(CNN) — By the time he reached the White House, Bill Clinton's appetite was legend. He loved hamburgers, steaks, chicken enchiladas, barbecue and french fries but wasn't too picky. At one campaign stop in New Hampshire, he reportedly bought a dozen doughnuts and was working his way through the box until an aide stopped him.
Former President Clinton now considers himself a vegan. He's dropped more than 20 pounds, and he says he's healthier than ever. His dramatic dietary transformation took almost two decades and came about only after a pair of heart procedures and some advice from a trusted doctor.
His dietary saga began in 1993, when first lady Hillary Clinton decided to inaugurate a new, healthier diet for her husband. In a meeting, she asked Dr. Dean Ornish to work with the White House chefs, who were accustomed to high fat, French cuisine.
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"The president did like unhealthy foods, and we were able to put soy burgers in White House, for example, and get foods that were delicious and nutritious," said Ornish, director and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California. Other new menu items included such healthy fare as stir fry vegetables with tofu, and salmon with vegetables.
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Even with the revamped White House menu, Clinton battled his weight throughout his two terms as president. At his annual physical in 1999, the White House physician noted the president had put on 18 pounds since a checkup two years earlier. The prescription: refocus on exercise and a low-calorie diet.
Clinton didn't know it, but weight was not his biggest health concern. The 42nd president has a family history of heart disease, and plaque was building up in the coronary arteries leading to his heart, undetected by White House doctors.
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In 2004, less than four years after leaving office, the 58-year-old Clinton felt what he described as a tightness in his chest as he returned home from New Orleans, where he was promoting his memoir, "My Life." Days later, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery to restore blood flow to his heart.
"I was lucky I did not die of a heart attack," Clinton told CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta. After the surgery, the former president cut down on his calories and lowered the cholesterol in his diet, but his heart troubles were not over.
Last year, the former president went to Haiti to support the relief efforts but he felt weak. When he returned home, he learned he needed another heart procedure: two stents to open one of the veins from his bypass surgery, which had become, in Clinton's words, "pretty bent and ugly."
Ornish recalls meeting with Clinton a few days after his angioplasty. "I shared with him that because of his genetics, moderate changes in diet and lifestyle weren't enough to keep his disease from progressing. However, our research showed that more intensive changes change actually reverse progression of heart disease in most people." … Read more