The president's diet and what it says about America

Story highlights

  • President-elect Donald Trump seems to favor fast food
  • Which other commanders in chief had unhealthy eating habits?
  • Presidents' diets tend to mirror national trends, experts say

(CNN)Thomas Jefferson may have been America's first foodie. The Founding Father developed a taste for French cuisine, grew a vast vegetable garden and cherished a farm-to-table diet.

Abraham Lincoln was more of a modest eater. According to historians, the 16th president "liked apples and hot coffee," and didn't demand much in a meal.
    On the other hand, Ronald Reagan was known for his sweet tooth. The country's 40th president munched on jelly beans to quit smoking and quickly fell in love with the candy, often keeping a stash nearby in the White House.
    Now, it seems that a fast food connoisseur will enter the White House.
    President-elect Donald Trump has been known to favor Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's and the taco bowls that are whipped up in Trump Tower's kitchen.
    "But he's not the first one to like McDonald's and Burger King and occasionally that wonderful Popeyes chicken," said William Seale, a historian and journal editor with the White House Historical Association.
    "Fast food makes its way through the doors of the White House. From time to time, presidents or even guests will order a Big Mac or the like, and the Secret Service will go pick it up," Seale said. "The Carter children did that and George W. Bush, too."
    Bill Clinton also was known to enjoy items on the McDonald's menu, so much so that his eating habits were parodied on Saturday Night Live.
    After all, the eating habits of American presidents seem to mirror the ever-evolving diets of the American people, said Suzy Evans, a Newport Beach, California-based literary agent, historian and author of the forthcoming children's book "Abraham Lincoln's Lunch."
    "Presidential culinary history might seem insignificant or even trivial," Evans said. "But if you look closely enough, it can teach us much about American social, cultural and political history and the rich and venerable history of dining, diplomacy and the American presidency."

    The president who just wanted cornbread

    When it comes to America's interest in food, there was an infatuation with European cuisine in the late 1700s and early 1800s. That seemed to shift around the late 1800s -- a change that was reflected in James Polk's food preferences. He was the 11th president of the United States.
    "President Polk was a very finicky eater, and he didn't like the fancy food that came up from the White House kitchen," Seale said. "He wrote of a banquet repast in his diary, 'I saw the food and I couldn't tell what it was. It must have been French' ... Instead, he asked for turnip greens and cornbread."
    Before about 1950, nearly all presidents thrived on natural food from the farm, Seale said. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman preferred such dishes as turnips, string beans, beets and other farm products, prepared in the simplest ways.
    "The Roosevelts used to send things from their Hyde Park vegetable garden down to the White House," Seale said.
    "They drank pure whole milk, meats and other products from their Hudson River farm," he said. "The coming of restaurants and specialist chefs changed that in the sense that creative and even exotic dishes teased the public interest. Plain roast beef became buried in sauces. Especially during the Kennedy administration did international cooking, particularly French, take over the White House kitchens."
    In the late 1800s, large meals and increasingly sedentary lifestyles had become the norm for wealthier Americans.
    As a result, several presidents in the mid-19th century to early 20th century -- from William Howard Taft to Theodore Roosevelt -- had rotund body types, said Amy Bentley, a historian and professor of food studies at New York University.
    "This is an era of increased food supply and the industrialization of food. For men especially, large bodies are emblematic of one's power," Bentley said. "A large, rotund body is in effect saying, 'I don't have to do manual labor' and 'I have enough food.' "
    By the post-World War II era, the American population began to suffer health conditions that are associated with the overindulgence of food, such as heart disease and hypertension.
    "Right around the World War II period, you get more concerns about health, and that is somewhat reflected in the presidency," Bentley said.
    Dwight D. Eisenhower, for instance, suffered a heart attack in 1955. Afterward, the 34th president modified his diet and avoided fats.
    Many presidents since Eisenhower have consumed health-conscious diets.

    'Ketchup on cottage cheese for health'

    Evans, the author in Newport Beach, described such nutrition-focused diets as "food-as-fuel" eating.
    "Healthy, 'food-as-fuel' kind of guys could include Woodrow Wilson, a wartime president, and John F. Kennedy, and while Barack Obama does occasionally indulge in pizzas, burgers and ice cream, the Obama's kitchen garden on the White House lawn is part of a long culinary tradition," Evans said.
    Additionally, "Richard Nixon would slather ketchup on cottage cheese for health reasons," she said.
    Cooking for the leader of the free world
    white house kitchen_00001719

      JUST WATCHED

      Cooking for the leader of the free world

    MUST WATCH

    Cooking for the leader of the free world 02:11
    By the late 20th century, nutritional studies emerged that linked weight with health concerns and heart disease with diet, Bentley said. Therefore, notions of a healthy diet played a larger role in presidents' eating habits.
    "At some point, breakfast turned from fried eggs and bacon to cereal, skim milk, toast, coffee, juice. So you start seeing presidential styles of eating (be) a reflection of national trends," Bentley said.
    Clinton, whose appetite for junk food and sweets while in the White House was well known, adopted a healthier diet after his term ended. He now considers himself a vegan.
    Clinton: 'Want to live to be a grandad'
    Clinton: 'Want to live to be a grandad'

      JUST WATCHED

      Clinton: 'Want to live to be a grandad'

    MUST WATCH

    Clinton: 'Want to live to be a grandad' 01:17
    "I was lucky I did not die of a heart attack," Clinton said of his eating habits in a 2011 interview with CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
    This focus on health also was evident in the 2000s in the George W. Bush administration.
    While in office, the American public watched Bush pursue a healthy lifestyle, Evans said. Bush would eat healthy snacks, such as pretzels. In fact, in 2002, he choked on a pretzel and afterward, jokingly told reporters, "Always chew your pretzels before you swallow."
    "It may be that earlier presidents were similarly vigilant about their health, but with George W. Bush, it was seen as important to promote his healthy habits as a way to shape his persona," Bentley said. "That just goes into high gear with the Obamas."

    A throwback?

    The Obamas not only introduced healthier meals and snacks to the White House, but also promoted healthy eating as a major national issue with first lady Michelle Obama's health and wellness-focused "Let's Move" initiative.
    "The Obamas are very calorie-conscious and health-conscious, which is a reflection of the first lady. Her vegetable garden is a serious thing, something permanent for White House residents to come," Seale said, "In Mrs. Obama's parting, her garden has been endowed handsomely by the Burpee seed company."
    Join the conversation

    See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

    Now, with the Trump administration, Bentley said, we might see a different model of eating that might be something of a "throwback to the post-World War II era of being enamored with the qualities of fast food."
    "You could argue that Trump's food aesthetic is similar to this earlier post-World War II era, where the dominant values for food were sameness, predictability and quantity over quality," she said.