The Taft Way

No real gentleman weighs more than 300 pounds.

–William Howard Taft

It’s been all over the news the last few days: William Howard Taft, our 27th president and later supreme court justice, struggled with his weight just like you and me, the lowly peons, do.

The takeaway from President Taft’s story, you see, is that it wasn’t easy to lose weight back then, and it still isn’t easy to lose weight now. And everything is exactly the same as it always was. And, no, we haven’t been giving you bad nutrition advice. Continue to believe whatever we tell you.


Here are some choice quotes from some of these articles about all the great things we can learn by reading President Taft’s struggles:

Dusting off those archives is important to remind people that obesity isn’t some scary new 21st-century problem, said Dr. Scott Kahan of George Washington University and the STOP Obesity Alliance.

Yes, obesity rates have surged to epidemic levels over the past few decades. But waistlines actually began to expand in the mid-19th century, as food became easier to cultivate and distribute, Kahan said.

Yes, something seems to have happened in the last couple decades, coincidentally the same decades that we planned to solve the obesity problem once and for all by urging people to eat more and more and more and more grain. But don’t pay any attention to that annoying fact. Instead focus on the fact that there have always been some obese people.

Notice that last sentence in Scott Kahan’s quote. That’s what we in the field of education like to call a logical fallacy. Maybe you’ve heard of them. They’re bad enough by themselves, but when they get really nasty is when fallacies get built not just by poor reasoning about actual facts, but poor reasoning about actual lies. Here’ s the difference:

1. Here is Millicent, who can’t afford any health care.

2. Millicent is 81 and elderly.

Fallacy: Therefore no elderly people can afford health care.

As you can see, that fallacy was based on two actual facts. A real Millicent, who really is 81 and really can’t afford health care.

Here’s one based on lies:

1. Raising the debt ceiling doesn’t mean anything–it doesn’t mean we’ll actually go deeper into debt.

2. If we can’t borrow more money, old people, children, and soldiers will die and/or not get paid.

Fallacy: We need to raise the debt ceiling so the government can continue to function.

See the difference?

In the case we have here, the speaker has presented you with a lie couched as an objective fact–waistlines began expanding faster around the mid 20th century–and then suddenly throws in his opinion, couched as a fact (but which is also a lie)–it’s because there was more food around.

It’s a circular argument, as well. Let’s chase is around the Merry-Go-Round:

1. Eating too many calories, more or less regardless of where those calories come from, is the reason people get fat.

2. People started getting fat more around the turn of the century.

3. At the turn of the century, there was more food available than before.

Therefore: people starting eating more food at the turn of the century and consequently got fat.

It’s beautiful, except that 1. is an unproven assumption, while 2 and 3 are both lies.

You’ll notice from the first link that the average weights of men from 1840-1906 were only slightly lower than the weights of 1955–and considering that men got taller on average during that period, even that difference is meaningless. Plus, it was only the young men who weighed a bit more in 1955. The older men and the women actually weighed less in 1955 then in previous decades.

Contrast that with a comparison from 1960 to today, where the average man is 20 pounds heavier than his 1960 counterpart, despite gaining only 1 1/2 inches of average height. Women gained about 1 inch of height but 24 pounds of extra average weight.

Clearly, something happened here. Nothing much in particular happened between 1860 and 1960 except that people got a bit taller. But something really bad happened between 1960 and 2013.

I wonder what it could be?

As you can see from the second linked graph, and many others freely available on the web, Americans didn’t start really snarfing down lots more calories until after 1970, and particularly after 1977.

So let’s try another version of the story. I can’t prove this one any more than Scott can his, but mine fits the facts a lot better.

First, in the 60s George McGovern and his “Senate Committee of Politicians-who-can’t-find-missing-battleships-or-stay-on-budget-when-putting-in-toilets-but-are-qualified-to-tell-Americans-what-to-eat-even-though-half-the-doctors-disagreed-at-the-time” started telling everyone that fat was evil.

So in 1977 (purely coincidentally we can be sure) the admonishment to limit saturated fat was first proclaimed with all the magnificent, authoritative backing of public health officials’ endorsement. By 1980 it was Gospel.

Result? People started eating less fat, as they were told. (You can read about all this, by the way, in the study reported here.)

When you stop eating one thing, like fat, you have to replace it with another. Carbohydrates, primarily from grains and sugar, were what we replaced our fat with. Back then, they told us to reduce fat intake to 30% of our diet.

We did that. It didn’t work.

So then they told us to reduce it to 10%, and now they’re saying there is no safe level of saturated fat for us to eat. They’re saying that because people having been porking up like sausages ever since they started replacing all the fat in their diet with grain and sugar. Eating refined carbohydrates makes you hungry for more refined carbohydrates, so it’s hardly surprising that we eat more now than we did back when we ate more fat and less grain.

We weren’t actually porking up “at the turn of the century.” Sorry Scott.

In fact the increased availability of food that he’s so worried about actually began in the 1920s, not the 1950s. More food was responsible for better nutrition in general, which is why people were taller by the 1960s.

And want to know what the advice was about keeping to a healthy weight back in the 1920s? You know, back when the average woman weighed 140 pounds instead of 162? Reader’s Digest has helpfully reprinted part of its 1920 article about weight loss here. Among some choice quotes:

Never let willful appetite or mistaken courtesy lead you to take a second helping of such starchy foods as rice, tapioca, macaroni, or potato.

But what if the macaroni is whole grain?!?!

Limit your sugar to three teaspoons daily…When the [average city dweller] goes out for a tramp or a few sets of tennis, the unwonted activity is more likely to increase his appetite than his legitimate demand for food.

RD backs off from this one today. They say that you really still need to exercise. Just eat less! Because whenever you demand more effort out of the machine, it always works to simply deny it fuel, right? I mean, my computer is a bit sluggish right now, so I’m thinking of unplugging it. It’s probably consuming too much electricity. If I only plug it in 2/3 of the time, that’ll make it run fast and smooth again…

The stout person must learn that he has both friends and enemies at the table. His enemies are sugar, bread, cereal, desserts, butter, cream, olive oil, bacon, cocoa, and rich sauces.

I would disagree about bacon, cream, olive oil and rich sauces, but do note what items come first on that list. And the rest of the article clearly puts the majority of the blame on starches and sugars.

That was fun, but enough about our friend Scott’s insanity? Let’s go back to President Taft.

President Taft struggled a lot with his weight. He lost 60 pounds during his administration, which he promptly regained. That was on a low calorie diet. Some of the articles actually stoop so low as to call it a “low-carb” diet, but at about 30% of calories from carbohydrates it’s anything but.

Almost none of these articles mention that later in life President Taft lost 70 pounds and kept it off.

On a diet billed as “pre-Atkins.”

The main feature of it was no bread, no sugar, and no potatoes. Now sadly his doctor also advised him to avoid fatty meats, but he did eat plenty of meat all the same.

I’m not sure why these articles are being written today. Supposedly, they are going to comfort us by showing us….what? That losing weight is impossible? That being fat is a disease that you can’t help and can’t tackle on your own? That even someone with the resources of the American Presidency is helpless?

Meanwhile they’re glossing over or even ignoring completely the one thing that helped this man lose significant weight, in a short amount of time, and keep it off for the rest of his life. And I’m pretty sure they’re doing it because they’ve got such an enormous set of blinders on that they can’t see the ground in front of their feet.

How else to explain this report?

If you don’t feel like reading it all, I’ll tell you about it. Basically they took four groups of mice. One group got a low-fat diet and one group got high-fat, but both these groups were fed at unscheduled times and were allowed to eat as much as they wanted when food appeared. No pattern to the feeding, you see. A third and fourth group were also fed low and high fat respectively, but were fed at scheduled times. The findings were a “surprise.”

One surprise was that the group eating limitless amounts of lower-fat foods consumed an equal amount of calories as the scheduled high-fat diet group.

SHOCK! How can that be? Fat is more dense than carbohydrates and protein so of COURSE when you eat it that’s when you get fat because you eat too many calories because fat has more calories than carbohydrates and protein so when you eat it you get fat. It makes perfect sense…

The mice eating high fat–whether scheduled or unscheduled–were trimmer and had better cholesterol levels than any mouse eating a low-fat diet.

So what does this suggest?

Aside from the fact that I clearly need to decide whether it’s “high-fat” or “high fat” and stick with one.

Well, you, being a Not Scientist, and therefore an imbecile, might be dimwitted enough to think: Hey. Maybe eating fat isn’t so bad after all. But that would be stupid. Why look for horses when we really want these hoofbeats to be zebras? The Intellectual Giants over at the American Society for Experimental Biology have done the thinking for you, you simpleton.

It only looks like a high-fat diet was good for these rats. What they’ve discovered, you see, is that in reality it’s the scheduling that does it all. Yes, that’s right. The takeaway from this study is that “Timed high-fat diet resets circadian metabolism and prevents obesity” and this finding “suggests that timing can prevent obesity and rectify the harmful effects of a HF [high fat] diet.

It’s enough to make me cry.

WHAT ABOUT THE UNTIMED HIGH-FAT MICE!?!?!” I am screaming at no one in particular.

They were 12% smaller than the low-fat mice! They had better cholesterol numbers–by TWENTY-ONE PERCENT! Why are these people ignoring those mice completely and focusing only on the ones that were fed on “schedule”?

I just…I need some fat.

And over at Men’s Health, where they report on this study, their brilliant conclusion is that the reason your friend over there eats high fat meals all he wants and stays skinny, while you gain five pounds every time you sniff a cheesecake too long, is all down to timing.

The next time you’re watching your friend eating high-fat foods, pay attention to the time. Chances are, it’s always the same.

I don’t even know where to start. So I think I’ll just end before I have a stroke.


Plato says he’s hungry

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