Letters Show Portly President's Weight Woes

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Letters Show Portly President's Weight Woes

News Review From Harvard Medical School

October 15, 2013

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Letters Show Portly President's Weight Woes

When William Howard Taft's weight hit almost 315 pounds, he sought advice from a leading diet guru of his day. The advice of Dr. Nathaniel Yorke-Davies would be familiar today: Eat right and exercise more. On that program, a new medical journal article reports, Taft shed 60 pounds. The article, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, sheds light on obesity treatment in the early 1900s. The condition was rare then. So Taft, then secretary of war, consulted an expert. The British doctor advised him to cut out sugar and most carbohydrates. The diet included lean meats, fish, fruit, vegetables and "gluten biscuits." Taft was told to weigh himself daily. He was supposed to keep detailed records of what he ate and how much he exercised. All of this was shared with Dr. Yorke-Davies in frequent letters. But Taft, like many dieters, backslid. By the time he took office as President in 1909, his weight had ballooned to 354. Despite his weight struggles, he lived to age 73. HealthDay News wrote about the new report October 14.


By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Harvard Medical School


What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

President William H. Taft was morbidly obese and struggled to lose weight all his life. Although he lived until age 73, his quality of life suffered. He had symptoms he recognized to be directly related to his obesity -- an "acid stomach," shortness of breath, problems sleeping and daytime fatigue.

Today we know these are symptoms of:

  • Acid reflux (heartburn)
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Hypoventilation (inability to take deep breaths because of a large abdomen)

Today's issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine provides us with details of President Taft's multiple attempts to lose weight. Deborah Levine, Ph.D., gleaned the information from an archive of Taft's letters. The most telling came from exchanges with an English diet expert, Dr. Nathaniel Yorke-Davies.

Dr. Yorke-Davies was one of the first doctors to recognize the dangers of obesity. During the late 1800s, this condition was uncommon. He identified obesity as a medical condition that caused lung and heart problems and early death. His book titled Foods for the Fat: A Treatise on Corpulency and a Dietary for its Cure became quite popular.

After reading his book, Taft hired the doctor in 1905 to prescribe his weight-loss program. At that time, Taft's weight had peaked at 314 pounds, according to one of the letters. His doctor specified a diet of:

  • Lean meats
  • A little fish
  • Vegetables
  • Plain salad
  • No sugar
  • Minimal carbohydrates

It worked. Taft lost 60 pounds over 5 months.

However, as with most dieters, Taft gained the weight back and more. His weight continued to cycle up and down. At the time he took office as President in 1909, he tipped the scale at 354 pounds.

Despite his obesity, President Taft lived to age 73. This was much longer than the average life expectancy. Taft was born in 1857 and died in 1930. The average life expectancy for a man born in the same year as Taft was less than 45 years.

I suspect Taft was one of the people we now call the metabolically healthy. These are the few obese people who, despite their weight, don't develop type 2 diabetes and have no greater risk of heart and blood vessel disease.


What Changes Can I Make Now?

President Taft likely inherited the right genes. But he also made choices that we know help keep you healthy despite being overweight.

  • He exercised regularly.
  • He weighed himself daily and had to report his weights back to his doctor.
  • He ate a diet that we still today would consider to be very healthy.

Here are some tips that might help you eat better and be more active:

  • Eat breakfast. If possible, have yogurt. Yogurt eaters tend to maintain healthier weights.
  • Stay away from potatoes. They don't count as a vegetable.
  • Watch less television. TV is the enemy of exercise and the friend of snacking.
  • Get enough sleep, but not too much. People who sleep less than six hours or more than nine hours a day are more likely to gain weight.
  • Don't overeat or skip exercise on weekends. Be consistent day to day.
  • Weigh yourself regularly. Seeing a couple of extra pounds on the scale can motivate you to get back on track.
  • Always choose the lower-calorie foods. Of course, that's unrealistic. But if that is your mindset, you have a good chance of making the healthier decision.


What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

About 36% of Americans are obese. But the rate of obesity has stopped rising, at least for now. To decrease that number, weight consciousness and more physical activity must start in early childhood.


Last updated October 15, 2013

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