strong eating program, where you can lose weight and you can find your perfect health,"  it's a big difference."

To get back to your original question about Cadets vs. Fire Fighters, at the end of both 28 day programs, they both are pretty close to being "plant perfect."  My whole thing is after the 28 days, YOU decide to what extent you want to be plant strong moving forward.  So you're winning, your health is winning, America's health is winning, as opposed to  veganism, where if you have a little of that, let's say a brownie with milk in it, all of a sudden "you've cheated" and it's almost like you were kicked out of the club.  I don't want people to think they have to be perfect, you just have to be doing your best, being plant strong,  and you're winning, we welcome you on board, and "go get 'em."

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M:  "I'm curious... why did you choose four weeks?"

R:  "I initially did six weeks for a pilot study and what I was finding, is that in as little as two weeks, people's cholesterol levels were pretty much hitting rock bottom.  They weren't getting much lower at four and then six weeks later.  For that reason, I felt that four weeks was  adequate.  Obviously, people aren't going to lose as much weight, but I felt that six weeks would turn some people off and so 28 days was kind of the "hook" that I felt would have people saying, "You know what? I can do 28 days."  And then, with hoping that they'd then continue it for the rest of their life."

M:  "The time period puzzled me some, as your father told me in the interview I did with him, that it would take 8 to 13 or so weeks to lose craving for fat, and I've seen him use slightly more and less numbers, I guess it's an estimate.  Do you find that people start to lose that craving or is it still a problem?"

R:  "I can't tell you how many people tell me, "You know what?  I don't crave the cheese, or I don't crave the meat."  People still, sometimes, will crave the sweets.  But in trying to get this message out to the mass audience, I wasn't going to ask people to do it for two or three months."

M:  "I was originally skeptical, a lot of people laughed at the idea, yet I really got to the point where I didn't crave what you so aptly call, "synthetic goo.  You have quite a way with words... referring to refined sugar, oil, and flour as "third-class foods."  Just fantastic."

R:  "That's right, going from second- and third-class foods to first-class foods."

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M:  "You also surprised me in the book in that you suggested the first thing to give up is cheese.  That's what Howard also recommends.  Why is this?"

R:  "To me it wasn't just cheese, it was all dairy.  One reason is that it's the number one source of saturated fat in the American Diet.  Another is that, for me, dairy is so ubiquitous in people's diets.  And so it was a little bit arbitrary, but between milk and butter and yogurt and sour cream and cheese (Americans put cheese over everything), so I just decided if you're a "Fire Cadet" the first thing you give up is dairy."

M:  "Some people recommend, from a task management standpoint, that doing the hardest task first is often a good idea.  Most people have a real tough time giving up dairy.  So many vegetarians just can't let it go."

R:  "That was also behind my thinking, that dairy would be the hardest to remove from your diet."

M:  "You also put together a terrific chart of "good" dietary choices vs. "bad ones."  It's wonderful to see how much information you make easily accessible throughout the book on many levels."

R:  "It was a labor of love over two years."

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