Rip Esselstyn had a hard sell, and he knew it.
He was standing in front of about 36 Jersey firefighters at Springfield Fire Headquarters, trying to convince them to trade steaks and pizzas for vegetables and whole grains. These weren’t sprouts and tofu guys. They were the kind of guys who splinter run into burning buildings as part of their job.
Esselstyn knew his audience. A former firefighter, he tailored his argument for his “Engine 2 Diet,” a healthy eating program that eschews meat, cheese, oils and processed foods, for his fire fighting brethren.
“The most bad ass foods on the planet are plants,” Esselstyn said.
Several times in the short presentation, he returned to his mantra “real men eat plants” and that the traditional connection between meat and masculinity was a false construct. Esselstyn meant that as a literal statement; he asserted that poor diet contributed to not only obesity, cancer and heart disease, but also erectile dysfunction.
“We’ve got a nation of manly men who can’t get it up,” Esselstyn said.
Esselstyn, a former triathlete and fire fighter, is the author of the nutrition guidebook The Engine 2 Diet and has partnered with Whole Foods to advocate his plant-based diet. Esselstyn adopted a plant-based diet at the advice of his father, Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, chief of surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, who determined that a plant-based, low fat diet could reverse heart disease and diabetes.
Esselstyn called on his audience to embark on one of two 28-day regimens, the fire cadet and the firefighter. With the cadet program, cheese, meats, processed foods and cooking oil are phased out in increments. The firefighter program starts with all of those foods restricted. To demonstrate that life without those ingredients could be bearable, Whole Foods catered the presentation with an all-plant-based buffet.
The 28-day challenge was born at Esselstyn’s firehouse in Austin, Texas, where his crew forsook animal-based and processed food for a month after a cholestoral check returned alarming results for one of Esseltyn's firefighter brothers. Esselstyn said that across the board, the health benefits were evident almost immediately.
Fire fighters from Springfield, Millburn and Summit heard his pitch with varying degrees of enthusiasm and skepticism. Fire fighters asked Esselstyn if the diet plan barred choice vices like alcohol and cigars (the answer: moderation is key, but they’re both basically poison). There was some serious grumblings of dissent from fire fighters sitting at the back of the meeting room, but an emergency call pulled them away from the presentation before they were able to volley their questions at Esselstyn.
At the end of the presentation, Esselstyn asked for a show of hands of fire fighters willing to give the program—which would entail weekly cooking and nutrition demonstrations from Whole Foods nutrition advisor Kristine Nicholson—a shot.
About a dozen hands went up. Esselstyn said he was happy with number, joking that he always takes whatever he can get.
Summit Fire Chief Joseph Houck was among the audience members indicating they were willing to test the plant-strong program. He said the program would fit in well with Summit’s current health programs. The nature of the job, Houck said, entails unique health risks.
“Our guys go from sitting around to going 1,000 miles a minute,” Houck said.
Millburn Chief Michael Roberts wasn’t ready to sign up for the program, but said that he was impressed by the presentation. He noted that Esselstyn did a good job of negative preconceptions about vegan-style diets. Nonetheless, he was realistic about the difficulty of following a healthy regimen when your job keeps you on the road and your personal tastes pull you to the table.
“I love to eat and that’s my problem in life,” Roberts said with a laugh. He said that the Millburn department placed a premium on health, which included weekly visits from a trainer. “As a chief, I should lead by example.”
Springfield Chief James Sanford said that he was considering trying out the 28-day program at some point—work obligations were standing in his way of starting immediately—but said that a recent program at the fire house might drum up interest in following the program.
“We just finished with our annual heart screenings,” Sanford said. “Now that everybody has their results, this might be a push for people to look at how they eat.”
For more information about Esselstyn and the Engine 2 Diet, visit his website.