What President Taft Can Teach Us About Weight Loss

By Jody Lin, M.D.

President William Howard Taft didn't have it easy.

Everyone who has taken a White House tour knows by now that his administration marked the installation of the largest presidential bathtub. Legend has it he once got stuck in it.

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Widely remembered as a lackluster politician, Taft was our portliest president - a fact that did not go unnoticed by the American populace.

But Taft may yet distinguish himself in another way, according to a new review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. He may be a historical poster child for the future of dieting.

Deborah Levine, a professor of health policy and management at Providence College in Rhode Island, pored over the letters between Taft and famed English diet expert Dr. Nathaniel Yorke-Davies that were written in 1905. What she found was a trans-Atlantic correspondence similar to today's cutting-edge approaches to weight loss, using what are now considered proven weight loss tools along with remote counseling.

Taft's version of the iPad, of course, was an actual pad of paper, and his desktop was, well, a desktop.

But Levine learned from the letters she studied that, in the course of their communications, Taft managed to shave 60 pounds off his more than 300-pound frame.

Nancy Copperman, director of public health initiatives at the North Shore-LIJ Health System, who was not involved in the research, said Taft's letters from more than a century ago still have relevance for today's dieters.

"Here we are over 100 years later … and we're really treating obesity in the same way," she said. "And the things that were used for President Taft to lose weight are now evidence-based strategies."

The letters may also show support for remote counseling as a weight-loss method - particularly interesting as more people use high-tech apps to help their weight-loss efforts. A separate study released last week revealed that 30 of the most popular applications for iPhone and Android devices are for losing weight, although researchers said they were far from perfect.

Sherry Pagoto, a University of Massachusetts researcher behind this study, said the success of these apps come from their ability to help us make connections - much like the one Taft enjoyed with his British diet guru.

"We could have better care with patients and spend less time with them," Pagoto said.

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For right now, most weight-loss apps do a great job of tracking calorie consumption and weight-loss progress, and reminding people to go to the gym. But they still fall short in many ways when it comes to connecting us with those who can help us shed the pounds. And it is this aspect that Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University, said should be improved in future versions of these apps. They don't "write back" as Taft's doctor did.

"If you have an interesting website, an app, and an engaged clinician … the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," said Katz. "The real value of apps is they can populate the space between contact with a physician."

So it might make sense for us to take a page from Taft's letters as these new technologies develop. As "connected" as these devices make us feel, those hoping to lose weight should strive to use new apps or current technology, such as Skype, to keep the communication going between themselves and health providers, even outside the doctor's office.

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