Jean Nidetch, the woman who founded Weight Watchers in her living room in 1961, passed away early this week. She was 91 years old.
In the early 1960’s Jean was an overweight housewife in Queens, New York. She weighed 214 pounds and was miserable. Finally, when an acquaintance asked her if she was pregnant (she wasn’t) she began a diet program she got from the New York City Board of Health. The diet included fish five times a week, two slices of bread and two glasses of skim milk a day, and fruits and vegetables.
She lost 20 pounds in 10 weeks and decided to invite some overweight friends to her home to share the plan with them. She said at the time, “I only had overweight friends.” The friends followed the diet and met weekly in Jean’s living room to discuss their struggles and to support each other. It worked.
By 1962, 5′ 7″ tall Jean had lost a total of 72 pounds and reached her goal of 142 pounds. She opened a business she called “Weight Watchers” in the loft above a movie theater and expected maybe 50 people to show up. 400 people came that night. She charged each person $2.00, because the sign at the theater said that was what a movie cost. It was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants endeavor then, but no matter: Jean had become a passionate advocate of losing weight and she was hell-bent on spreading her message.
The original Weight Watchers program was similar to the diet Jean had followed from the city obesity clinic: lean meat, fish, skim milk and fruits and vegetables. Many foods were banned, such as alcohol, sweets and any fatty foods. If you were a Weight Watcher member back in the early 1970’s like I was, you’ll remember the strict rules written in that little pink pamphlet: you had to eat liver once a week but you couldn’t have ketchup. (Yuck. Liver with no ketchup!) And you had to eat fish five times a week.
It was a brutal regimen but it worked. I was a college student and with even my rudimentary cooking skills I lost 50 pounds in six months. Of course, I gained it back as soon as I stopped going to meetings because…who was going to continue eating fish and liver all the time and no pizza and beer?
Fortunately, over the last 50 years Weight Watchers has evolved into a lifestyle of healthy, common sense eating. The company recently adopted a new mission statement: “to change peoples’ relationship with food…for good.”
Whether they know it or not, they were tapping into Jean’s personal philosophy; she believed that our attitude towards food has to change. Hers did. “I used to eat my rewards,” she said. “Now, the reward is self-respect.”
Rest in peace, Jean. You were truly one-of-a-kind, and the world is a healthier place because of you.