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Clinton: 'I was a fat band boy'

Health scare prompts ex-president to lead childhood obesity fight

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Clinton said he knows firsthand what unhealthy eating habits can do to a young body.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Former President Bill Clinton said his weight problem and brush with death are the catalysts behind his foundation's initiative of tackling childhood obesity.

Once famous for his love of fast food, Clinton told CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta that bad health habits since childhood led to his September 2004 quadruple bypass surgery. That operation, he said, opened his eyes to a larger issue, and he turned his attention to the problem of overweight American children.

"The brush with death I had maybe had the biggest impact of all," Clinton recalled. "I realized that one more time I've been given another chance, and I wanted to make the most of it."

Clinton, who admits "I was the fat band boy," said he knows what unhealthy eating habits can do to a young body.

"Emory University's done a study saying that the obesity alone accounted for 25 percent of the increase in health costs of the last 15 years, so I thought it was a chance where I could save the most lives ... do the most good and also do something that I understood from my own experience," he said.

Clinton hopes to do that with a partnership between the William J. Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association. The initiative, launched in May, aims to "stop the increasing prevalence of childhood obesity" in the United States by 2010.

The goal is that by starting children on a path that includes a proper diet and exercise, they'll grow up to be healthy adults and reduce obesity-related health costs.

Other highlights of the initiative include working with the food and restaurant industry and the media and increasing physical activity and improving lunches in schools.

Clinton said lawmakers should take a greater involvement in the fight -- setting higher standards for school lunches and eliminating junk food in school vending machines.

He called on the fast-food industry to shape up.

"You get good bulk, and it tastes good for the money ... but we cannot sustain it from a health care point of view," he said.

Clinton has made changes since his health scare. He said he has cut down on french fries, eats more fruits and vegetables and incorporates exercise into his mornings. He said he wants to teach that lesson to American children.

"The bottom line is we've got too many kids too overweight," he said, "and they're walking time bombs."

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