Texans have long recognized and celebrated historic battles like the Alamo, and San Jacinto. Now it seems another historic battle is brewing as residents of the small town of Marshall join in a fight to take back their health.
A community of approximately 25,000, Marshall is located in the western fringe of the nation’s notorious “stroke belt.” Residents of this east Texas area suffer one of the highest rates of
strokes of anywhere in the nation, along with other chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. An article appearing in the New York Times last year laid bare the area’s infamous reputation and placed blame squarely on the locale’s penchant for dishes that would make Paula Deen proud—one local restaurant even advertises chicken-fried steak and cream gravy as a “Marshall way of life.”
That’s what makes the town’s ongoing story so remarkable.
“It’s the most unlikely place for this to happen,” admits businessman, and former mayor, Ed Smith. “Everything here is either chicken-fried or barbequed.” He and wife Amanda spearheaded and underwrote a Get Healthy Marshall campaign asking participants to not only forego their “fried” ways, but all meat—including chicken and fish—and all dairy products. Eating low-fat, whole foods, plant-based meals instead, participants were told to expect a drop in weight, as well as plummeting health “numbers” like blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar.
It began when Amanda, a long-time vegetarian, read Dr. T. Colin Campbell’s book, The China Study, advocating a plant-based diet as
The excited couple wanted to share the health benefits of their new found diet. “Mostly people thought we were insane here in the several years prior to this—when we were trying to tell them about it,” Amanda says.
Then they met Rip Esselstyn, a former Austin firefighter, professional triathlete, and author of the Engine 2 Diet. Esselstyn’s father, physician Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., former chief of surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, had conducted 30-years of extensive research on preventing and reversing heart disease with a plant-based diet.
Rip Esselstyn gained fame when he led the Austin Engine 2 firefighters in an effort to help rescue a fellow firefighter’s dire health by going plant-strong. He now leads Engine 2 Immersion weekend-long programs across the country. These intensive weekend events feature two days of meals, along with presentations and demonstrations by physicians, psychologists and nutrition experts detailing the powerful influence diet has on health, along with how to implement the lifestyle after returning home.
“We started wondering—why can’t we bring that to a city?” Ed says. “We thought this could work in a community this size because people know each other, and (ideas) spread by word of mouth. People can observe firsthand the results.” Get Healthy Marshall was soon born. Laying groundwork, the couple brought Esselstyn to town to meet with city officials, including the fire and police departments. When the Chambe of Commerce and civic leaders journeyed to Austin to meet state legislators, Ed arranged for Esselstyn to meet with them. The local media ran ads and articles. Billboards, signs and posters heralding the event popped up; a website was constructed.
When Esselstyn spoke to the fire department one month before the official Immersion kickoff, Assistant Fire Chief Reggie Cooper listened attentively. Cooper knew he was in a “state of emergency.” Tipping the scales at nearly 250 pounds and diagnosed as a diabetic in 2005, he hadn’t shared with anyone the numbness in his left side, the chest pains, or his growing shortness of breath.
He was already on three diabetic medications, had dropped 10-15 pounds, meticulously watched what he ate, had switched from fried foods to baked and grilled, and ate nothing after eight o’clock at night. He was doing everything “right,” but still woke to soaring blood sugar readings of 150. Disheartened, he says, “I wanted to quit—don’t eat. Don’t eat anything.”
He, along with the town’s fire chief and EMS trainer “dissected” the Engine 2 information,
ultimately concluding “the concept made sense.” After trying a few Engine 2 recipes,he says the three discovered, “This stuff tastes pretty good.”
Six months later, slim and trim, Cooper shared his experience before a crowd of 140 people at a Get Healthy Marshall January post-Immersion follow-up event. Down 30 pounds, Cooper is off all medications, and eager to reach out to others. When this writer spoke to him he was meeting a friend who had enlisted his help saying, “I want to get off all this stuff (meds).”
Joining Cooper with their testimonials were the fire chief, a district attorney, a contractor, a retired pastor and his wife, along with 81-year old Phyllis Brophy, who reported a 16 pound weight loss despite cheating every now and then. “I’m 81 years old,” Brophy said. “I figure I can do a little cheating. But it works—you should believe it.”
“Neither one of us thought it would take off like it did,” says Ed of the original Immersion, attended by more than 180 people. “We thought if we got 50 people to attend Immersion Weekend we’d be lucky, and if 20 of those followed through, it’d be a success.” The couple’s best guesstimate is that “well over 100 people” are following the program now and new participants join every day.
The Immersion marked the start, and providing ongoing support the Smiths host monthly potlucks, and conduct grocery tours showing participants how to healthily navigate the local supermarket. Their product recommendations sell out so quickly that they’ve had to
petition the local store to increase its inventory. The town library is stocked with the Engine 2 Diet, and other related books, and cookbooks. The Get Healthy Marshall Facebook page is filled with posts on resources, recipes, articles, and success stories.
Eating out can be a challenge, but at least three locally-owned restaurants are on board too, offering Get Healthy Marshall approved delicacies and green plate specials. Selections include soy milk lattes, cranberry-orange muffins, creamy enchilada casseroles, veggie burgers, black bean burgers, spaghetti with vegan Italian sausage, Creol goulash, chili mac and black bean/avocado wraps.
Despite its growing success, the program isn’t for everyone. “Some people are afraid of change,” admits Ed. “A large part of their self-identity is how, where and what they eat—it’s family tradition, too. When you propose what they think is this radical departure, you’re attacking their family heritage and history.”
Still, interest in the program is spreading. An immersion attendee started a Get Healthy Little Rock (Arkansas) group, a Longview group is organizing, and interest is even stirring in Houston.
Ed says the original premise was that the program could take off in a community like Marshall and be replicated in other East Texas communities, “All of a sudden you have a major force and synergy started within a geographic area that’s pretty large.” When it reaches critical mass, he says, it could begin to draw the attention of people in bigger cities, and spread. “We’re going to follow it as far as it will go,” says Ed.
And so, with the battle cry Get Healthy Marshall, a Texas health revolution is born.
Editor’s Note: The author attended the Get Healthy Marshall Immersion program, and follows a whole foods, plant-based lifestyle.
Website resources: www.gethealthymarshall.com; www.engine2diet.com; www.gethealthyclearlake.com
Photos courtesy of Ron Munden, EastTexasTowns.com