At a staggering 340 pounds and a Body Mass Index of 42.3, William Howard Taft wasn’t just the heaviest president in U.S. history. He was also the “first celebrity weight-loss patient,” according to Deborah Levine, a professor of health policy and management at Rhode Island’s Providence College.
For a new report in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, Levine studied the letters exchanged between Taft and English physician Nathaniel E. Yorke-Davies. Taft, who according to legend once got stuck in the presidential bathtub because of his girth, requested a personalized weight-loss plan, writing that “no real gentleman weighs more than 300 pounds.” Yorke-Davies provided him with a program heavy on vegetables, fruits, and grilled lean proteins, and low on carbs and sugar. (In other words, what most modern doctors agree is a healthy way to eat.) The diet worked wonders for the 27th President, who lost 60 pounds.
But Taft wasn’t the only U.S. president with some extra baggage around the middle. Here are five more of the fattest commanders-in-chief, and how they tried—and sometimes failed—to shed the extra weight.
22nd President (1885-1889), 24th President (1893-1897)
240-280 pounds, BMI 34.6
Cleveland struggled with his weight all his life. According to the 1994 book The Health of the Presidents, he went from a “chubby kid” to a big-bellied adult whose own nieces and nephews called him “Uncle Jumbo.” He loved food and hated exercise—he once said “Bodily movement alone . . . is among the dreary and unsatisfying things of life”—and wasn’t all that interested in dieting. The closest he got to an actual diet was when he was 18, stricken with typhoid fever in Buffalo, New York. His doctors prescribed a starvation diet, sometimes called an “absolute diet.” For 3 days, despite already being deathly ill, Cleveland was forbidden from eating any food whatsoever. He somehow didn’t die from the experience.
He almost tried dieting again in 1870, during his campaign for district attorney of Erie County, New York. He and rival Lyman K. Bass made a “gentleman’s agreement” to consume only four glasses of beer per day until the election in November, ostensibly because it wasn’t kosher for district attorneys to be publicly intoxicated. It didn’t take long for them to decide this wasn’t much fun. But rather than break their own rules, they began ordering beer in 48-ounce German steins. That way, they could drink a gallon of alcohol every night and still stick to their responsible intake allowance.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
34th President (1953-1961)
172 pounds, BMI 25.3
General Ike didn’t have a weight problem, but he did struggle with high cholesterol—his levels reached an all-time high of 259 mg/dL on his last day in office—and heart disease. He had his first heart attack in 1955, at the age of 64, and his cardiologist advised him against seeking a second term as president. Instead, he focused on lowering his risk factors with an aggressive, low-fat, low-cholesterol diet.
He stopped eating anything with butter, margarine, cream, or lard. “He has eaten only one egg in the last four weeks; only one piece of cheese,” his personal physician, Dr. Howard Snyder, wrote. “For breakfast he has skim milk, fruit and Sanka. Lunch is practically without cholesterol, unless it would be a piece of cold meat occasionally.” None of it worked— Eisenhower’s cholesterol and weight were only rising—so he tried even more food deprivation. He stopped eating breakfast altogether, and then cut lunch as well. As Dr. Snyder noted, his lack of any nutrition made him “irritable during the noon hour.”
Eisenhower’s empty stomach didn’t affect his sense of humor. In 1960, after hearing that presidential nominee John F. Kennedy had claimed that 17 million people in the U.S. go to bed hungry every night, Eisenhower quipped “Well, I go to bed hungry every night, too, but it’s only because my doctor has me on a diet.”
42nd President (1993-2001)
230 pounds, BMI 28.3
“The good news is, my husband loves to eat and enjoys it,” Hillary Clinton told The New York Times in 1992. “The bad news is, he loves to eat, even when things are not always right for him.” President Clinton’s diet included everything from cheeseburgers and ribs to McDonald’s and Kool-Aid. He tried making some healthy changes during his presidency, adding soy burgers, salmon, and stir fry vegetables to the White House menu. But in just 2 years, between 1997 and 1999, he plumped up by 18 pounds, according to his personal physician.
Things went from bad to worse. In 2004, the 58-year-old Clinton had quadruple bypass surgery. A heart stent replacement followed in 2010. Inspired by surgeon and heart health expert Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, who recommends not eating “anything with a mother or a face,” Clinton became a strict vegan. As he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in 2010, “I went on essentially a plant-based diet. I live on beans, legumes, vegetables, and fruits.” He also drinks a protein shake with almond milk every morning, and avoids all meat, dairy, and eggs. The former president claims he lost 30 pounds on the diet, and today weighs what he did in high school.
26th President (1901-1909)
220 pounds, BMI 30.2
Roosevelt was, according to friends and colleagues, an eating machine. “I saw how it was that he had more than 2 inches of flesh and fat over his ribs,” his campaign manager wrote in 1912, during Roosevelt’s bid for a third term. “I have seen him eat a whole chicken and drink four large glasses of milk at one meal, and chicken and milk were by no means the only things served.” He was also a fan of coffee, and his son, Ted Jr., once claimed that the size of his father’s coffee cups were “more in the nature of a bathtub.” That was just the beginning of his culinary extravagances: Roosevelt enjoyed pigs in blankets, liver and bacon, green turtle soup, and fried chicken with gravy. By all accounts, he should have been a much larger man, at least in Taft territory.
His secret to staying, well, semi-slim was keeping active. He partook in everything from hunting and boxing to chopping wood and tennis. “While in the White House I always tried to get a couple hours’ of exercise in the afternoons,” he wrote in his 1913 autobiography. “A man whose business is sedentary should get some kind of exercise if he wishes to keep himself in good physical trim.”
Warren G. Harding
29th President (1921-1923)
200+ pounds, BMI 23.5
Well before he stepped into the White House, Harding was a health nightmare. He had hypertension, diabetes, constant chest pains, and difficulty breathing. Harding’s solution to his dangerous symptoms? Eat more frankfurters and waffles.
The Presidents’ Cookbook, a 1968 book documenting presidential menus, paints a portrait of Harding’s diet that will harden your arteries just by reading it. White House poker games included “the Presidential favorite: knockwurst and sauerkraut.” Mrs. Harding brought her recipe for “authentic chicken pie” to the White House. A typical breakfast included “scrambled eggs and bacon, wheatcakes with maple syrup, corn muffins, toast, and the proverbial gallons of coffee.” Not all dinner guests of the president shared his immense appetite, so occasional concessions were made. “There was frequent need on White House menus . . . for a light first course or a light dessert.” One can only imagine Harding grimacing at the very idea of a “light” dessert.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in Men’s Health.)