What do you suppose that a burly, buffed-out Superman in a helmet and oxygen tank eats? If your answer has anything to do with a 16-oz porterhouse in the firehouse then you don’t know the firefighters from Engine 2. Rip Esselstyn, a former elite triathlete turned firefighter, is on a mission to educate you on the healthiest way to eat and get fit in his book The Engine 2 Diet. Hotties in uniform are just an added bonus.
What Do Firefighters Eat?
I’m going to give you the short version so listen closely: Firefighters eat like Skinny Bitches. That’s right, these He-Men (and women!) are vegan, as in no animal products whatsoever. But in a twist that will make you take Ornish’s name in vain every time you pass up those cheese quesadillas, the Engine 2 crew are low-fat vegans.
My first thought on reading through the research (more on that in a minute) and looking through the recipes was that I had found the Holy Grail of Restrictive Dieting. Not only can you not have meat, eggs, dairy, sugar or honey but you also can’t eat anything fatty either. Nuts are limited. Vegan “cheeze” and other replacement foods are warned against not because they taste like crap – which they totally do as I discovered when I did my Vegan Experiment last year – but because they are too fattening, thereby crushing all the self-righteous vegans in the house. All they need to do is make it “raw” and we’d have a clear winner with celeb endorsements sure to follow. Suffice it to say, this was an inauspicious introduction to the book.
How Do Firefighters Workout?
While the diet is really the point of the book, Esselstyn includes a beginning workout straight out of “Good Housekeeping”. So how do firefighters exercise? Not like this, I’m imagining. Illustrated with several pictures that look like they were snapped with someone’s camera phone in the backyard, are rudimentary exercises like squats, push-ups, lunges and plank. All I have to say is that if you still need a pictorial guide on how to squat then you might not be ready for the life-changing culinary brutality of this diet. Also, if this is how real firefighters work out then I’m mystified as to how they carry unconscious people down ladders hold firehoses without getting blown backwards. I suspect Rip, who is in fabulous shape, of actually doing much more and much harder exercises than the ones in his book. I just wish he had shared them with the rest of us because I’m betting the real firefighter workout is awesomely kick-butt.
Despite my initial apprehension of his diet and my outright derision of his workout, one thing attracted me to the Engine 2 Diet: Like me, Esselstyn is a research junkie. Approximately a quarter of the book (that isn’t made up of recipes) is dedicated to the studies that make the case for his diet. And they are some interesting pieces of work. Quite a few of the ones referenced, like the famous – or infamous, depending on your background – China Study, I am already very familiar with. The thing is, there is quite a compelling body of research for a plant-based diet. Studies have shown it to reduce rates of many types of cancer, lower cholesterol and heart disease, and reverse diabetes in addition to helping with other ailments such as allergies, alzheimers, and obesity.
The problem however, is that he cherry-picked his research, focusing only on the studies that support his claims and ignoring all the rest. The most pertinent of these left-out studies for me are the ones that speak to the very premise of his book: that high cholesterol is the cause of heart disease and that lowering your cholesterol is the best way to treat it. Life is never that neat. For a detailed look at the nuanced topic of cholesterol, check out this article by Mark Sisson, a fellow elite triathlete who came to the exact opposite dietary conclusion and founded the Primal Blueprint diet (which I also have my reservations about.)
Conclusion & Mini-Experiment for Me
So what is a girl all dizzied up on research to do? Try it all out, of course. In a bit of kismet, the Engine 2 Diet and the Primal Blueprint are about as diametrically opposed as any two diets could be. They both make nearly the same health claims and require the same amount of rigidity from their practitioners (not to mention both are founded by retired elite endurances athletes obsessed with research!). And yet both take fundamentally opposing approaches. This intrigued me.
Back in January, Mark Sisson of the Primal Blueprint, approached me asking me to give the PB another shot (most spectacular failure in GFE history, in case you missed that Experiment). At first I was reluctant to change up my food – you know how crazy I am with diets – but then I read this book and the lure of doing a Mini-Experiment was too much for me to resist (feel free to chide me in the comments). And so I decided to do one week of “Perfect Primal” – which I just finished up – immediately followed by one week of “Perfect Engine 2” – which I am just starting.
I figure there are only three possible results to this experiment:
1. One diet will emerge the obvious victor, as measured by me on me. (Give it up for sample sizes of 1, woot woot!)
2. Both diets will fail, proving that extreme eating of any variety doesn’t work for me.
3. Both diets will be succesful, proving that it doesn’t matter which diet you follow as long as it is one you can stick to.
I’ll let you know my results next week.
A Mini-Experiment and A Giveaway for You!
When I told the Gym Buddies about my latest endeavor, they were naturally dubious. Gym Buddy Krista agreed to do the Primal Week with me initally and then backed out saying that she was afraid that trying and failing on it would be more detrimental than following a more moderate diet that promised less extreme results. She then accused me of having a greater-than-average amount of self control – an assertion I violently protest.
So, while I of course welcome anyone else who wants to be a guinea pig with me, I do understand that not everyone is as eager as I am to go whole-hog (or hog-shaped-tofu-loaf). Both the PB and the Engine 2 diets offer “lite” versions of their programs which basically say making any changes are better than no changes. I’m going to offer you another option: Mark Bittman, a New York Times food writer, has come up with a program he calls “Vegan until 6.” All you have to do is eat vegan (or Primal) until 6 p.m. and then eat what you like within moderation for dinner. Bittman has had amazing health results with his half-way plan and yet still gets to enjoy the food he writes about.
In an effort to help you make your own decisions about the Engine 2 diet, I have a copy to give away to one of you! Love it or hate it, it’s definitely an interesting read – especially if you enjoy research. And awkward camera phone pictures.
Leave me a comment below letting me know what you think of low-fat veganism. Can a normal person really do it? Any of you tried the Engine 2 diet? Or what do you think the results of my mini-Experiment will be? Or just tell me if you think I’ve just lost my mind and you’d like my mother’s number so you can call her and ask her to stage an intervention (hint: she reads my blog so you can relax.)