09/02/2013 10:03 am ET Updated Nov 02, 2013

Meatless Monday: Rip Esselstyn Has the Last Laugh

"I got ridiculed and made fun of and belittled more than any human being deserved." That's Rip Esselstyn talking. Call us crazy, but a former pro triathlete and firefighter doesn't seem like the kind of guy you'd pick on. Because, really, why rag on someone who could easily whip your arse?

And yet, his fellow firefighters found the idea of a real guy choosing broccoli over beef hilarious. Sure, their jokey swagger and trash talk was all in good fun, "but the reality is, it's just sad," says the author of bestselling "The Engine 2 Diet" and his new book "My Beef With Meat." "Most people in this country are not supportive of people who are trying to eat healthier."

If you need proof being plant-based works, look no further than Esselstyn, who made the choice 26 years ago "for performance reasons," he says. "First and foremost, it's about health." His "Engine 2 Diet" is based on the life-saving plan he developed for a fellow firefighter, bringing down catastrophic cholesterol levels. The other guys at the fire station stopped teasing Esselstyn and started taking what he said and what he ate seriously. Their transformation made The New York Times.

Esselstyn's 28-day program boosts your health with plant-based food "that's minimally processed, as simple as possible." That doesn't mean eating a plain head of broccoli (not that there's anything wrong with that). The Engine 2 Diet offers fat (and pleasure) from whole unprocessed foods like avocado, nuts and olives but has no added oil. "It takes 1,375 olives you squeeze the dickens out to get 32 ounces of olive oil, discarding fiber, phytonutrients and you're left with 100 percent fat," Esselstyn explains.

He's had good insider info about plant-based nutrition via his father Caldwell Esselstyn, the heart surgeon advocating a plant-based diet rather than stents and surgery in the documentary Forks Over Knives.

"I've respected and admired my father for so long," says Esselstyn. "He was an Olympic gold medalist in 1956, with a bronze star in Vietnam. In fourth, fifth, sixth grades, I'd bring it to school for show and tell. He was such a role model for me. I feel a certain obligation to give back, to help people and do my part to help save lives."

Esselstyn does it with his new book "My Beef With Meat," which blasts through the wall of meat myths, marketing and misinformation. "People don't get it. They think the answer is a pill." It's not a pill, it's a plant -- lots of plants. In the book's short, pithy chapters, Esselstyn addresses the usual misconceptions people have about being vegan, including the old, tired you-won't-get-enough-protein issue (Still? Really, people).

"We're bombarded by marketing," he says. "Every supermarket is a hunting ground with all these amazing different products -- eighty percent of them are unhealthy. Whole plant-based foods have been with us for eternity. We've gotten off the track."

Esselstyn's spent much of the summer getting us back on track, partnering with Whole Foods for Farms 2 Forks, a series of empowering plant-based immersion retreats. The seminars cover everything from nutrition to cooking and have featured speakers including Esselstyn, his father, PCRM head Neal Barnard and "The China Study" author T. Colin Campbell. They've drawn both plant-based newbies and longterm vegans, everyone "passionate about taking their health to the next level," says Esselstyn.

"Their reaction gives me so much hope. Going down this path of a meatless diet has a ripple effect and it's profound and palpable," he says. "There's something in the air and it's not a fad. This is a megatrend, this is here to stay."

Fresh Anaheim and Edamame Spread

Recipe by Jane Esselstyn. Reprinted with permission from "My Beef With Meat"
by Rip Esselstyn, copyright © 2013. Published by Grand Central.

Bright and wonderful over fresh greens, as a dip for your favorite vegetables or slathered on crusty whole grain bread.

2 cups edamame, shelled and cooked
1/2 cup onion, diced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon)
1 tablespoon yellow miso
1/3 cup Anaheim pepper, seeded and diced
3 dashes crushed red pepper flakes
1 to 2 tablespoons water, for texture
Pinch of salt
Pinch of freshly ground black pepper

In a food processor, combine all of the ingredients except the water and
salt and pepper.

Blend well and taste. Add water, as needed -- the texture should be drier and fluffier than hummus.

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate.
Makes 3 cups.