Men’s Health Month Hero: Rip Esseltyn of Engine 2 Diet

June 20th, 2016


Rip in fire gear in front of truck

Rip Esseltyn is a real man. Okay, he got the nickname Rip when he was two days old, not because of his lean ripped look.  But it fits.  An all-American swimmer in college, he became a world class triathlete, which is when he adopted a ‘plant-strong’ diet. After ten years in that grueling profession he needed a break. Friends suggested he might want to be a firefighter.

“It’s an awesome profession,” said Rip. “You help people, you save lives. It’s like a big old slumber party. You get to go through red lights and stop signs with sirens blazing. And you do good deeds. Cook good food. No two shifts are ever the same.”

He applied to the Austin fire department, one of 4000 applying for twelve positions. “It’s more competitive than getting into Harvard,” he joked. It took two years but in 1997, he made the transition from full time triathlete to full time firefighter.

Triathlete, Texas firefighter, stand-up guy – he definitely qualifies as a real man.  And he grills veggies. And occasionally fruits.

“At the firehouse we had a nice grill in the backyard and we would grill every chance we got. Portabella mushrooms, bell peppers, corn on the cob, onions, every kind of squash you can imagine, white button mushrooms, romaine lettuce…oh and pineapples. I love grilling.”

Of course, when he first started at the firehouse, they were doing a lot of grilling but it wasn’t veggies. “Oh it was an abomination,” recalled Rip.

“I like to say the four major food groups of the Texas male firefighter are:  Big old honking burgers with cheese and mayonnaise on white bread with a side of deep fried French fries; Beef fajitas with sour cream and cheese, full fatty beans and white rice – and if there are onions and bell peppers they’re slathered in oil and butter; Pizza with as much pepperoni, ham and hamburger meat you can throw on that guy; And the other food group is bluebell ice cream. They have bowls of bluebell for breakfast lunch and dinner.”

For years, he brought his own food, did his own thing. But then in April 2003, Rip was sitting out of the front porch of the fire station with a couple of his fellow firefighters and they made a bet on who had the lowest cholesterol. It’s fortunate they did because one of the men, whose family had a history of heart disease, found out his cholesterol was 344 mg/dl. That put a scare into the whole crew and over a period of time they started to change what they ate. Rip challenged his friend with the dangerously high cholesterol to go all in with a plant-based diet for 28 days and see what happened. The cholesterol number plummeted to 197 mg/dl.

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That led Rip to develop the Engine 2 Diet which turned into a pilot study and eventually into a New York Times bestseller. In that book he shares some helpful grilling tips.

“Vegetables, fruits, and tofu and other meat substitutes are delicious when cooked over coals or a wood fire. Toss them lightly with a marinade first. Spray the bars of the grill with a fat-free cooking spray or employ one of those neat-o perforated skillets or cooking baskets.”

In his latest book, My Beef with Meat, he includes a recipe for BBQ Seitan Grilling Kabobs and a Grilled Romaine salad. He also warns that when you’re grilling any kind of meat – chicken, beef, pork, or fish – “what you are really doing is growing carcinogens on it. There are two that appear only in grilled meat: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHS.)”

He told us that the great thing about veggies is they don’t have the inherent building blocks to create any of these carcinogens. “Grill veggies and you get all char and no carcinogens.”

For the last five years Rip’s been working with Whole Foods to spread the word about eating plant-based food. He has a line of Engine 2 health food products, exclusive to Whole Foods, that includes everything from cereals and almond milk to pizza crust and veggie burgers.

Finally, he talked with us about how fat and cholesterol in animal products can clog arteries to the heart, head, and…other extremities important to real men.  In contrast, when you’re eating whole plant-based food it keeps your blood vessels useful and elastic.  “So I’d say real men eat plants,” said Rip, “and drop the blue pill in exchange for a bunch of green leafy vegetables.”