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


M:  "How do you deal with the "a little bit won't hurt" and "moderation is okay" whines?"

R:   "That's why, in the book, I have people for 28 days, unless they're doing the Fire Cadet program.  One of the things I've found, is that most people, by giving them an option (Fire Cadet or Firefighter), it's empowering, and after one week, people who chose "Fire Cadet" try to jump in and do the Fire Fighter program.  My point is that I ask people, for 28 days, to be as plant perfect as possible.  I'm hoping that after that, instead of 7% of their calories coming from whole food nutrient-rich plant sources, now it's upwards of 50, 60, 75, 90 per cent, which is a vast improvement.

As far as the moderation thing, if somebody's goal is to stave off heart disease, and their trying to halt or reverse heart disease, if they're Type II Diabetic (it runs in the family), they're overweight, or other disorders, the whole moderation thing just doesn't work for them."

M:  "Yeah, it one of those issues that your father hit head on.  Arresting heart disease was his main motivation."

R:  "With my Dad, that message is perfect.  Depending upon whom I'm speaking to, I'll hit the moderation.  I was speaking to a group of firefighters the other day, and a guy asked me: "How much red meat can I have a week?  Isn't everything in moderation fine?"  I'm like, no, you know what? The whole phrase "everything in moderation" is why we're in such dire straits right now in this country.

One of the things about "Engine 2 Diet" is that what Howard is doing, my father's doing, and McDougall, Ornish and Fuhrman are doing, is we're trying to create a whole new paradigm in health and weight loss.  To me, every other diet program out there concentrates solely on the outside of your body instead of what's inside your body.  To me, we're creating beauty from the inside out."

M:  "In your book, you also list a bunch of the myths of a plant strong diet.  What would you say is the biggest one amongst these myths?"

R:  "I'd have to say the biggest one is protein.  I get asked about that at least twice a day.  I just say that if your consuming enough calories you never have to worry about getting enough protein."

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M:  "You've got a fairly detailed exercise program in your book.  How did you design it all?"

R:  "I pretty much developed it at the Fire Station.  I'd never really been a fan of free weights and dumbbells, and I wanted to come up with a program that anyone can do in their home, in the park, in a hotel room... you don't need a gym membership, you don't have to spend a lot of money.  These are all easy exercises, anywhere from beginners to advanced, anyone can do these, and it's all body weight strength exercises.  Each round follows the same routine, which is the first thing we hit is the legs, the largest muscle group of the body, the we're going to hit the arms, then the core, a little cardiovascular routine to get the heart rate up, and three rounds of that, and by the end, you are beautifully taxed.

I also start the program with a series of six very simple stretches just to warm up the body." 

M:  "Speaking of beautiful, who's the women your exercising with in all the explanatory photographs?"

R:  "That's actually a 48 year old friend of mine named "Ann," who is plant strong and the envy of a lot of women."

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M:  "This was your first major media tour to promote the book.  What were some of the outlets and shows you did?"

R:  "I had a lot of great media locally, initially.  It was dynamic.  Then, the Today Show, and a great interview with the Wall Street Journal... it was 3 minutes and every answer I gave was under 12 seconds.  I've done all the local NBC and ABC stations here in Austin, in San Antonio, Dallas...  I've done the whole whirlwind tour throughout Texas and the newspapers, radio, the local television spots.  I recently did a national radio/media tour, where probably close to 25 radio stations and I did 10 to 15 minute interviews with each of them.  It was intense.  Then, about three weeks ago, the CBS Sunday Morning television show, with Charles Osgood, came and they filmed for about five hours at the Fire Station.  That's going to air in late April/early May.  They're hoping to make that the feature story of the show.  And next week, I'll be on the CBS Early Show, which is kind of the equivalent of the Today Show but on CBS. "

M:  "What was the general reception to you, your message, and your book on the Tour?"

R:  "I'm finding that just about everybody is incredibly receptive to it.  What I tell people is that as a Firefighter, yes I fight fire, but what I fight every day is Chronic Western Disease in all it's shapes and forms, and 70% of our calls are responding to this.  It is in my face, it is in my face every shift."

M:  "You bring this up in the book.  In a real sense you're taking your lifesaving skills and applying them closer to the source of the problems."

R:  "It's like, if you could ride out with me on a shift, and see what I see... just now, in my last shift, we did three Type II Diabetes patients whose blood sugar had gotten too low, so we had to give them oral glucose and bring them back and get them some real food so that their blood sugar would stabilize.  Then we met a guy who had serious chest pains, he hadn't had a heart attack yet but he was in all kinds of distress.  And that was just my last shift.  The shift before that we met a guy who'd had a stroke.  We were called for "moving assistance" where we had to help move this 400 lb. guy.

When you see this again and again and again, it's up close an personal how much trouble America is in, and I can tell you Austin is no different than any other city.

So I think when people hear my message, the hear a certain honesty and truth.  And I say our health care costs in the country are 2.1 trillion dollars and 75% of that $2.1 trillion is from only five diseases that are completely or either preventable or reversible through a plant strong diet.  Those are heart disease, obesity, diabetes, prostate cancer, and breast cancer.  And that's 75% of our annual health care cost right there."

M:  "I think I agree with your father that the first three are essentially one disease."

R:  "I love the concept that these are all different faces of the same disease."

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M:  "Do you get flack from meat-eating firefighters?"

R:  "Oh yeah..."

M:  "You still do??"

R:  "It's atrocious.  It will probably never end.  I traveled just the other day to Central Fire Station, which is the "Animal House" of fire departments.  I think there's 15 guys assigned to this station, and they were making these one pound hamburgers with a quarter inch of Philadelphia Cream Cheese on top with jalapenos, and then, bacon.  And the buns were grilled with butter on top.  Yet these guys were telling me, "Oh, look what you're missing..." and "Oh, a real man eats this kind of stuff, " this is what you need in your blood to fight fire.

Then another guy told me his brother was diagnosed with gout and the doctor said he couldn't eat red meat or drink alcohol any longer, and he said, "my brother has been neutered.  He's no longer a man."  

M:  (laughing)... "Okay, moving on.  Howard posed the following question for you:  "Rip, you've been put in charge of the Houston Fire Department.   Would you mandate certain cholesterol levels or diet?"

R:  "Well, for these guys, money talks.  So listen you guys, we're going to have performance incentives based upon weight, based upon cholesterol levels,  based upon some of the vital signs I mention in the book, and when you can get these numbers down there, you're going to get an added bonus of $250 to $500 dollars a month.  Right then and there, they would do it."

M:  "Very clever.

R:  "I wouldn't mandate it, because you'd get all kinds of backlash, so I would make it an option that if you want to be eligible for these bonuses, then you need to meet this criteria."

M:  "How did you meet Lance Armstrong?

R:  "I met Lance in 1988 in the Bermuda National Triathlon, and he was a fifteen-year old punk who, ah, beat me.  I was a 24 year old who'd just gotten into the sport.  But he was a "phenom" back then.  We talked after the race and developed a friendship.  I've known Lance ever since."

M:  "Is he plant strong?"

R:  "Lance is plant strong, but by no means "plant perfect."  He's solicited me on many occasions for help with his diet."

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M:  "Okay, now here's the question that immediately comes to everyone's mind:  How did you get your first name?"

R:   "Well, we have a family farm in upper state New York that's right near the Catskills Mountain Range.  This farm has been in the Esselstyn family since the mid 1600s.  My parents were visiting my Dad's parents who were living on the Farm in 1963, and I decided to come out a month and a half premature.  My grandfather had started a clinic right nearby called the "Rip Van Winkle Clinic" in the late 1950s and Irving (who wrote the "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle") grew up in the town right next to Hudson and so in that area you have the "Rip Van Winkle Bridge" and the "Rip Van Winkle Clinic."  So, on day two or three they decided to nickname me "Rip." 


M:  "Well, I think you're very lucky.  "Winkle Esselstyn" wouldn't have near the impact of "Rip!"  

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M:  "Okay, time for some fun questions:  your favorite dietary indulgence?"

R:  "That would have to be anything that's chocolate.   Anything that's legal and chocolate."

M:  "If you could have any dinner guests from history, who would you invite?"

R:  "I would want to have dinner with my two grandmothers that died before I was born, that I never got a chance to meet.  They were both incredible women."

M:  "How do you deal with burnout?  You've got a new child, you're promoting a book, you're fighting fires..."

R:  "One of the things is that eating this way gives me the energy edge that I need to fight fires, stay up all night... and help prevent burnout from being sleep deprived and overtaxed with everything I'm doing.  The other thing is exercise.  If I can get in even a half hour of exercise day, I am rejuvenated, I am grounded, and I'm re-charged and can continue to give out.  And so much of what I'm doing now is sharing and being very giving of my time in sharing the message."

M:  "You seem very much indefatigable in general..."

R:  "No, I'll tell you what... that's very kind of you, but even I have days where I have moments where I need a big 'break."

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M:  "Some family questions:  having interviewed your mom in the last part of the interview with your Dad, it was clear she is strong and a very good cook.  What have you learned from her? 

R:  "She has this insatiable curiosity.  For anything and everything in life.  In order to be "interesting" it helps to be "interested."  And that carries on into her cooking as well, she's totally game to try out anything, and I'm the same way.  I have no qualms about trying to mix anything and everything together and seeing how it turns out.  And that, to me, is one of the things that's so unique about the recipe section of this book.  It wasn't created by an award winning chef.  It was made by myself, they guys at the fire house, obviously recipes from my mother, Engine 2 Pilot Study participants... that makes it unique."

M:  "They are certainly very practical and accessible recipes.  I'm remember Dr. Pinckney ("Healthy Heart") telling me that if the recipe takes longer to read than it does to make, it's not worth it."

R:  "Looking back on it, if I do another book, I think I'd make the recipes even simpler.  The more I do this the more I realize that simple is better."

M:  "Of course, I did notice a slight, ahem, "Tex Mex" affection in your recipes..."

R:  "Yeah... (laughing)... it's popular here."

M:  "So what did you learn from your Dad?

R:  "Wow... putting your nose to the grindstone and doing whatever it takes.  There are no obstacles and if you really want something, you have to go out and get it.  Nothing will stop you."

M:  "How has your wife handled your veganism and all that's been going on the past couple of years?"

R:  "She has totally embraced it.  She's been eating plant strong since we met and she never put up a fuss.  When we first met she didn't cook at all, and now she's doing around 50% of the cooking.  She ate plant strong throughout both her pregnancies and has had very easy uncomplicated pregnancies.  She's been absolutely wonderful. 


M:  "You're a lucky man!"

R:  "Yes, yes I am... but she's not so happy about all the travel I've been doing recently.  Other than that, she's been an absolute angel."

M:  "You have two children...  This brings up an interesting question:  do you think its going to be difficult to encourage your children to be plant perfect (and not just plan strong)?"

R:  "No... once again, it's like what I would do if I were the Houston Fire Chief.  However, when they're at home they won't have an option:  this is what we're going to eat.  When their out and about, if they want to experiment at a McDonnell's and have a cheeseburger and fries, and a large coke, go for it.  I have a feeling they'll be in the bathroom all night long.

But I think they've got to learn on their own.  We'll set a wonderful example at home, but when they're away I'm not going to mandate what they have to eat."

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M:  "You've got quite a presence on the web.  I noticed your "Engine 2" website, which is great, but then I actually signed up for the Academy.  Do you want to explain what the Academy is and maybe where you're going in the future, a new book?"

R:  "The Academy is something I came up with a little over two years ago.  It was a way for my Pilot Study participants to communicate with one another because I wanted to have a forum where they could ask questions and feel like they were part of a wonderful community.  I also wanted to have a bevy of different recipes, meal plans, grocery lists...  I knew that a well-organized and thought-out website would help dictate the success of these Study participants.

M:  "I was stunned at how many recipes you have there."

R:  "Well, that's about half of what's in the book because, of course, I want people buy the book and on the new Engine 2 website, all the recipes are downloadable.  You can print them out, put them on your 'frig.  Groceries list and even the whole exercise section in video form so you can see the techniques if you want to do the exercises.

It's been up for almost a month, and we already have close to 7,000 subscribers."

M:  "...and the future?"

R:  "I'm meeting with some people to discuss the possibility of a plant strong food line, I'm talking about doing some downloadable applications for the iPhone --- people can make their lives easier at the grocery store when they're shopping, know about food products, have grocery lists... stuff like that.  Downloadable applications for cell phones.  Also, I'd love to do an "Engine 2" book for children.  There's some other things I've in mind, but those are the ones I don't mind sharing."

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