En español l When Bill Clinton invited me to lunch in May, I knew better than to expect fried catfish or barbecued ribs. The former president is now a devoted vegan, meaning no meat, fish or dairy products, and he has pursued a healthier way of life for more than three years. While I figured our lunch menu might be bland, that would be a small price to pay for private time with a world leader who is anything but.
Subscribe to the AARP Health Newsletter
As it happens, the fit, trim and sharply attired Clinton, whom I've come to know well during more than two decades covering his career, is his usual gregarious, charismatic self. But a bland menu? Not even close.
As we enter a private room overlooking Manhattan's busy Rockefeller Center, I'm struck with a dazzling kaleidoscope of a dozen delicious dishes: including roasted cauliflower and cherry tomatoes, spiced and herbed quinoa with green onions, shredded red beets in vinaigrette, garlicky hummus with raw vegetable batons, Asian-inspired snow pea salad, an assortment of fresh roasted nuts, plates of sliced melon and strawberries, and rich, toothsome gigante beans tossed with onions in extra-virgin olive oil.
The luncheon banquet gives a whole new meaning to the dreaded cliché "Eat your vegetables." And this is exactly what Clinton, who is taking on America's obesity epidemic with the same passionate commitment he brought to the presidency, wants.
As I gawk, he smiles. "This looks pretty good, doesn't it?" Clinton asks. It looks better than good. We sit down and with great relish start passing plates back and forth. He favored the quinoa; I loved the roasted cauliflower and snow peas; and we both liked the beans.
The road to a healthier diet
At age 66, Bill Clinton still travels and works at a pace that completely exhausts staffers who are two or three decades younger. Yet, while coping with heart disease and the usual complaints of aging, he has managed to change his diet drastically, lose more than 30 pounds and keep the weight off. If he can do all that, then maybe there's hope for the rest of us baby boomers — and Americans of all ages — whose eating and exercise habits (and medical expenses) worry him a lot.
I first noticed a change in Clinton's eating habits when we were in Capetown, South Africa, back in July 2010. (I have been covering his extraordinary postpresidential career since 2005, interviewing him frequently and traveling with him across Africa, Europe and the Mideast, as well as the United States.) We were all preparing to dig into a tempting dinner sent up to the former president's suite from a very fine restaurant in the hotel. Sitting down next to him, I glanced at his plate and saw none of the steak, shrimp, fish or chicken on the buffet — just a tangle of green lo mein noodles and a pile of broccoli.
"Is that all you're eating?" I blurted.
"That's right," he replied. "I've stopped eating meat, cheese, milk, even fish. No dairy at all." He smiled and yanked on his waistband. "I've lost more than 20 pounds so far, aiming for about 30 before Chelsea's wedding. And I have so much more energy now! I feel great." (He achieved his ideal weight in time for his daughter's marriage to Marc Mezvinsky on July 31, 2010.)
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."
Clinton's daily menu
These days at the Clinton residence in suburban Chappaqua, New York, house manager Oscar Flores prepares simple meals for Clinton and Hillary, who vowed to start eating healthier after she stopped globe-trotting as President Obama's secretary of state.
For Bill Clinton, breakfast is almost always an almond-milk smoothie, blended with fresh berries, nondairy protein powder and a chunk of ice. Lunch is usually some combo of green salad and beans. He snacks on nuts — "those are good fats" — or hummus with raw vegetables, while dinner often includes quinoa, the Incan super-grain, or sometimes a veggie burger.
The former president has a tip for those who crave starchy food: "You can make whipped cauliflower as a substitute for mashed potatoes, and it's great." Once a week or so, he will have a helping of organic salmon or an omelet made with omega-3-fortified eggs, to maintain iron, zinc and muscle mass.
In addition to his dietary changes, Clinton also walks two or three miles a day, outdoors whenever possible; plus, he works out with weights and uses an exercise ball for balance drills. And, of course, he continues to play golf, always walking the course without a cart.
Wherever he goes, Clinton finds signs that vegetarian and vegan alternatives are winning wider acceptance. During a recent visit to South America, the Peruvian president and his wife invited Clinton to dinner. "They made a whole vegan meal for me, and they ate it too." They'd obviously done their homework: The centerpiece, Clinton recalls, was this "unbelievable quinoa dish."
As we finish our hearty lunch, the new Role Model in Chief takes a helping of fruit for dessert. And he offers some final, practical advice to America's struggling yo-yo dieters: For anyone who wants to change, he says, "I would keep a record of everything I ate every day — what, when and how much. That's easy for everybody to do. Just go write it down. And then I'd start looking at it and say, what am I going to give up and what am I going to substitute?"
If you don't have the willpower to do it for yourself, he adds, do it for your loved ones. "A lot of people who are busy and stressed feel that eating and being comfortable is their reward," he says. But particularly for those who, like him, have children, he says "you have a responsibility to try to be as healthy as possible."
Sounding the themes that still drive him every day, Clinton wraps up our meeting with a message, reminding me that "the way we consume food and what we consume" are driving the unsustainable level of health care spending in America. To truly change the conditions that lead to bad habits and poor health, he warns, "we have to demand it by changing the way we live. You have to make a conscious decision to change for your own well-being, and that of your family and your country."
Joe Conason is a freelance journalist who writes about politics.