28-Day Diet Makeover Starts This Week at SoBe Whole Foods

I feel for people who have a genuine desire to improve their diets and get healthy - really healthy, not like Jenny Craig or Slim Fast healthy - but who have no clue where to start. There's a lot to learn, and for the many who have graduated from the USDA's school of misguided food recommendations, there's a lot to unlearn.

But if you live in South Beach or any other town that has a Whole Foods, you might be able to simplify your journey to health. Many of the stores have adopted Rip Esselstyn's book, The Engine 2 Diet, and made it into an interactive free program that meets for cooking and nutrition classes once a week during the 28 days of the course. The South Beach Whole Foods had its intro class yesterday, but the actual challenge doesn't start until next week, so it's not too late to link up with the group if you're interested in turning your diet around.

The program aims to eliminate animal products (meat, dairy, eggs), extracted oils, refined sugars, and processed foods from challengers' diets and to replace all those with "plant-strong" whole and minimally-processed foods. This "nutritarian" approach to eating has been shown in patients of Dr. Fuhrman and Dr. Esselstyn (and in "self-vegucated" private citizens) to not only help people lose massive amounts of weight, but also to reverse heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, auto-immune diseases, and other ailments.

Jordan Wolfe, Healthy Eating and Green Mission Specialist at the South Beach Whole Foods, explained all this and more at the intro class last night.

"The creator of the program, Rip Esselstyn, was a triathlete who became a fireman because he thought it would be more exciting," Wolfe said. "But he found out that most of the calls that came in were people who had gone into diabetic comas or had heart attacks - there were very few actual fires, but more paramedic-type calls.

"Then, one day he and his co-workers decided to compare to see who had the lowest cholesterol. They found out that one of their members had a near-lethal level."

It was 344, to be exact. And so the seeds of The Engine 2 Diet were planted. Esselstyn, who had competed as a world-class professional triathlete on a plant-strong diet, and whose father had been shouting the science behind the eating plan for decades, got the whole firehouse to agree to go plant-strong. And they watched their team members', and their own, cholesterol levels and weights drop dramatically, while their energy levels rose. Esselstyn wrote the book and now spends all his time spreading the word to as many Americans as he can.

As Wolfe "steam sauteed" vegetables like baby bok choy, leeks, red and yellow bell pepper, carrots, onion, garlic, shiitake mushrooms, kale, and ginger with a sprinkle of coconut aminos and not a drop of oil, he explained to about 30 class members the reasons the diet shuns all extracted fats -- even olive oil.

"Extracted oil is pure fat. It has 120 calories per tablespoon, and very little nutrition," he said. "You can get the same nutrients in olive oil, for example, in red cabbage or in whole olives, as well as fiber and a whole array of other nutrients. Nutritarians get their healthy fats from whole foods like avocados, nuts, and seeds."

At the start of the class, he'd mixed a light dressing for the stir fry in a Vitamix, using a small amount of fresh-ground peanut butter, apple cider vinegar, water, a small jalapeno, and a dab of honey. (Maple syrup, honey, agave, and dates are acceptable sweeteners on the Engine 2 plan.) He handed out samples to the eager class.

He followed by whipping up a butternut squash "ice cream" in the Vitamix, using only unsweetened butternut squash, whole dates, raw cashews, pumpkin pie spice and ice. He topped it with chopped organic honey crisp apples and raisins, to the delight of the crowd.

"It tastes like a pie. The spice adds a lot of nice flavor," remarked one student.

Wolfe said the average weight loss over the month was 10 pounds, and the average cholesterol drop was 30 points. You don't have to sign up for the challenge to attend the free cooking classes, but at least one class member was committed to becoming plant-strong.

"I want to eat healthier for my weight, but also I have psoriasis, and I want to try and treat it with a healthy diet," said Jined Lamata, a South Beach local in her early twenties. "No topical creams or medications have worked, and from what I've read I think it could be an allergic reaction to processed foods. Also, I have family members who are diabetic, so I want to find out about this way of eating to help them."

The challenge offers two different approaches to diet overhauls: the "Cadet" program, which eases people in, asking them to first ditch dairy, then meat, then oils, then refined sweeteners over the four weeks; and the "Fire Fighter" option, which launches challengers into the full swing of the program right away. Lamata said she was opting for the latter approach.

"I'm going to go full force with the Fire Fighter plan," she said. "The group challenge and classes seems like a good way to transition from regular eating, which unfortunately for most of us means not eating so many plants, to a plant-strong program."

The next class and the official start of the 28-Day Engine 2 Challenge happens next week at 6:30 at the South Beach Whole Foods.

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