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An article outlines President William Howard Taft’s efforts to lose weight

The dieting struggles of William Howard Taft
Annals of Internal Medicine, Oct. 15

Legend has it that William Howard Taft was so large that he once got stuck in a White House bathtub; some say butter was used to help remove him. True or not, there’s no question that Taft struggled with his weight. The heaviest president in U.S history, he weighed, by one account, 354 pounds at his inauguration in 1909.

Taft was not blind to his problem. “No real gentleman weighs more than 300 pounds,” he often commented, according to Deborah I. Levine, an assistant professor of health and policy management at Providence College in Rhode Island. He also believed that being fitter would make him a better civil servant. In an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Levine outlines Taft’s obesity-related problems, including indigestion and disrupted sleep, and his efforts to combat them.

In 1905, when he was secretary of war, Taft hired Nathaniel Yorke-Davies, an English diet expert to oversee a weight-loss plan. The Yorke-Davies regimen sounds quasi-Atkins, with a focus on lean meats and reduced intake of sugar.

Taft was encouraged to exercise, and he began each day with “a tumbler of hot water with lemon,” followed by a breakfast of “unsweetened tea or coffee, ‘two or three Gluten biscuits’ and 6 ounces of lean grilled meat,” Levine writes. Over the course of 10 years, Taft wrote to Yorke-Davies at least weekly, providing details of his food intake, physical activity and weight, Weight Watchers style; Yorke-Davies responded with tough love. (There’s no evidence that the two ever met.) From December 1905 till April 1906, Taft lost nearly 60 pounds, Levine reports.

Like so many dieters, Taft struggled to maintain his svelte self, and as fans of the Washington Nationals can attest, his weight issues continue to hamper his efforts to keep up with his fellow Racing Presidents on the field.

William Howard Taft was president of the United States between 1909-1913 and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court between 1921-1930. (Harris & Ewing Photographic News Service)

Nora Krug is a Book World editor.

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