Texas EMT/firefighter on a different mission to save lives

By Jessica Belasco
San Antonio Express-News

AUSTIN, Texas — Rip Esselstyn is on a nationwide health crusade that started among friends in an Austin fire station.

Esselstyn - a firefighter and former professional triathlete who continues to swim, mountain bike and run several hours every week - is a vegan who credits his plant-based diet for his energy and performance.

After helping a fellow firefighter lower his cholesterol from 344 to 196 on his diet, other firefighters at the station, called Engine 2, began following suit.

Esselstyn lays out the details in "The Engine 2 Diet: The Texas Firefighter's 28-Day Save-Your-Life Plan That Lowers Cholesterol and Burns Away the Pounds" (Wellness Central, $24.99). He'll be promoting the book in San Antonio this week.

"Some of the best endurance athletes on the planet eat an all plant-based diet," says Esselstyn, 46. "You do not need meat, cheese, dairy or eggs to enhance performance. It actually hinders it."

Esselstyn says athletes and everyday people alike can get all the protein, calcium, fats and important nutrients they need eating plant-based foods such as produce, beans, tofu and whole grains.

While few health experts dispute the importance of fruits, vegetables and legumes in a healthy diet, Esselstyn makes some less conventional claims, too.

He recommends against eating fish, often lauded for its heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, because it also contains high levels of dietary cholesterol.

He's also not a fan of added oils, even olive oil, because refined oils contain too much saturated fat and not enough vitamins and minerals.

Better alternatives for omega-3s and healthy fats are ground flaxseed meal, soybeans, leafy green vegetables and walnuts, he says.

Esselstyn calls the plan a "whole-food, nutrient-rich, plant-strong diet" as opposed to vegetarianism or veganism.

"You can be a junk-food vegan and eat jelly beans and French fries," he says.

His book includes recipes for Pad Thai, three-bean chili, nachos, enchiladas, pizza and pasta primavera, among others.

Some might consider the diet a bit extreme, but Esselstyn has a ready response to that.

"What's extreme right now is the state of our health in our country now," he says. "If you want extreme health, this is the diet for you. If you want to acquire adult-onset diabetes, heart disease, cancer and if you want to become obese, by all means, continue eating the standard American diet."

As an EMT, Esselstyn says 70 percent of the calls he receives are medical related, including heart attacks and strokes.

"People think it's their birthright to eat whatever they want," he says. "I get to see up close and personal the results of people stuffing their face to their hearts' content."

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