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History Lesson on Diet and Weight Loss

William Howard Taft, c. 1910, Oil on artist board by William Valentine Schevill. Photo by cliff1066™ via Flickr.

William Howard Taft, c. 1910, Oil on artist board by William Valentine Schevill. Photo by cliff1066™ via Flickr.

Much has changed over the last 100 years, but it turns out that the advice doctors give their patients when it comes to weight loss is still very similar.

A look at the letters between President William Howard Taft, our heaviest president, and his physician shows that the advice Taft received—cut back on calories, eat lean meat, eat more fruits and vegetables, and exercise more—is similar to what those seeking to lose weight today will also hear.

Deborah Levine, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Providence College in Rhode Island, examined the correspondence, beginning in 1905, in a new article in the Annals of Internal Medicine. She wrote, “The science and understanding of obesity has changed, but the basic management is the same.”

The diet Taft’s doctor recommended was as follows.

  • 8 a.m. A tumbler of hot water with lemon, sipped slowly.
  • 9 a.m. Breakfast: unsweetened tea or coffee, “two or three Gluten biscuits,” and 6 ounces of lean grilled meat.
  • 12:30 p.m. Lunch: 4 ounces of lean meat, 4 ounces of cooked green vegetables without butter, 3 ounces of baked or stewed unsweetened fruit, 1 gluten biscuit, and 1 of the recommended “sugarless” wines. Afternoon cup of tea, coffee, or beef tea without milk or sugar advised.
  • 7-8 p.m., Dinner: clear soup, 4 ounces of fish, 5 ounces of meat, 8 ounces of vegetables, and 4 ounces of stewed fruit. Plain salad and 2 gluten biscuits, if desired.  A list of vegetables and condiments were recommended for variation.

In Taft’s day obesity was rare, and the health implications were just beginning to be understood. Today, more than one-third of adults—over 72 million people—are obese, and nearly one in three children are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Combating childhood obesity is a vital task that must include families, communities, and schools. Below are some resources for educators and schools looking for additional ways to support students in forming healthy habits.

  • Action for Healthy Kids offers resources for infusing nutrition and physical activity into the school day, a tool for developing and implementing wellness policies for schools, and grant opportunities that promote healthy environments for kids.
  • Alliance for a Healthier Generation works with schools, companies, community organizations, healthcare professionals, and families to transform the conditions and systems that lead to healthier kids.
  • The National Farm to School Network supports the work of local farm to school programs all over the country.
  • The Healthy Steps for Healthy Lives program is a resource for educators to help support ongoing efforts to teach students about being healthy.
  • Breakfast in the Classroom is an important program that provides nutritious breakfasts to help students be at their best and ready to learn in school. Read about the program’s success in Old Saybrook in this month’s edition of the CEA Advisor arriving in your mailbox this week.
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