Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Redux #17 - The Engine 2 Diet by Rip Esselstyn

Well, it's another day, so it must be time for another nutrition book. I've really hit upon a new obsession. I'm so frustrated by all the conflicting and vague information I've been reading that it's inspired me to read even more. At first glance, it may look as if I picked up The Engine 2 Diet: The Texas Firefighter's 28-Day Save-Your-Life Plan that Lowers Cholesterol and Burns Away the Pounds (2009) by Rip Esselstyn because of my latest career interest. However, as interesting and entertaining as Esselstyn's anecdotes about station life were, I picked this book up because of my father. After his recent heart attack, my father's doctor recommended that he go on a vegan diet, a diet developed by a cardiologist and that is explained in The Engine 2 Diet, written by the cardiologist's son, who just happens to also be a firefighter.

I certainly have no idea what really is the "best" way to eat, and this book probably did little more than muddy the waters for me, but my dad seems to be improving on it. Although he still eats some egg whites and some non-fat milk, my father has been surprisingly receptive to the idea of a vegan diet--I guess a heart attack can expand your horizons that way. Since a perfect meal for my father is steak, potatoes and corn, this has been pretty challenging for him, but he's stuck to it. And after about one month, he got his cholesterol tested and it has gone down from about 200 to 125, with his LDL going from about 100 to 38. Now, he is on cholesterol-lowering medication, but I was still impressed by this drop and assume that at least some of it stems from his new diet. I guess the real test will be to see if my mother's cholesterol goes down, as she has pretty much joined him in the diet but isn't taking the medication.

Rip Esselstyn is the son and grandson of very prominent doctors, an impressive professional triathlete, a friend of Lance Armstrong, and a firefighter. He uses all of these connections to help sell his diet and his book that promises to help you lose weight, lower your cholesterol, be healthier, and feel better. The diet itself is pretty simple: eat vegan, low-fat food. This means limiting oils, saturated fat, eating only whole grains, and getting tons of fruit and vegetables. Esselstyn's problem with animal products are the high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol as well as their high levels of protein with no fiber. The saturated fat and cholesterol is pretty obvious, but what about non-fat milk and yogurt? Esselstyn is also against these foods, but his argument is less persuasive. According to Esselstyn, protein leeches the calcium out of your bones, dairy products contain cancer-causing casein, and meat and dairy products are acidic, which is bad for your body. I've heard that protein can affect calcium intake, but I think this is a problem only if you eat too much protein. Granted, most Americans are eating too much protein, but that doesn't necessarily require a vegan lifestyle for everyone. I know less about exactly what casein and an acidic food does to you, and Esselstyn wasn't specific enough for me to be able to agree or disagree with him on this point.

It's interesting to compare Esselstyn's heart-healthy book with The South Beach Diet, another heart-healthy book, and this one actually written by a cardiologist. The South Beach Diet focuses on eating only lean meat and low- or non-fat dairy, but completely restricts sugar and decreases the intake of starchy foods. On the other hand, Esselstyn limits sugar and advocates whole wheat products, but he is not all that picky about starchy/sugary foods as long as there are no animal products. Both diets are apparently successful in lowering cholesterol, and it doesn't surprise me as they both seem well thought out and definitely healthier than what the average American heart patient is probably eating right now. A study comparing these two diets heat-to-head would be interesting, but as far as I know it hasn't been done. Anyway, The Engine 2 Diet was pretty entertaining and I learned a couple things. As far as medical information it's about on par with, The Skinny Bitch. Esselstyn is definitely trying to sell his diet and thus sometimes give a one-sided view of some of the ongoing diet debates. But he's approachable, encouraging, and tells stories about being a firefighter, so I didn't mind reading it.

As far as my father goes, his doctor recommended the vegan diet to him and he is planning on sticking with it. As for me, I've become somewhat convinced from those other nutrition books that I should be watching my intake of grains and sugars a little more than Esselstyn suggests. I've found if I don't have enough protein, I have to eat constantly to stave off hunger or face a mounting headache. My next foray will be into the paleo diet; I want to know more about it. After that, I think I'll arbitrarily mix all of their recommendations together into something that works for me and then take a break from the nutrition books for awhile.

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