Clinton traces his decision to change back to the morning in February 2010 when he woke up looking pale and feeling tired. His cardiologist quickly brought him into New York-Presbyterian Hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery to insert a pair of stents. One of his veins had given out, a frequent complication following the quadruple-bypass surgery he had undergone in 2004.
At a subsequent press conference, Clinton recalls, his doctors tried "to reassure the public that I wasn't on the verge of death, and so they said, you know, this is actually fairly normal." Soon after, he received a "blistering" email from Dean Ornish, M.D., the renowned diet and heart disease expert.
"Yeah, it's normal," wrote Ornish, an old friend, "because fools like you don't eat like you should."
Prodded into action, Clinton started by rereading Dr. Dean Ornish's Program for Reversing Heart Disease, which urges a strict, low-fat, plant-based regimen, along with two books that were, if possible, even more militantly vegan: Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, by Caldwell Esselstyn, M.D., and The China Study, by Cornell biochemist T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. (When I suffered a heart attack in late November 2010, Clinton sent me all three books.)
"I just decided that I was the high-risk person, and I didn't want to fool with this anymore. And I wanted to live to be a grandfather," says Clinton. "So I decided to pick the diet that I thought would maximize my chances of long-term survival."
Pass the quinoa
As we talk, Clinton is clearly enjoying every virtuous bite, helping himself to seconds of both the quinoa and the beans. He still has a hearty appetite, but what he loves to eat now is obviously good for him.
It's a testament to his discipline that he pulled off a 180-degree pivot overnight — motivated not only by his own urge to live but by the goals he has set for his foundation. Worried by the increasing prevalence of diet-related disease among Americans of all ages, he and the Clinton Foundation are committed to promoting healthier lifestyles, with what he sees as far-reaching effects on the nation's finances, quality of life and even climate change, which is exacerbated by meat production. "I wanted to do it because this health and wellness work I've been doing is increasingly important to me," he says.
To most Americans of Clinton's generation — especially those, like him, who grew up in places like Arkansas, where barbecued pork and cornmeal-crusted catfish dominate the local cuisine — cutting out meat, fish and dairy would seem a radical deprivation. But Clinton quickly adapted. "The main thing that was hard for me actually — much harder than giving up meat, turkey, chicken and fish — was giving up yogurt and hard cheese," he says. "I love that stuff, but it really made a big difference when I did it."
He no longer craves steaks, but bread is a potential pitfall. "Heavily processed carbs, you really have to control that," he says. When Caldwell Esselstyn spotted a picture of him on the Internet, eating a dinner roll at a banquet, the renowned doctor dispatched a sharply worded email message: "I'll remind you one more time, I've treated a lot of vegans for heart disease."
Next page: Clinton's daily menu. »