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Published Oct. 15, 2013

New York Times

William Howard Taft, the only massively obese man ever to be president of the United States, struggled mightily to control his weight a century ago, worrying about his health and image, and endured humiliation from cartoonists who delighted in his corpulent figure.

But new research has found that his weight-loss program was startlingly contemporary, and his difficulties keeping the pounds off would be familiar to many Americans today.

On the advice of his doctor, a famed weight-loss guru and author of popular diet books, he went on a low-fat, low-calorie diet. He avoided snacks. He kept a careful diary of what he ate and weighed himself daily. He hired a personal trainer and rode a horse for exercise. And he wrote his British doctor, Nathaniel Yorke-Davies, with updates on his progress, often twice a week.

Like many dieters today, Taft, 6 feet 2 inches tall, lost weight and regained it, fluctuating from 350 to 255 pounds.

He was 48 when he first contacted Yorke-Davies in 1904, and spent the remaining 25 years of his life corresponding with him and consulting other physicians in a quest to control his weight.

Taft's struggles are recounted by Deborah Levine, a medical historian at Providence College in Rhode Island. She discovered the extensive correspondence between Taft and the diet doctor, including Taft's diet program, his food diary, and a log of his weight. Her findings were published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

His story, Levine said, "sheds a lot of light on what we are going through now."

Obesity experts said Taft's experience highlights how very difficult it is for many fat people to lose substantial amounts of weight and keep it off, and how little progress has been made in finding a combination of foods that lead to lasting weight loss.

Taft served as president from 1909 until 1913.