In addition to being our 27th president, William Howard Taft had another big claim to fame: celebrity dieter—perhaps America’s first. With the help of Nathaniel Yorke-Davies, a London-based doctor who authored Foods for the Fat: A Treatise on Corpulency and a Dietary for its Cure, the 48-year-old, 6'2" Taft slimmed down from 314 to 255 pounds between December 1905 and April 1906—a good goal, since, “no real gentleman weighs more than 300 pounds,” as Taft himself once wrote.
An enlightening paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine last October discussed the copious correspondence Taft had with his overseas diet doctor for more than 10 years. In particular, Taft sought treatment to alleviate obesity-related heartburn, sleep problems and fatigue, at a time when obesity was beginning to be recognized as a serious condition that required medical management. Weight loss was also a key political move then as it is today (think Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey).
Though doctor and patient never met, their letters reveal that the basic strategies promoted today for weight loss date back more than a century: Essential to Taft’s success were a good diet plan and good support—and patient accountability. Among the directives from Dr. Yorke-Davies, Taft had to adhere to a list of permitted and forbidden foods, weigh himself daily and send weekly logs of his weight, “abdominal girth,” food intake and physical activity. Input from friends and family also factored into the treatment plan.
The diet included lots of lean meat, fish and gluten biscuits (no gluten- or carb-haters back then), along with green vegetables (without butter), salads, clear soups, stewed (unsweetened) fruits and coffee and tea (without sugar). There were no snacks or sugary desserts, and meal times were regimented. In contrast to more popular diets of the time, this one was not vegetarian, nor did it forbid caffeine or alcohol (wine was actually recommended with lunch).
In exchange for Taft’s diet and weight records (and even records of his bowel movements), the doctor sent regular updates on how weight loss was enhancing his health. After losing 27 pounds, for instance, Taft’s heart was “considerably relieved” and his “breathing powers improved.” And when Taft hit road bumps, Dr. Yorke-Davies encouraged him to send more frequent and detailed diet records to assess where he may have made “errors.”
Unfortunately, as most dieters from all eras know, keeping the weight off long term is the bigger challenge—and after his initial 60-pound loss, Taft’s weight cycled up and down. At the time of his inauguration in 1909 he was at 354 pounds, a weight that provoked jokes and tainted his political standing. Remarkably, he lived to age 73, still obese at 280 pounds—but, in his own words, a “real gentleman.”