Bill Clinton says he can still recall what it felt like to be teased as a chubby boy in Hope, Ark. As an adult, he has continued his battles with weight. But thanks to a low-fat diet he adopted after a quadruple heart bypass in September 2004, he is 20 lbs. lighter than when he left the White House nearly five years ago—and he’s spreading the gospel. More than 9 million kids in the U.S., he will tell you, are overweight or obese. So Clinton, 59, has joined children’s TV network Nickelodeon in a $30 million campaign to raise awareness about the problem. He kicked it off by participating in a Nick News special (to air Nov. 13) with about 60 teens and, in an exclusive interview, spoke with PEOPLE’s Sharon Cotliar.
Why have you taken up this cause?
Last year I got a firsthand reminder of the importance of a healthy diet and regular exercise when I nearly had a heart attack. If we don’t act now, our children will face grave health conditions similar to the one I had but at a much younger age. This could be the first generation of American children to live shorter lives than their parents. We just can’t let that happen.
Why are so many children having a difficult time staying fit?
Some of them don’t have physical-education classes. Or their school cafeterias offer junk food. And many schools have vending machines filled with sugary snacks that, while hard to pass up, are just not good for them. Most of them eat fast foods high in trans fats.
What were your own challenges as a child?
I always struggled with my weight. I was teased a lot [as a kid]. I still remember when neither side wanted me in a softball game. Growing up in the South, I ate a lot of fried foods that weren’t good for me. I was too often encouraged to overeat. Back then many people thought a fat baby was a healthy one.
One girl at the Nick event said she had been called “whale” at school. What advice did you give her?
I tried to encourage the kids to be patient as they are trying to get healthy, not take the teasing to heart and not get down on themselves or give up. One of the children I spoke to taught me a great line: “I may be overweight, but I am not mean.”
What were your favorite childhood foods?
Fried chicken and fruit pie, especially peach. My favorite meals were the ones I spent with my grandmother’s brother Uncle Buddy and his wife, Ollie. A typical weekend lunch included ham or a roast, corn bread, spinach or collard greens, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, green beans or lima beans, fruit pie and lots of iced tea. On a special day, we added homemade ice cream to the pie.
As an adult, did you eat differently?
After I grew up, I exercised vigorously, but my eating habits were not always the best.
How did you and Senator Clinton teach Chelsea about being fit?
Once Chelsea was born, Hillary and I paid special attention to eating healthy. Chelsea grew up watching me go jogging every day, but I think Chelsea deserves most of the credit for how healthy she lives. She became a vegetarian on her own in her early teens but now has added fish into her diet. She was in ballet from age 5 until she graduated high school and continues to maintain a very high level of fitness.
After your bypass, how did you change your diet?
I try to avoid fried foods. I eat more granola and low-fat yogurt, fruits, vegetables and fish. Hillary has been a real source of strength for me in making sure I exercise and eat properly. It’s important to remember that you don’t have to be overweight to be unhealthy. When I had my surgery, I was 10 lbs. lighter than when I left the White House.
Is there any food you can’t resist?
I’ll grab a few French fries or some barbecue every now and then, rarely and in small amounts. But I eat healthy most of the time. Going through the heart surgery and the recovery once was enough for me. Besides, I like my new diet.
You look great. How are you feeling? Are you able to jog again?
I feel great, thanks. I don’t jog anymore, but I do try to walk every day. It’s not easy when you travel as much as I do, but I do my best wherever I am, and as a result, I feel better.