Bill Clinton is named the animal world's new best friend

The former president has become a vegan. (There's just the small matter of the fish)

He was the president who famously couldn't jog past McDonald's without grabbing a snack, which makes Bill Clinton a most unlikely candidate for vegan hero. But that is exactly what swapping burgers for beans has done for the former fast-food fanatic, according to a leading animal rights campaign group.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) has bestowed its Person of the Year award on Mr Clinton, in recognition of his rebirth as a paid-up member of the mung bean-munching fraternity. Mr Clinton opted for the ultimate in new year cleanses – a largely vegan diet – to purge his body after realising it had taken one burger battering too many. This is, after all, a man who ordered a double hamburger (and fries) to fuel up for an anti-obesity speech.

Peta's decision is not without controversy: Mr Clinton has admitted eating the odd piece of fish. But the organisation said it was "pleased" to name him as its 2010 Person of the Year "because he uses his influence to promote the benefits of following a vegan diet".

The former president recently revealed that he now lived on "beans, legumes, vegetables, fruit" but absolutely "no dairy". He was scared into making the switch after doctors followed up quadruple bypass surgery by inserting two stents – tubes that keep the coronary arteries open – in his heart last February. The prospect of waddling his vegan daughter, Chelsea, down the aisle last summer only hardened his resolve.

The upshot of his new vegan(ish) lifestyle has resulted in Mr Clinton losing 11 kilos (24lb), returning him to his high-school weight. "It changed my whole metabolism," he said. Mr Clinton added that he researched the past 25 years of medical evidence about the benefits of turning vegan and found that 82 per cent of those who switched to a plant-based diet had unclogged their arteries naturally: "I thought I'd become one of those who have a self-cleaning mechanism."

Mr Clinton's award has also earned him a nomination for Peta's Sexiest Vegetarian Celebrity of 2011, to be announced this summer. Previous winners have included the singer Leona Lewis and the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis. The actress Alicia Silverstone, herself a former victor, said she was thrilled about Mr Clinton's conversion. "Yay Bill! I'm so excited for him!" she wrote on her blog.

While veganism remains a lifestyle choice for the ethically hardcore – even the Green MP Caroline Lucas has admitted she is still striving towards becoming vegan – the advent of campaigns such as Sir Paul McCartney's Meatless Monday initiative is inspiring millions worldwide to reduce the amount of meat they eat. More restaurateurs, including Aldo Zilli, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Alain Passard, are making vegetables the stars rather than the accompaniments on their menus, even if less than 1 per cent of the UK population is actually vegan.

A variety of vegans

The former leader of the free world will mix in glamorous company if he chooses to throw a vegan dinner party. The nerdy nut-loaf eating image has been long banished and the some of the world's most glamorous people have embraced a lifestyle which eschews the use of animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.

Fellow guests could include Batgirl actor Alicia Silverstone who was voted Peta's sexiest vegan in 2004. Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix is also a fellow Peta fan. Other thespian vegans include Daryl Hannah, Demi Moore and Natalie Portman while Spiderman star Tobey Maguire, Scottish actor Alan Cumming, and "Hobbit" Elijah Wood are all committed vegans. Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, together with musicians Morrissey, Bryan Adams, Phil Collins and singers Alanis Morissette and Sinead O'Connor could provide a musical accompaniment.

Olympic athlete Carl Lewis and NBA professional basketball player John Salley both provide proof that a vegan lifestyle is no bar to physical excellence while fellow US Democrat Dennis Kucinich can keep him political company and comedian Ellen DeGeneres is on hand to supply some laughs if conversation flags.

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