10 Modern Weight-Loss Lessons From William Howard Taft’s Obesity Struggle

Newly discovered letters between America's heaviest president and his physician reveal some surprisingly relevant truths about what it takes to lose weight and maintain weight loss—in any era.

By Lauren Gelman
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    One of America’s first public figures to be known—and often mocked—for his morbid obesity, President William Howard Taft was constantly trying to lose weight. In a recent paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers analyze a revealing exchange of letters between the corpulent leader and Nathaniel Yorke-Davies, a British diet doctor Taft hired to help him slim down.

    Taft weighed 314 pounds when he began working with York-Davies in December of 1905, and slimmed down to 255 pounds about five months later. But by the time he was inaugurated in 1909, Taft’s weight had climbed back up to 354 pounds—surely, a frustration that yo-yo dieters in any decade can relate to.

    Indeed, Taft's weight-loss battle—and Yorke-Davis’s now seemingly timeless advice, as detailed in the Annals paper—provides some surprisingly relevant lessons for anyone struggling with weight loss today.

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    Family nagging often leads to action

    Taft contacted Yorke-Davies for obesity treatment at the suggestion of his sister-in-law, Julia Taft, who had discussed her own weight loss with the doctor.

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    Weight loss takes time

    Shows like Extreme Makeover and The Biggest Loser make it seem like heroic weight loss can happen in a matter of minutes, but the truth is that it can take awhile, even if you—like President Taft—have a lot to lose. It took him five months to drop from 314 pounds in December 1905 to 255 pounds in April 1906.

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    Accountability helps

    In Dr. Yorke-Davies' first letter to Taft, in which he outlines their weight-loss plan, he asks Taft to "write me weekly … so that I may get some reports to see how you are getting on."

    Research shows that tracking helps people lose and maintain weight loss—be it keeping a food diary, weighing yourself regularly, or even something Taft and York-Davies could never have imagined: Tweeting or Instagramming your meals to keep you honest.

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    It’s an investment

    Losing weight ain't always cheap or easy, especially if you want to spend money on whipping up nutritious, organic homemade meals or join a gym to ensure you boost your physical activity. As for Taft, he paid York-Davies an initial retainer of 14 British pounds, then an additional 25 British pounds to ensure access to his expertise for as long as he needed. In today’s U.S. dollars, that’s the equivalent of $1,713 for the retainer and  $3,059 for the lifelong access!

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    Obesity is a disease that may require a doctor’s help

    It took the American Medical Association, the nation's largest doctor professional organization, until the summer of 2013 to officially define obesity as a disease, but York-Davies said so much earlier. In one of his popular books of the time, Foods for the Fat: A Treatise on Corpulence and a Dietary for its Cure, he wrote: "Excessive fat should be regarded as a grave matter, in every way likely to shorten life. … Death by faintness from an overloaded heart or and overloaded stomach, by apoplexy from congestion and weakness of the blood-vessels, by bronchitis or dropsy from poorness of the blood … often terminates life about the beginning of the sixth decade."

    According the Annals paper, "Taft chose the professional medical model, in which obesity was understood as a medical condition with clear symptoms and risks that needed professional management."

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    A too-restrictive diet won’t work

    As for Taft's actual food plan, York-Davies approach was notably different from—and much less extreme than—other popular diet gurus of the period, such as John Harvey Kellogg. It wasn't vegetarian and caffeine and alcohol were allowed. His diet focused on lean meats and reduced sugar intake—something that sounds much like the sensible "clean eating" strategies espoused by dietitians and nutrition scientists today.

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    Losing weight can soothe belly troubles

    TMI alert: In one letter to York-Davies, Taft revealed just how much his weight loss was improving some of his digestive symptoms. "My bowels have usually moved, but there is a very great difference between the extent of the stool now from what it was when I was eating everything … I used to suffer from acidity of the stomach [heartburn], and I suppose that was due to overloading it. Since I have undertaken this diet, I have not suffered from it at all."

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    It’s easy to cheat

    Anyone staring down eggplant parm in the fridge at 11:30 p.m. knows this all too well, but perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that even Taft in the early 1900s struggled to stick with his prescribed diet plan. York-Davies emphasized the importance of having a specific plan to help keep you on track in this letter: "People who draw out their own dietary constantly break the rules they lay down for themselves and … fail, as a matter of course; whereas when I treat them, I expect them to see me or write me a weekly letter, and by this and the weekly weight loss in weight and abdominal girth, I am able to see that the result is a loss, which varies, according to the degree of obesity, from 10 to 20 pounds a month."

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    Take care not to rebound

    Weight-loss success stories readily admit that often it's not losing weight that's the hard part—it's keeping the pounds off long-term. Falling off the wagon is common; hence, why Taft gained back nearly 100 pounds between when he initially worked with York-Davies and when he was inaugurated a few years later as America's 27th president.

    After Taft had ceased treatment from York-Davies for a time, the doctor followed up to learn he had gained 19 pounds. He encouraged Taft to follow his counsel again or else "in another three or four years you will be almost back to your original weight."

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    Obesity stigma is nothing new

    If you think fat shaming and a public obsession with celebrity weight gain and loss is a modern phenomenon, you'll be interested to learn that Taft's excessive weight "had long been the subject of jokes, editorial cartoons, and newspaper articles," according to the paper. The study authors write that his size seriously affected journalists' opinions of his leadership abilities. A rumor that the President got stuck in a White House bathtub became a favorite gossip topic among the U.S. public. Later, his 70-pound weight loss, under the guidance of a different doctor, made the front page of newspapers across the country.

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