For an update to this post, read: Some Q & A From The Esselstyn Father & Son Team: The Plant Strong Fireman & the Plant Perfect Doctor
My youngest son is almost 25 years old and a very busy grad student with little time for cooking.
His Goal: maximum energy & good health with minimal cooking. But the thought of eating a vegetarian diet, let alone a vegan diet seems impossible to him.
While he was home for the holidays he asked me for advice on how to tune up his diet. He still thinks it's all about protein and he can't see himself eating a diet of greens, beans, grains & fruit.
So, when I ran into Ann Esselstyn this morning (Ann's the wife of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr. & a heart healthy recipe developer) I asked her when her son Rip's book was coming out. I figured a vegan diet that works for a busy tri-athlete & fireman just might convince my son that it's possible to be healthy without animal protein.
The Engine 2 Diet presents two diet plans: One introduces readers to a flexitarian approach to eating, which includes plenty of healthy fruits, veggies and legumes, and the second is an entirely plant-based way of eating. Both advocate a healthy, life-long approach to eating that includes plenty of nutrient-dense foods, so there's no calorie counting or portion control necessary. As an added bonus, Esselstyn's father, noted physician Caldwell Esselstyn Jr., has given his stamp of approval to the plan, so you can trust that it's a healthy way of life.
Teaching sustainable healthy habits is the first indicator that this is a healthy, worthwhile plan. The fact that it's doctor-approved is the second. Looking to trim down and improve your health? This might be just the thing you need."
So Who Is Rip Esselstyn & Why Should We Pay Attention to What He Has to Say?
- Rip's dad just happens to be Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a surgeon, clinician & researcher at the Cleveland Clinic. He's presently Emeritus staff and privately sees patients from all over the country who want to take an active role in reversing their heart disease. He's a passionate out-spoken advocate for following the vegan diet to prevent, stop & reverse heart disease. He and his wife started following this diet 25 years ago, when he was 50 years old. At age 75, he's a walking testament to the diet he advocates! You can read my post about Esselstyn's work by clicking here.
- Back in 1984-85 Rip's dad started a group of 24 patients with severe heart disease (5 of whom were told they had less than a year to live) on a strict vegan, no oil diet. 6 dropped out--2 of that group died--the other 4 all had bypass surgery. Of the remaining group who continued on the diet, all have stopped or reversed their heart disease for over 20 years now. All have active full lives.
- Rip has been a vegan for years, as have all the Esselstyns, and he was astounded to learn how high the cholesterol levels of his fellow Austin Engine 2 firemen were. What would you expect any self-respecting Esselstyn to do? Rip challenged his fellow-firefighters to a 28 day-diet-change-challenge. Their weight dropped - their cholesterol levels dropped - and their energy climbed. And believe it or not, they liked the taste of their vegetarian meals. Son #2 are you listening?
Everyone has questions about The Engine 2 Diet. Here is a list of the most common Rip Esselstyn has heard to date
- Can I get enough protein eating a plant-based diet?
Not only will you get all the protein you need, for the first time in your life you won't suffer from an excess of it.
Ample amounts of protein are thriving in whole, natural plant-based foods. For example, spinach is 51 percent protein; mushrooms, 35 percent; beans, 26 percent; oatmeal, 16 percent; whole wheat pasta, 15 percent; corn, 12 percent; and potatoes, 11 percent.
What's more, our body needs less protein than you may think. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the average 150-pound male requires only 22.5 grams of protein daily based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet, which means about 4.5 percent of calories should come from protein. (WHO recommends pregnant women get 6 percent of calories from protein.) Other nutritional organizations recommend as little as 2.5 percent of daily calories come from protein while the U.S. Food and Nutrition Board's recommended daily allowance is 6 percent after a built-in safety margin; most Americans, however, are taking in 20 percent or more.
Doctors from my father to Dean Ornish to Joel Fuhrman, author of the best selling Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss (Little, Brown), all suggest that getting an adequate amount of protein should be the least of your worries.
Look around you and tell me the last time you saw someone who was hospitalized for a protein deficiency. Or look around in nature, where you will notice that the largest and strongest animals, such as elephants, gorillas, hippos, and bison, are all plant eaters.
Also, the type of protein you consume is as important as the amount. If you are taking in most of your protein from animal-based foods, you're getting not only too much protein, but also an acid-producing form that wreaks havoc on your system.
Why is protein so potentially harmful? Because your body can store carbohydrates and fats, but not protein. So if the protein content of your diet exceeds the amount you need, not only will your liver and kidneys become overburdened, but you will start leaching calcium from your bones to neutralize the excess animal protein that becomes acidic in the human body.
That's why, in the case of protein, the adage "less is more" definitely applies. The average American consumes well over 100 grams daily—a dangerous amount. But if you eat a plant-strong diet, you'll be getting neither too much nor too little protein, but an amount that's just right.
- Are plant proteins complete proteins?
Plant proteins are as complete as complete can be.
The myth that they're not, or are of a lesser quality than animal proteins, dates back to experiments performed on rats in the early 1900s. Forget the fact that rats aren't humans, have different nutritional requirements, and need more protein than humans to support their furry little bodies. The meat, dairy, and egg industries have marketed the hell out of this ancient research, and even in the year 2009 most every Dick, Tom, and Jane thinks the only way to get complete protein is through meat, eggs, or dairy.
In reality, proteins are composed of chains of roughly twenty different amino acids. Of those, eight are found outside our body and must be absorbed from our food. These eight are the "essential" amino acids. The remaining acids are "nonessential" because they can be synthesized by our bodies themselves. Plants supply all the essential and nonessential amino acids. All of them. While some plants may be low in (not missing) one amino acid and other plants may be higher in another, your brilliant body sorts it all out and, at the end of the day, complements your amino-acid profile so it is perfectly balanced. In so doing, it creates a high-quality protein that is healthier, safer, and better than animal protein.
Thus, there is absolutely no need to combine certain plant proteins at each meal in an attempt to achieve an optimal amino acid balance. Unfortunately, the protein-combination myth continues to be perpetuated by any number of respected organizations. But the American Dietetic Association gets it right. Its position statement reads: "Plant sources of protein alone can provide adequate amounts of the essential and non-essential amino acids, assuming that dietary protein sources from plants are reasonably varied and that caloric intake is sufficient to meet energy needs. Whole grains, legumes, vegetables, seeds, and nuts all contain essential and non-essential amino acids."
Scream it from the mountaintops: Plant proteins are 100 percent complete!
- Do carbohydrates really make us fat?
Some carbs do, but good carbs don't.
Most trendy diets claim that all carbohydrates are bad guys, yet of the three macronutrients that provide calories in our diet (carbs, protein, and fat), carbohydrates are the body's primary fuel source. They're responsible for managing your heart rate, digestion, breathing, exercising, walking, and thinking.
Roughly 70 percent of your daily calories should come from good (complex) carbohydrates. The ones to avoid are called simple carbs.
Both types of carbs are sugars. Both are digested and converted into glucose, which is used by the body for energy: in the blood as glucose, or stored in either the muscles or the liver as glycogen. When consumed in excess, carbohydrates can be converted to fat.
Simple carbohydrates include table sugar, molasses, honey, alcohol, white bread, white pasta, white rice, fried chips, sugary cereals, fruit juices, candy, and milk. Most simple carbs are nutritionally empty because they have been tinkered with by humans, stripped of their fiber, minerals, and vitamins. They are digested quickly by the body and cause a sharp spike in your blood sugar levels.
In response to this spike, your pancreas pumps out insulin to transport and deliver the energy-bearing glucose to cells throughout your body. This process causes your blood sugar and insulin levels to swing like a pendulum, leaving you feeling fatigued, hungry, and craving still more simple carbohydrates.
And because simple carbohydrates are digested so quickly, any excess sugar is converted to fat. For these reasons, most simple carbohydrates are a poor food choice.
In contrast, complex carbohydrates are nutritious, and include vegetables, whole grain breads and pastas, beans, peas, brown rice, sweet potatoes, oats, fruits, and whole grain cereals. They are loaded with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients. Unlike simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates cause a balanced and controlled release of sugar into your system. This slow release gives the body more time to use the carbohydrates as fuel; as a result, fewer turn to fat and insulin remains stable.
So if you consume, whole, good, natural carbs, you will enjoy more consistent energy throughout the day without gaining extra pounds.
As you can see, the two types of carbs differ immensely from a nutritional standpoint. Simple carbohydrates are calorie laden, providing little nutrition and causing weight gain. Complex carbohydrates are lower in calories and, because they are loaded with fiber, provide bulk that fills you up sooner, alleviates hunger pangs, and keeps you feeling satisfied longer.
So go eat your carbs—as long as they're complex.
- Can I get enough calcium eating a plant-based diet?
A diverse, plant-based diet is one of the best available sources of calcium—and lets you avoid the deleterious effects associated with dairy products.
Great sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables, nuts, oranges, kidney beans, lima beans, whole grains, Swiss chard, lentils, raisins, broccoli, kale, celery, tofu, and romaine lettuce.
One reason why Americans have such a high incidence of osteoporosis (or weakening of the bones) isn't a lack of dietary calcium but an excess of animal protein, which leaches calcium from the bones.
In fact, did you know that the countries with the highest rate of dairy consumption, including the United States, New Zealand, Britain, and Sweden, also have the highest rates of osteoporosis? Although their citizens consume massive amounts of dietary calcium, the excessive protein in that milk, cheese, steak, fish, and eggs always trumps this important mineral, leaving them with a net deficit.
Meanwhile, people in rural China, who consume one-third the amount of dairy we do, have almost zero cases of osteoporosis. Dr. John McDougall, author of The McDougall Program for a Healthy Heart, has scoured the medical literature on the topic and has yet to find one case of dietary calcium deficiency in humans—so long as they consumed an adequate number of calories. So no milk mustache for you!
- Can I get enough fat eating a plant-based diet?
Trace amounts of fat are present in all fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods.
Strawberries are 5 percent fat; bell peppers, 6 percent; broccoli, 8 percent; spinach, 11 percent; and soybeans, 41 percent. Several high-fat plant foods contain in excess of 80 percent fat, including certain nuts and seeds, as well as avocados, olives, and coconuts.
By eating a delicious, plant-happy diet, you will consume roughly 9 to 15 percent of your total calories from fat, which is ideal. Getting your fat from plant-based foods means you will be consuming healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats as opposed to dangerous saturated fats. You will be able to eat more food than you ever dreamed of without gaining weight, and feel wonderful.
- Can I be a competitive athlete on the Engine 2 Diet?
Just ask Tony Gonzalez, the 247-pound tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs football team. For health reasons, Tony changed his diet after signing a five-year contract extension, making him the league's highest paid tight end, and went on to break the NFL record for receptions by a tight end in 2008. His teammates have nicknamed him China Study after T. Colin Campbell's book of the same name, which Gonzalez studied before changing his diet—and which you will soon be reading about.
Ask Ruth Heidrich, who in 1982 was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer and cured herself by eating a low-fat, plant-strong diet. She has since won more than one thousand triathlons. Or ask Salim Stoudamire, the plant-eating point guard for the NBA Atlanta Hawks, who says that by the fourth quarter, when most players are starting to fade, he's picking it up a notch. Or ask Martina Navratilova, the world's winningest tennis player, who serves up plant-based foods exclusively. Or ask plant-devourer Dave Scott, my hero and six-time winner of the famed Hawaii Ironman triathlon.
Or better yet, try going plant-based yourself and see how much your own athletic performance improves.
- Will I miss key nutrients by eating only plant-based foods?
You'll be stockpiling away the nutrients like never before, improving your health, and reversing disease. If you were to hold a triathlon based on the quantity of nutrients in each food, plants would cross the finish line and get a massage before meat, dairy, and eggs even had a chance to get off the bicycle.
Calorie for calorie, the most nutrient-dense foods are plants, not animals. After all, plants are the mother source of all calories and all nutrients for all creatures, whereas animal-based foods are essentially plant foods recycled into an unhealthy package.
The only nutrient that plant-based foods lack is vitamin B12. But you can get a daily supply of B12 by downing two tablespoons of nutritional yeast, a glass of fortified soy milk, a bowl of fortified cereal, or, if you wish, a daily 500-microgram pill that should be chewed or dissolved in the mouth to increase absorption.
- Will my energy be low if I only eat plant-based foods?
Your energy levels will be more constant and consistent than at any other point in your life.
Think of high-fiber and nutrient-heavy plant foods as the big logs in the fireplace that burn for hours. Think of low-fiber and nutrient-light foods such as simple carbohydrates as wads of newspaper that go up in a flash. When you're eating plant-strong, you won't have the energy peaks and valleys of the past, and if you so choose, you won't even need coffee to get your butt and mind in gear in the mornings. You'll awake feeling refreshed, even-keeled, and excited about charging forward into your day.
- Is a plant-based diet bad for children and pregnant mothers?
By the age of two (once off mother's milk), every child is ready for a plant-strong diet. Even renowned expert Dr. Benjamin Spock recommends the practice in the latest edition of his classic bestselling book, Baby and Child Care. If you start them young, your kids will develop a palate that appreciates the subtleties of plant foods and will gain the healthy rewards that accompany this diet as they grow.
Pregnant women, meanwhile, can get all the vitamins, nutrients, and minerals that both they and their babies need to be healthy and well. My wife, Jill, ate an all-plant-based diet throughout her pregnancy with no morning sickness and no complications. She later gave birth to our very healthy eight-pound, seven-ounce baby, Kole, the little love of our lives.
- Do I need to take fish oil supplements to ensure I'm getting essential omega-3 fatty acids?
There are numerous ways to get essential omega-3 fatty acids without subjecting yourself to the potential risks of fish oils—which, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, are highly unstable molecules that can break down and release dangerous, disease causing free radicals.
People are under the false assumption that taking a fish oil supplement will negate the effects of all the cheese, meat, and processed foods they throw down their throats. But fish oil is no panacea. It can actually raise total and LDL cholesterol levels, increases your chance of a hemorrhagic stroke, and suppresses the immune system.
Instead of taking fish oil, rely on ground flaxseed meal, walnuts, soybeans, and green leafy vegetables, all of which contain plenty of essential omega-3 fatty acids.
If you are unwilling to transition to a totally plant-strong diet, then go to a health food store and buy some plant-based omega-3 supplements that come straight from the mother source: plankton from the oceans, seas, and lakes—which, by the way, is where fish get their omega-3s.
- Can real men eat just plants?
The fat and cholesterol in animal products clogs up the arteries traveling not only to the heart and head but also to the extremities, including the penis, where they can cause PAD (peripheral arterial disease) and impotence, which research shows may be an early sign of heart disease.
So, men: There is a better way, and it doesn't involve taking Viagra, Cialis, or Levitra. It involves eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
In my father's research study, several of the men who had been impotent for years regained their performance after changing to a plant-based diet, making their wives quite happy. Many of the Engine 2 Study participants also reported improved potency, including one who said that his erections "are now like blue steel."
- Is eating plant-based foods joyless and boring?
Wondering About Rip's Recipes? Here Are a Few
E2 Lunch - Ann’s Panini with Hummus, Mushrooms, and Spinach
Serves 2 (or one ravenous firefighter)
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
Tamari or Bragg Liquid Aminos to taste
4 slices whole grain bread
Healthy Homemade Hummus
4 green onions, chopped into rounds
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
3 handfuls baby spinach
Sauté the mushrooms on medium heat in a nonstick skillet for about 5 minutes or until soft. Season lightly with Bragg’s or tamari. Spread all 4 bread slices thickly with hummus. Sprinkle two pieces of the bread with green onions and cilantro and reserve the other two pieces as sandwich tops. Using a slotted spoon to allow any liquid to drain away from the mushrooms, place them on top of the green onions. Put a handful of spinach on top of the mushrooms. Top the two sandwiches with the reserved pieces of bread, and press to seal. Carefully place the sandwiches in a nonstick skillet. Place a heavy casserole dish on top of the sandwiches to flatten them. Cook the weighted sandwiches on one side over medium heat for about 5 minutes, taking care not to let them burn. Flip sandwiches and cook the other side in the same way. When done, paninis will be quite thin and browned on both sides.
E2 Dinner - New York Times Veggie Burgers
Makes about 8 patties
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can tomatoes with zesty mild chilies, drained
1 garlic clove, minced or pressed, or 1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
2 green onions, chopped
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup parsley or cilantro
2 cups quick rolled oats
8 whole grain buns
Fresh veggie toppings and healthy condiments
Preheat oven to 450º. Process the first seven ingredients using an
immersion or a regular blender or food processor. Remove contents into a large bowl and stir in the oats. Form into patties, place on a sprayed baking sheet, and bake for 8 minutes. Turn oven up to broil and cook for 2 more minutes, until the tops are nicely browned. Toast the buns and pile on your favorite toppings.
Variation: Sauté the burgers on medium heat in a sprayed nonstick skillet for 5 minutes on each side, until both sides are browned.