Galley Girl: Bill Clinton Has a Healthy Appetite for Diet Books

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L. to R.: Denis Paquin / AP; NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / Getty Images

Publishing reporter Andrea Sachs writes about the book industry here every weekend.

It was a mournful day for late-night comedians in 2010 when Bill Clinton told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that he had become a strict vegetarian. The comics had lost a surefire punch line. No more jokes about Bubba and barbecue; no more Saturday Night Live skits about the former President scooping uneaten French fries off of startled diners’ plates at McDonald’s. In his place, here was a newly trim man who had undergone a quadruple bypass and a recent stent replacement, announcing his allegiance to what has become a popular yet still counterculture lifestyle. (Only an estimated 3% percent of Americans are vegetarians, and 1% are vegans.) “The short answer is, I went on essentially a plant-based diet,” Clinton told the host. “I live on beans, legumes, vegetables, fruit. I drink a protein supplement every morning. No dairy. It changed my whole metabolism and I lost 24 lb., and I got back basically to what I weighed in high school.”

It is only now, though, that the extent of Clinton’s dedication to a meatless way of life has become apparent. In the past few months, Clinton, at 65, has become the Blurber-in-Chief, an activist health convert who has enthusiastically endorsed three diet books. His touts, not surprisingly, are emblazoned across the covers of these fortunate authors’ books. The man who was once derided as a junk-food junkie has become the Roger Ebert of diet books, giving enthusiastic thumbs-up to the ones he likes. In all, since he announced his gustatory transition, he has publicly applauded seven diet authors. Not bad for a person who was derided as resembling “fat Elvis.”

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Clinton’s trail of diet blurbs gives clues to his present state of mind. In the foreword to Eddie Shapes Up (Zagat Survey), a children’s book by former New York City mayor Ed Koch that came out in September, Clinton writes, “I’m delighted to see books like Eddie Shapes Up encouraging children to embrace wellness at an early age. After undergoing two heart surgeries, I knew I would have to change my lifestyle in order to stay well. The rewards of good health have made it all worthwhile. I only wish I had started on this adventure as a young man.”

This month, the former President’s imprimatur is also on Think and Grow Thin by weight-loss coach Charles D’Angelo (Robert Kennedy Publishing). D’Angelo told us that he has never trained Clinton, but several of Clinton’s friends had successfully worked with him, and he had a chance to meet the former President. “I have long admired his foundation’s wonderful work combatting childhood obesity,” D’Angelo says. “His passion for service has served as a compass and inspiration to me countless times over, and I just had to meet him. I was privileged with an opportunity to personally share with President Clinton my painful story of being an overweight child and teen, being bullied, ridiculed and ready to give up on life.”

And in February, on the cover of The Blood Sugar Solution: The UltraHealthy Program for Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Feeling Great Now, a new book by Dr. Mark Hyman, former co-medical director of Canyon Ranch Lenox, Clinton declares, “I’ve made drastic changes to my own diet and exercise routine, including much more cardio and weight training equipment into my regimen since my heart troubles surfaced in 2004 and I hope Dr. Hyman’s new book will inspire you as he has inspired me.”

So what has made the former President such an ardent blurbmeister? His spokesperson is silent on the matter, since his office will not comment on his diet. But it is instructive to look at Clinton’s earlier pronouncements in considering his current burst of blurbdom. His first three endorsements of diets, which came during the original 2010 Wolf Blitzer interview, foreshadowed his recent burst. “This movement has been led by a doctor named Caldwell Esselstyn Jr. at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Dean Ornish out in California, the doctors [T. Colin and Thomas] Campbell, father and son.” This foursome has produced a collection of notable diet books: Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Esselstyn; Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease and the Campbells’ China Study. The common message of these doctor-authors, based on decades of studies, is that not only can heart disease be headed off, it can also be reversed by a spare yet nutritious diet.

One of the recipients of Clinton’s praise was obviously surprised. “I’ve never met the man,” Esselstyn, the pioneer of this movement, told us this week. “I’ve never spoken with the man. I’ve never looked him in the eye; he’s never shaken my hand. But through a friend, he obtained a copy of the book. He obviously has devoured it, and, hopefully, he has applied what we have indicated in the book is the appropriate way to arrest and reverse this disease.”

Esselstyn’s inspiring words make you want to throw away the half-eaten roast chicken in your refrigerator. “For them to realize that this is not just the luck of the draw, that this is something that you yourself can control,” he insists. “You can become the locus of control for this disease that is the leading killer of women and men in Western civilization. It’s truly nothing more than a toothless paper tiger that need never ever exist, and if it does exist, it need never progress. This is a food-borne illness.”

Esselstyn clarified one point that the media hammered away at: by his own description, Clinton is not a vegan. The doctor makes veganism sound casual in comparison with his own recommended regimen. “[Clinton’s plan is] not vegan. It’s not vegetarian. It’s whole-food, plant-based nutrition. I treat vegans for heart disease. Vegans eat French fries. Vegans eat oil. Vegans eat glazed doughnuts.”

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In his passion for blurbing the work of others, Clinton has not ignored his own writing. His latest book, Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy (Knopf), has been on the New York Times nonfiction list for six weeks. The subject is far afield from his diet-book enthusiasms. Which makes us wonder: Will some smart publisher capitalize on the First Dieter’s zest and entice Bill Clinton to write his own diet book, detailing his vegetarian journey?