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Former fireman preaches 'plant-strong' gospel in doc

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VANCOUVER -- For a man named after the storied sleeper Rip Van Winkle, Rip Esselstyn is only too wide-awake, and only too eager to sound the alarm for the rest of us dozy souls.

It may be a remnant of his firefighting past, but Esselstyn wants to save lives -- quite literally -- by changing the dietary habits of largely lardy North Americans.

One of the central subjects in the new film Forks Over Knives, Esselstyn is part of a groundswell movement aimed at removing the massive amount of animal protein from the proverbial blue plate special.

"People think they know what healthy eating is, but the fact is, they don't know the truth about what they're consuming. They think red meat and low-fat yogurt are good for you," he says, speaking in a Vancouver hotel over a glass of water.

"But animal protein in meat, and dairy is one of the main carcinogens in the North American diet."

Esselstyn doesn't hesitate as he condemns the so-called "four food groups." He says that, after watching his father, noted clinician and researcher Caldwell Esselstyn, treat several near-death patients with little more than dietary changes, he's confident in what he calls the "plant-strong" gospel.

"Vegetarian and vegan are pregnant words," he says.

The younger Esselstyn was so confident in the "plant-strong" psalm, he spread it to his firefighting brethren in Austin, Texas, and started a small revolution in the midst of cattle country.

"I had to get the guys off the burgers and rib diet," he says. "Some of them had dangerously high cholesterol levels... so we changed to a plant-based diet and set ourselves on the road to better health."

Esselstyn charted the journey in his book The Engine 2 Diet, which he's currently touring, along with the movie.

"As a firefighter, most of the calls you get are cardiac-related, so this was something we could do for ourselves, and our community, by setting the right example. After all, we're here to save lives, in whatever ways we can."

As a kid who grew up on a Black Angus and dairy farm, Esselstyn is well aware of the emotional and traditional ties to cattle, and the appeal of "milk does a body good," but he's learned to dismiss the whole notion as little more than pricey Madison Avenue spin.

He says the agribusiness lobby in the United States is incredibly powerful, and he's not ignorant of the vast sums of money at stake when it comes to food, pharmaceuticals and the status quo.

"The problem is it's not sustainable. We could feed the starving masses with what we feed cattle," he says.

Though so much of what Esselstyn says is obvious to those who've done their health homework, he says the public has been misled for so long, the road to re-education will be long, and potentially litigious.

"It's like big tobacco. I think we're now at a time in history where people recognize that smoking is bad for you. We have to do the same thing with animal protein," he says. "And hopefully, this movie will be part of that shift."

Hoping to achieve the same wakeup call as Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth, which essentially assembled well-known scientific fact to hammer home a message of environmental crisis, Esselstyn says change really depends on the masses.

"I've done 25 advance screenings of this movie, and we've had help from (grocery chain) Whole Foods on the promotional side, but we've sold out every screening and had waiting lists of over 1,000 people in some cities," he says.

"People are clamouring for more information. They aren't ignorant or lazy. They want to know this stuff, but they've been told the wrong things for so long, they don't know what to think anymore," he says.

"Fortunately, we live in the information era. So if the dairy industry is spending $100 million a year on advertising... we still have a chance at opening people's minds to a proper diet."

Esselstyn retired from firefighting in order to pursue the healthy-food cause, and with his ripped physique and pleasant personality, he's the ideal spokesman for a new food movement.

"It's not rocket science. If you look at the worldwide data surrounding the introduction of a western diet, you see the same phenomenon around the world.... Populations get sicker."

For the monster-sized food industry, Esselstyn's message could be very inconvenient, but for a man who used to run into burning buildings, the spectre of public-relations blowback isn't too scary.

"Right now, we're caught in a pleasure trap," he says. "But I firmly believe, as in all revolutions, it's the truth that will set us free."

Forks Over Knives is scheduled to open in Winnipeg June 10 at the Globe.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2011 E7

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