Mike HUCKABEE knew it was time to lose weight when his chair gave way beneath him during a meeting -- at the Arkansas Capitol in front of more than 100 people.
In the last two years, the Arkansas governor has transformed himself into a much leaner and healthier version of the 280-pound man who suffered that embarrassment. He's lost 110 pounds, sticks to a diet that could make Oprah proud and, in March, finished his first marathon in 4 hours, 38 minutes and 11 seconds.
One might think that the rigors of his job would keep him from sticking to his new health plan. But the 49-year-old "lifelong couch potato" says he has never been happier or had more energy.
"I finally got it. It isn't about losing weight, it's about nutrition and fitness," he says.
Huckabee's weight loss is raising his national profile. Earlier this month, President Clinton asked Huckabee to join his new national campaign against childhood obesity. Huckabee also has a new book, "Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork," that includes a 12-step plan to help overweight people slim down.
"I was the poster child for how people shouldn't treat their bodies," he says. "If I can get healthy, anyone can."
In a recent phone interview, Huckabee talked about his personal, and political, efforts to combat obesity:
Question: How did you do it?
Answer: I first checked in with a doctor who helped me understand what I was doing to my body and what it would mean in the long run. I didn't have a weight-loss goal. I just slowly tried to get healthier and I committed myself to doing it without making any excuses. I cut out all sugars from my diet and I stopped eating junk food or processed foods. I also realized that if I was going to make this permanent, I had to exercise. I started walking and then eventually running. Right now, I am in better shape than I was at 18.
Q: How is your health now?
A: Fantastic. I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes a few years ago but now my blood sugar is normal. My doctor says it is as if I never had it. My blood pressure and cholesterol are also good. I used to think I would have to take medication to see these results but I know now that all I have to do is take better care of myself.
Q: What do you eat on an average day?
A: I eat a really balanced diet. I never miss breakfast anymore. I usually try to eat just protein like a few egg whites. And then I eat five or more small meals throughout the day. At lunch, I'll have turkey and some vegetable, and for dinner I like chicken, fish or meat with some vegetables. I snack on fruits like apples or a bowl of strawberries. I never thought I would say this, but I actually like the taste of fruit now more than a candy bar. If I really want to treat myself, I eat this low-fat, no sugar ice cream from a great local place in Little Rock. It tastes just like the real thing.
Q: Why did you want to write a self-help book?
A: A friend suggested I do it. People know that I wasn't this fitness buff who lived his whole life trim and athletic. I am the guy who you never would have thought would do this. I was getting tons of letters and e-mails from people all over the country saying they were happy for me and wanted to do the same thing. I hope it helps people realize that weight loss is possible if you see it as a positive thing, as something that can make you happier.
Q: How did your partnership with President Clinton happen?
A: We know each other from Arkansas and in fact we are both from Hope. He called me three weeks ago and said he was working with the American Heart Assn. to lead a national initiative on childhood obesity. He thought my personal story was compelling, and he feels the things we are doing around improving health in Arkansas are on the cutting edge. One of the campaign's primary goals is to work with the public, schools and food companies together to convince parents and children about the benefits of eating healthy.
Q: Pundits are suggesting your book is a prelude to a 2008 presidential race? Is that true? And if you were president, what national health goals or strategies would you endorse?
A: I haven't made any decisions about my future plans. I still have a year and half left in my term and this summer I begin serving as the chairman of the National Governors Assn., where our theme over the next year is improving the nation's health. From a policy standpoint, I think it's important to give people incentives to choose good behavior rather than penalize anyone.
Q: Arkansas has some of the highest obesity levels in the U.S. What are you doing on a state level to address that?
A: Two years ago, we began our statewide Healthy Arkansas campaign. We are the only state in the nation doing body-mass screenings of every student. We send results home to parents in the mail. We've put in more walking trails around the state and opened patient information centers for people with diabetes or other chronic diseases to learn how to get healthier. I think it's revolutionary.