President Taft Was America’s Earliest Low Carb Weight Watcher

His diet was similar to The Zone Diet, The Atkins Diet and Weight Watchers

President Taft-America's Earliest Low Carb Weight Watcher

They called him “Big Bill Taft,” and once, he got stuck in the bathtub because of his enormous girth. Now, a new paper sheds light on his struggles, and illuminates the fact that his challenges were identical to those of today’s dieters. President Taft was America’s earliest “weight watcher,” struggling with obesity and seeking out medical care for his burgeoning waistline. His doctor devised a comprehensive weight loss plan for the portly president which looks almost like a precursor to the Atkin’s diet; it was heavy on meat and light on carbs and sugars. A new study has revealed that President Taft’s diet plan set the tone for today’s medical approach to obesity.

In the new research paper authored by Deborah Levine, entitled Corpulence and Correspondence: President William H. Taft and the Medical Management of Obesity, it is clear that Taft had a close relationship with his personal physician. He sought out the advice of Nathaniel E. Yorke-Davies, who, at the time, was considered one of the foremost experts on weight loss. He instructed Taft to go on a low-fat, low calorie, low sugar diet and to keep a daily journal of everything he ate. In addition to keeping a food diary, Taft communicated with his doctor very frequently, up to two times a week by post, to allow his physician to keep tabs on his daily regimen. Taft was also required to record his weight every day and to send a report of the number on the scale to the doctor at least once a week. At the time, Taft was the secretary of war.

President Taft-America's Earliest Low Carb Weight Watcher
President Taft poses with President Elect Woodrow Wilson.

Taft at his heaviest weighed over 350 pounds. In addition to being very heavy, he was also very tall, clocking in at over 6 feet. At the time he sought out Dr. Yorke-Davies’ help, he weighed 314 pounds and was anxious about his weight. He also suffered from heartburn and may have had sleep apnea as well, which caused extreme fatigue. Taft complained that he was compelled to partake in too many rich dinners with other politicians, which only added to his struggles.

Dr. Yorke-Davies was the popular author of one of America’s earliest diet books, Foods for Fat: A Treatise on Corpulency and a Dietary for its Care. He would go on to lead Taft to a successful 60 pound weight loss and stayed in touch with the president for over ten years.

What Normal-Weight People Ate in 1905

In 1905, the year Taft first sought out medical advice for his weight problem, the typical American family was eating what today’s sensibilities say is a very healthy diet. Firstly, there were no fast food restaurants with which to contend and secondly, portions were much, much smaller than they are now. America’s families were eating very fresh and completely organic foods, free of dangerous pesticides and preservatives. This undoubtedly allowed the food to be much more easily utilized by the body. Obesity, at that time called “corpulence,” was very rare indeed, much rarer than it is now. The average person did not ingest very many refined carbohydrates, and his or her diet would have consisted of proteins flounder, like ham, codfish, beef, clams, oysters and veal along with seasonal vegetables and fruits grown right in their own gardens.

The average American during that time would have eaten grains, but the portions were much smaller. There were pubs and restaurants open in cities, but they did not serve the enormous portions we do today. Meats would be served in reasonable six ounce portions while breads were made with mostly whole grains, thus retaining all of the vital fiber, nutrients and vitamins essential for proper assimilation in the body.

One of the most important considerations to think about when discussing the diet of early Americans was the fact that they were so much more active than we are today. Making a meal meant hard labor: toiling in farms and gardens, mixing vast amounts of dough by hand, cooking in heavy clothes and in high heat conditions, and stoking the cooking fires constantly. The average American in 1905 was burning a much bigger amount of calories than does the average person today. In President Taft’s case, the lack of this kind of labor and the heavily sedentary conditions in which he lived may have contributed to his weight problems.


Taft’s Special Diet Plan 

The paper by Levine details Taft’s diet plan, which looked very similar to the modern-day Atkin’s or Zone diet with the exception of limited quantities of wheat biscuits without butter. His daily intake was almost identical to the Zone diet plan, except the Zone is based on 40% protein, 30% carbs and 30% fat. Taft’s diet, by comparison, was 30% protein, 30% carbs and 40% fat. He also took in a total of just 2,000 calories per day.

This chart shows a similar breakdown of what President Taft would ingest on his healthy eating plan.
This chart shows a similar breakdown of what President Taft would ingest on his healthy eating plan.

Taft was encouraged to eat plenty of lean proteins, such as chicken, fish and lean cuts of meat, along with large portions of non-starchy vegetables such broccoli, green beans, lettuces, asparagus, greens, tomatoes, cauliflower and onions.

In the morning upon rising, Taft would slowly sip a glass of lemon juice stirred in hot water as a morning elixir. Breakfast time was around 9:00 a.m. and consisted of a couple of biscuits along with one portion of lean protein and tea or coffee with no sugar or milk. At lunchtime, Taft would dine on one biscuit, a portion of lean protein, a portion of non-starchy veggies, one piece of fruit and a small glass of wine. Interestingly, the modern-day Atkins diet also allows dieters to have small amounts of red wine on the maintenance phase. At tea time, Taft would sip on some hot broth or black coffee or tea. Dinner was thin broth, two servings of lean proteins, including one serving of seafood, a larger vegetable portion, salad and fruit along with two biscuits.

The biscuits mentioned in the diet plan would likely be a lot smaller than today’s biscuits and would have probably been only about 2 ounces in size. Overall, the diet plan was low-carb even with the biscuits included. The doctor provided Taft with a list of “allowed” and “forbidden” foods along with a list of approved condiments.

President Taft-America’s Earliest Low Carb ‘Weight Watcher’
President Taft sitting on the porch.

Besides the restrictive diet plan, Taft was encouraged to exercise regularly. His chosen forms of physical activity included golf and frequent horseback riding. He was very regimented in his following of the diet plan; he religiously kept fastidious records and never missed a scheduled communication with his doctor. His adherence to the plan may have been what caused his success during the first year of the diet.

In the years that followed, Taft was a victim of what we now term “yo-yo dieting,” and he consulted numerous additional physicians in an attempt to keep his obesity under control. At the end of his life, he succumbed to heart failure, which may have been brought on, in part, by his struggles with weight. President Taft was America’s earliest low carb weight watcher. His diet plan informed the modern-day treatment of obesity and his challenges seem very familiar to anyone who has struggled with weight.

By: Rebecca Savastio

Annals of Internal Medicine

New York Times

USA Today

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