Few political leaders escape the satiric jabs of cartoonists who delight in capturing prominent physical features in pen and ink. For William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States, it was especially mean-spirited.
When Taft was inaugurated as president in 1909, at 6 feet 2 inches, he weighed in at 354 pounds. He was ridiculed in the press to no end, with one legendary (although not confirmed) story that he was so obese he got stuck in the bathtub and could be removed only after being slathered in butter. Nobody ever said being a public figure was easy.
His weight weighed heavy on the man, so to speak, and Taft worked diligently to control it, according to an analysis of a lengthy correspondence between Taft and his doctor, Nathaniel E. Yorke-Davies. The letters, archived in the Library of Congress, were researched by Deborah Levine, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Providence (R.I.) College. They reveal a history of yo-yo dieting and a weight-loss program that is surprisingly contemporary.
In the early 1900s, prior to his becoming president, Taft lost 60 pounds with the help of Yorke-Davies, who was a pioneering diet doctor based in Britain. According to an independent assessment by USA Today, the diet was roughly 2,000 to 2,100 calories a day with about 30 percent of the calories coming from carbohydrates, 30 percent from protein and about 40 percent from fat.
The current recommended macronutrient ratio according to the National Academy of Sciences is 45-65 percent of calories coming from carbohydrates, 10-35 percent from protein and 20-35 percent from fat. Taft’s plan would have jived well with Robert Atkins.
In a relationship that was maintained purely through written correspondence — the two exchanged letters weekly — Yorke-Davies advised Taft to lose at least 60 to 80 pounds.
Meals were strictly scheduled and portions were weighed. According to The New York Times, Taft was to eat a small portion of lean meat or fish at every meal, cooked vegetables at lunch and dinner, a plain salad, and unadorned stewed or baked fruit. He was allowed a single glass of wine at lunch, as well as the doctor’s own diet product of special gluten biscuits. Snacks were forbidden, a diet journal was kept, and he weighed himself daily.
Yet even so, after his initial 60-pound loss, Taft bounced back and forth between 255 and 350 pounds, and spent 25 years corresponding with the doctor and seeing other physicians in an effort to control his corpulence. When he died in 1930, he weighed 280 pounds.
What’s perhaps most striking about the tale of Taft is not the specifics of a low-carb diet so early on in the realm of diet plans, but that the problem of losing weight and keeping it off has been plaguing us for so long. We can send people to the moon and shoot an email across the planet in a few seconds, but we can’t figure out how to control obesity, one of the biggest health issues of our day.
His story, Levine said, “sheds a lot of light on what we are going through now.”
The findings were published in The Annals of Internal Medicine.
See Taft, the “portly, jovial personality,” in the film clip below: