In an article in this week’s edition of the Annals of Internal Medicine, Dr. Deborah Levine reveals that in 1905, four years before he became president, Taft sought professional help to address his obesity. The hefty secretary of war suffered from heartburn, indigestion, fatigue and restless sleep and believed that a slimmer figure would make him a better civil servant. “No real gentleman weighs more than 300 pounds,” Taft once quipped.
On the referral of his sister-in-law, who struggled with her own weight issues, Taft looked all the way across the ocean for assistance. He hired Dr. Nathaniel Yorke-Davies, an English weight-loss guru who had authored popular diet books including “Foods for the Fat: A Treatise on Corpulency and a Dietary for Its Cure.” Levine, a medical historian and assistant professor of health and policy management at Providence College, analyzed the extensive correspondence between Taft and Yorke-Davies and found many familiar, modern-day elements in the weight-loss regimen prescribed for the future president.
“Your present weight is very excessive and it is very important that you should now go through a proper course of dieting and reduce to the extent of sixty or eighty pounds or more,” Yorke-Davies wrote in his first letter to Taft. The doctor instructed his patient to exercise, record his weight every day and maintain a food diary, a la Weight Watchers. Yorke-Davies also included a three-page list of permitted and forbidden foods that detailed meal times and allowable portion sizes. The low-carbohydrate diet that the physician specially crafted for Taft looks to be a forerunner of the popular Atkins Diet with its emphasis on lean meats and limited sugar intake.
According to Levine, the diet prescribed for Taft mandated that he slowly sip a tumbler of hot water with lemon at 8 a.m. each day and follow that an hour later with a breakfast of unsweetened tea or coffee, six ounces of lean grilled meat and two or three gluten biscuits that were made in London to the doctor’s own specifications and shipped to Washington, D.C. At 12:30 Taft was to eat a lunch of four ounces of lean meat, four ounces of cooked green vegetables without butter, three ounces of baked or stewed unsweetened fruit and a gluten biscuit washed down with a “sugarless” wine. He was allowed an afternoon cup of tea, coffee or beef broth without milk or sugar before an evening dinner between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. that consisted of clear soup, four ounces of fish, five ounces of meat, eight ounces of vegetables, four ounces of stewed fruit and, if desired, a plain salad and two gluten biscuits. Yorke-Davies also included a list of vegetables, salads and condiments that could be used for variation.
Taft diligently followed the diet plan and kept in constant trans-Atlantic communication with Yorke-Davies. He maintained his food diary and recorded his weight every morning. Each week, Taft’s secretary sent the records to London. Even from an ocean away, Yorke-Davies went to great extents to monitor the progress of his patient. He sent letters to Taft’s family and confidants asking about his appearance and eating habits.
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The weight-loss plan devised by the English dietician worked. According to Levine, Taft shed nearly 60 pounds on the diet, dropping from 314 pounds in December 1905 to 255 pounds in April 1906. Feeling good at his new weight, Taft switched to a “stationary diet,” but as with many dieters, the secretary of war found keeping the weight off more challenging than shedding the pounds in the first place. Taft confided to his brother that he was “continuously hungry,” and his waistline once again started to expand.
A year after the initial weight loss, Yorke-Davies shared his concerns about the reports he was receiving. “People who have since seen you say you are much stouter than you were a few months ago,” he wrote to his patient. By the time of Taft’s inauguration in 1909, he had regained all his weight—and considerably more. The six-foot, two-inch Taft tipped the scaled at 354 pounds when he took his oath of office and was the heftiest man to ever occupy the Oval Office. While the story that the heaviest of American presidents was so large that he once became stuck in the White House bathtub is likely apocryphal, newspapers did report that a Taft-sized tub “the size of a small pond” and capable of holding “four ordinary men” had been purchased for the president’s use while traveling on the battleship North Carolina.
Levine found no evidence that Taft and Yorke-Davies ever met, but the two men maintained communication through the president’s years in the White House, and after Taft left the presidency in 1913, he re-dedicated himself to dieting under the direction of a different physician and dropped 70 pounds from his frame.