-by Rip Esselstyn
Despite the ice and frigid cold temperatures in January 2017, our visit to the Friends of Firefighters** in Brooklyn, New York was filled with a warm and friendly glow. Over 50 firefighters descended upon this former New York City fire station (now a non-profit community support organization following the 9/11 tragedy) to hear a fellow firefighter from Texas talk about a lifestyle that most could never imagine in their wildest dreams. The goal was to convince as many as possible to take the Engine 2 Seven-Day Rescue Challenge and show this segment of NYC’s bravest what’s possible when you put aside your preconceived notions and embrace the unknown. The before and after results were going to be filmed as part of The Game Changers documentary highlighting the benefits of eating a plant based diet in order to dispel the world’s most dangerous myth: that we need meat for protein, strength, and optimal health.
Firefighters are some of the most revered men and women in this country. But New York City firefighters are in a different class and truly epitomize modern-day-heroes with their courage and self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, that bravery won’t protect them from the #1 killer of in-the-line-of-duty-deaths for firefighters: heart disease. This challenge was an opportunity to share how each of them could become heart attack proof and avoid becoming a statistic. By doing so they could become even better firefighters-protecting both the city of New York and their most prized asset: their personal health.
Would they rise to the occasion? Could I convince them to follow this hardcore plant-strong eating program for one week? With before and after biometric screenings to prove what was possible I was confident we would get some takers but I was not prepared for the other transformations that took place.
To kick off the evening, I gave an educational lecture and shared some sobering stats on the outlook for adults who eat the Standard American Diet and unwittingly injure the innermost lining of their vessels with each meal, three times a day, seven days a week. I didn’t sugar coat the message – and it came as no surprise to these men and women that heart attacks were rampant among them with up to 69% of annual firefighter fatalities on the job coming from cardiac arrest.
I promised they wouldn’t have to turn in their “man card” by removing meat from their diet. In fact, just the opposite, they would become more of “a man” as the blood flow downstairs reached new levels and allowed their “puff the magic dragons” to roar like never before.
I promised they wouldn’t be eating a twig and berry diet as many of them envisioned but rather a “man-tastic” diet abundantly filled with burgers, fajitas, and pizza all with a plant-strong twist. The invitation was simple: give me one week of eating only whole, plant-strong foods, and you will see firsthand what happens to your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.
All around the room, guys shifted in their seats, leaned back, and gave sideways glances. No one was jumping in or yelling “kale,yeah, I’m in!”, so I sweetened the deal. Any firefighter that agreed to take the challenge would receive a week’s worth of groceries.
One by one, members of New York’s bravest agreed to “man up.” Soon enough we had dozens who were lined up to draw blood, step on the scale, and have their blood pressure taken. There were plenty of back slaps and trash talking to go around as everyone started getting psyched to see who could generate the greatest drop in numbers.
Now it was time to eat. We knew the food had to be righteous otherwise this would be a big flop of an experiment. Thanks to enthusiastic support from Whole Foods Market, we served up a hearty buffet of Firehouse Chili, Engine 2 Game-Day Twice-Baked Potatoes, baked corn tortillas (for dipping), a giant, colorful green salad made with kale and romaine and tossed with an oil-free dressing, Jalapeno Corn Muffins, and Blueberry Dumpster Cobbler for dessert. The buffet line was quiet as they made their plates with timid scoops of chili and questionable amounts of all the side dishes.
However, a few minutes into dinner the eye rolls were gone – replaced instead with raised eyebrows and poked elbows to guys on either side. Around the room, I heard words of surprise like, “This is awesome!” and “Huh– I could actually eat this!” and mutterings like, “Not terrible.” The buffet line was picked clean as they went up for seconds and thirds. They were in!
As each firefighter left the red brick station house that night, we gave marching orders with a copy of my book and bags of groceries for seven days. We promised to support them all (via email and phone) and looked forward to returning and hearing how it all went.
One week later, the Engine 2 team returned to Red Hook, feeling hopeful but realistic about the unconventional proposal we had made. Did we waste our time? How many were going to come back?
Despite a multitude of scheduling issues (have you ever seen a firefighter’s calendar?), it was a thrill when 35 returned to roll up their sleeves and step on the scales. Before we shared another glorious buffet dinner, nurses escorted the firefighters to the numerous testing stations and calculated their before/after biometric results. This time we served Raise the Roof Lasagna, Black Bean Meatballs, roasted (oil-free) vegetables, Garlicky Kale Salad with Mashed Avocado, Whole Grain Dinner Rolls, Fresh Fruit Salad, and Chocolate Adonis Cake for dessert.
Notably more eager for this meal, everyone bellied up to the buffet and confidently piled their plates. A shift had happened with this group – it was so palpable!
You’ll see the highlights of the results reveal during our part of The Game Changers – where one fireman stunned us all with a 107 point drop in his total cholesterol. Another was astounded to learn his diabetes was not, indeed, a life sentence. But what you won’t see on camera is all the one-on-one conversations. You see, there’s a code in the fraternity of firefighters. You don’t ask for sick days and you certainly don’t complain when you don’t feel good. Typically going to the doctor only leads to tests and time off. And time off from work is time away from the brotherhood. Being a firefighter isn’t just a job – it’s a family. In New York, it’s your whole identity. It’s not just what you do, it’s who you are. So although there are wellness programs and opportunities to workout, no one really opens up about their health. You keep your chin up and do your best to keep up.
During my time with these guys and gals in Red Hook, I heard again and again how they felt hopeful. They enjoyed the Seven-Day Rescue Challenge and were eager to keep moving forward. They no longer believed that they had to accept the misguided notion that it was their genes guiding their health destiny. They heard the internal alarm and they were now suiting up to fight back with the strongest internal defense within their reach – the arsenal of delicious and satisfying plant-strong foods that lay at their boots!
—Do you want to take the Engine 2 Seven-Day Rescue Challenge?? Now it’s your turn. Give it one solid week – I challenge you!
**Friends of Firefighters was founded in 2001 after 9/11 when 343 firefighters lost their lives in the collapse of the Twin Towers. Nancy Carbone, the Executive Director, drove around the boroughs of New York during the horrific aftermath, serving sandwiches from the trunk of her car and both locating and hanging memorial bunting on each of the stations to signal the mourning of their lost brothers and sisters. Nancy never stopped serving these brave men and women, and as a result, Friends of Firefighters was born. Their sole purpose is to provide support, wellness and confidential counseling services to active and retired FDNY firefighters and their families. It is the most altruistic organization led by the most empathetic and giving human beings. Engine 2 was proud to partner with them during this project and invites anyone who believes in their good and amazing work to give generously.