President Taft’s four weight-loss “secrets”

A little more than 100 years ago, President William Howard Taft had a picnic lunch by the ocean, right across the street from where I am writing now on Loblolly Cove, north of Boston. From the 1890s to the 1920s, the “North Shore” was the nation’s premiere summer resort area. Several Presidents made it the equivalent of the “summer White House,” including Taft, Grover Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge.

Different features attracted different Presidents, but for Taft he enjoyed eating by the sea. And his seaside picnic lunch at Loblolly Cove was no simple affair. I recently found some old photos of the event. They show a tented pavilion, two full-size picnic tables, and a catering truck to accommodate this grand production.

Of course, Taft’s love of a good feast is legendary. He was the heftiest President to serve in the White House. And he even had a special bathtub installed to accommodate him.

Historians often portray President Taft as oblivious or unconcerned about his weight. They say he represented the era of fashionable corpulence, originally associated with the “gay 90s.” But in reality, Taft made a lifelong effort to get his weight under control.

Sound familiar?

In fact, Taft’s rise to political power actually coincided with increasing social and medical awareness about the dangers of carrying extra weight. And it was around this time that the medical world began to define obesity as a medical problem.

We know that weight problems in American first emerged as a phenomenon in the middle of the 19th century. As farms expanded and became more productive, foods became easier to cultivate and distribute. As a result, more and more people had trouble dealing with this new era of plenty. Including Taft.

In 1905, Taft began his term as Vice President under Theodore Roosevelt. At 314 lbs., Taft experienced heartburn, fatigue sleep apnea and other complaints. To help him lose weight, Taft retained Dr. Nathaniel Yorke-Davis, a British medical expert on diet.

Dr. Yorke-Davies wrote one of the more popular diet books of the time, called “Foods for the Fat, A Treatise on Corpulency and a Dietary for its Cure.”

In his first year working with Dr. Yorke-Davies, Taft lost 59 lbs. But he promptly regained it. In his efforts, Taft became an early example of the “yo-yo dieting” syndrome.

Years later, after leaving the White House in 1913, Taft again shed a significant amount of weight. And this time, he kept it off. (Having read about the frequent elaborate dinners in the White House, and having attended a lunch with Mrs. Barbara Bush once myself, I can see why the White House would be no place to try to lose weight if you have any interest in deliciously prepared foods.)

So, what exactly did Dr. Yorke-Davies do to help the former President finally gain control of his weight?

To help Taft, Dr. Yorke-Davies was already using and combining virtually every successful feature of so-called “miracle” diets of the late 20th century. And he did this more than 100 years ago. Plus, he put them all together, instead of just relying on one good-sounding gimmick or another.

So, here’s what the good doctor established:

  1. He gave Taft a three-page list of allowed versus forbidden foods, like the later “New York Police Diet,” “Conway Diet,” and “Diet Watchers.” This list focused heavily on lean meats. And limited sugar and carbohydrates.
  2. The diet focused on high fat, low carb foods, like the so-called “Atkins Diet.” Our primate human ancestors actually “discovered” and practiced this approach. And we could more accurately call it the “Paleolithic Prescription” for hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age.
  3. Dr. York-Davies also required Taft to track his weight and keep a food diary. Taft mailed back a weekly report to Dr. Yorke-Davies. Eventually, this technique also became the basis for virtually all government-sponsored research on diet, nutrition, and health. But as well as this works for individuals trying to lose weight, it has serious limitations as a research measure for population health studies. (See my Daily Dispatch called, “Garbage In, Garbage Out” for more about that.)
  4. Dr. Yorke-Davies kept close communication with Taft and provided a supportive relationship during his weight loss journey. The idea of ongoing encouragement and support is now the “secret” behind the success of programs like “Weight Watchers,” and also “the Ornish Diet,” in my view.

So, when yet another diet guru bursts onto the national spotlight and incorrectly and irresponsibly pushes just one of these four approaches as the “secret” he just “discovered,” you can confidently ignore him or her. And all the others.

Forget the “gurus” and stick to the common sense and moderation of Dr. Yorke-Davies from a century ago. After all, it worked for President Taft.