By People Staff
August 16, 2004 12:00 PM

Gov. Mike Huckabee used to dread climbing the two flights of marble stairs in the Arkansas state-house. “I prayed there wasn’t a gaggle of reporters at the top, because I knew I’d need two minutes to catch my breath.” It was no secret that Huckabee was a big man. But few knew how seriously his weight was affecting his health. Huckabee, too, tried to ignore it. Then in June of last year, his friend, former Gov. Frank White, died suddenly of a heart attack. The second-term Republican and Baptist minister, now 48, resolved to change his diet and lifestyle and in about 10 months lost 105 lbs. He spoke with PEOPLE’S Steve Barnes about his journey.

Raised in working-class Hope, Ark., Huckabee saw both parents and two grandparents suffer weight-related Type 2 diabetes.

When you have parents who were dirt-poor in the Depression, you eat what’s here today because there may not be another meal. And foods that stretch one’s wallet also stretch the waistline: potatoes, meatloaf that’s part breadcrumbs. And in the South we batter and fry everything and eat it with gravy.

As a kid, I was not obese, but I had a problem with my weight. I didn’t really start gaining steadily until I got married [to Janet in 1974]. And no, it’s not my wife’s fault! My weight is absolutely my own doing. I ate too much and exercised too little, simple as that.

In 1996 Huckabee became governor. That year he also lost and regained 50 lbs. while trying a slew of commercial diet plans. At 5’11’ and nearly 280 lbs., he was dubbed “Wide-Body” by a local newspaper columnist.

At events, there was no time to eat—I was talking. I’d leave starving and stop at a fast-food place for whatever I could eat in a car or on a plane: burgers, fries. I was on the go 20 hours a day but didn’t have any energy. Standing for long periods, my joints just hurt.

Even when I had symptoms of a heart blockage—chest pain, shortness of breath—I didn’t go to the doctor immediately because I knew he would put me in the hospital for three days, and I didn’t have the time. This is how stubborn I was: “I can afford to die, but not to be out the next three days.”

In March of last year I woke up with my arm numb and tingly. I called the doctor. He immediately did blood work and said, “You’re diabetic.” I was devastated and angry at myself. I hadn’t done anything to prevent it.

In May of 2003 Huckabee was visited by his friend, former Arkansas governor White, who had been working as the state bank commissioner and was about to retire.

He was 69 and he and his wife, Gay, were anxious to travel. I was excited for him. But I was concerned too. He was also overweight, and as he left my office, I saw him fighting for breath. A few days later Gay found him on the floor of their home—he’d had a heart attack and died. I thought, “Frank made it to 69. I won’t make it to 59.” My doctor told me that, without some lifestyle changes, I was in the last decade of my life. That meant I wouldn’t see a bunch of grandkids grow up.

In June 2003 Huckabee sought the advice of Dr. Philip Kern, director of the Weight Control Program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

He estimated I was eating 3,000 calories a day. I went to only 800, on meal-replacement shakes and unlimited vegetables. It was difficult. After three months Dr. Kern introduced a balanced diet of 1,600 daily calories.

To avoid hitting the drive-through, I started taking meals with me in a cooler: a salad and some lean turkey or chicken for lunch, apples for snacks, and for dinner, salmon, steak or chicken, steamed or grilled vegetables. But I’ll still splurge on barbecued ribs, because no self-respecting Southerner can completely give up some things God intended us to enjoy.

After I lost 40 lbs. Dr. Kern added exercise to the program. I had not run since I was 14—when we had to in gym class or because some big guy was chasing me. At first I couldn’t walk one lap without feeling winded. After four months I could run three to four miles. It was like Forrest Gump coming out of his braces! This past Fourth of July I ran my first 5K and finished in 28:39.

By March this year, Huckabee had lost 105 lbs. and reversed all the symptoms of his diabetes. Now he’s focused on his state’s weight problem: One in four Arkansans is obese, just over the national average.

In May we started the Healthy Arkansas initiative. It’s not an attempt to regulate lives but to make healthy living desirable and doable. By educating people and offering financial incentives for state employees, we hope to reduce obesity rates. You never ask others to do what you’re unwilling to do. People know I used to go to the state fair and visit every food vendor. In the past I’d prayed, “Lord, instill in me the kind of metabolism where I can just enjoy everything on the buffet.” I’ve come to realize that prayer won’t be answered. So I continue to pray for the strength to live right.