Coming of age in the early 2000s, I have a strong image of Bill Clinton engrained in my mind: Arkansas-dwelling, saxophone-playing, and, most importantly for the purposes of this article, barbecue-eating. We’ve all seen the infamous McDonald’s SNL skit spoofing Clinton’s questionable dietary choices. But, through it all, his cheeseburger habits were almost endearing; Clinton was a relatable president, and the fact that he would occasionally chow down on meaty, cheesy, fatty, and greasy dishes was a flaw not worth dwelling on for most American people. In fact, it made him “just like us,” a man of the people.

But that notion shifted last year when Clinton’s physician informed him that something had to change: his health was on the line. The doctor suggested a vegan diet for the 65-year old former president, who very publicly underwent a quadruple bypass surgery in 2004.

“We now have 25 years of evidence,” Clinton said in a 2010 interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, referring to how a plant-based diet is known to help lower cholesterol. “I’ll become part of this experiment. I’ll see if I can become one of those that can have a self-clearing mechanism.”

Clinton is a prominent example of a dietary and lifestyle movement whose advantages are proving monumental for many. The Vegetarian Resource Group states that about 3% of American adults are vegetarian, and 1% consider themselves vegan while abstaining from meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy, eggs, and honey.

But, while tremendously vast, the health benefits of this diet are frequently overshadowed by the activism – often extreme – depicted in the mainstream media. The ethical issues surrounding a meat-free lifestyle are of incalculable importance; not only does the diet save the brutal deaths of countless animals, but it also helps to protect the environment from dangerous toxins and chemicals released during the slaughter and transportation processes of meat production.

But what makes Clinton’s transition to a vegan diet so important to the public awareness is the fact that he is not pelting fur coats with paint or even protesting in the streets. Not to say that activism isn’t a part of the vegan lifestyle, but it’s not the only part; the bitter reality is that animal activism still leaves a nasty taste in the mouths of many. Clinton’s decision to go veg demonstrates the equally important counterpart of activism: health.

The evidence of the benefits of this diet has gone from minimal to overwhelming. Studies now show that vegans maintain a healthier weight than those on more traditional low-fat diets. Additionally, soy proteins can help to inhibit tumor growth, lower blood cholesterol levels, decrease the risk of blood clots, and diminish bone loss. The subsequent results are lower risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and osteoporosis.

Clinton’s goal was to lose weight in time for his daughter Chelsea’s wedding last July.

“I lost 24 pounds,” Clinton said. “I wanted to lose a little weight, but I never dreamed this would happen.”

I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the vegan diet could be somehow separated from its stereotypes. I wonder if the health benefits of a plant-based diet could ever reach the mainstream. I wonder when a meat-free diet will be considered obesity and poor health’s biggest enemy.

There are a lot of variables surrounding veganism and its future, but one thing’s for sure: I am beyond ecstatic to see Bill Clinton, a man of the American people, drinking almond milk and eating lettuce wraps.

-Jessica Nicholson