Commentary

Queens Housewife Who Started Weight Watchers In Her Living Room, Dies At 91

Jean Nidetch, who was one of those folks who couldn’t wait for cold weather because it meant Mallomars would be on the shelves and went on to found Weight Watchers after discovering the power of peer support in her own living room, died in a senior living center in Parkland, Fla., yesterday at 91. 

Nidetch — “raised in a family that ate as a consolation for disappointment and pumpkin-shaped all her young life,” as Robert D. McFadden writes in the New York Times — was born in Brooklyn to a manicurist and a cab driver in 1923. 

“The business started accidentally when Ms. Nidetch went into a grocery store and a neighbor thought she was pregnant rather than overweight,” reports David Millward in the Telegraph. That was 1961.

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She dropped into to a free New York City Health Dept. obesity clinic and lost some weight but couldn’t keep it off due to a propensity to gorge on the chocolate-covered marshmallow treats she stashed in a laundry hamper, as former Weight Watchers CEO David Kirchoff related in a video interview with CNNMoney. She was soon to discover that all of her friends who were struggling with their weight “had a Mallomar story.”

“Trapped in a gluttonous secret life, she decided she had to confide in someone,” McFadden relates. “She invited six friends, all overweight women, to her home for what turned into a group confessional, an exorcism of caloric demons that was the informal beginning of Weight Watchers. They all went on a diet, pledging mutual help through the abysses of anxiety, doubt and gnawing hunger. It worked. They soon brought more overweight friends to the meetings. Within two months, 40 women were attending.”

“It was the informal beginning of Weight Watchers — the global organization that enrolled millions of disciples and begat cookbooks, mobile apps and food products,” writes Hailey Branson-Potts in the Los Angeles Times. “To this day, Weight Watchers holds more than 36,000 weekly weight-loss meetings modeled on those in Nidetch's living room.”

“In May 1963, after Weight Watchers was incorporated, its first public meeting was held in a loft in Queens. Some 400 people showed up,” writes Suzanne Kapner in the Wall Street Journal. “Ms. Nidetch had chairs for only 50. She and her business partner, Albert Lippert, discussed what price they should charge and settled on $2, the same price the movie theater downstairs charged.” 

"She helped millions ditch their crash-diet mentality and focus on realistic weight-loss skills and long-term weight maintenance strategies," Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian in Chicago, tells Nanci Hellmich in USA Today. "She empowered generations of people to lose weight by providing solid information and creating a robust community of encouragement and support."

“By the time the company celebrated its 10th birthday, 16,000 people attended a massive gathering at Madison Square Garden, Bob Hope was on stage and a snaking line of people waited for Nidetch’s autograph,” according to the AP’s obit. “The fat housewife, as she once thought of herself, was now sitting beside Johnny Carson on television, her face staring out from boxes in the frozen food aisle. She would never be overweight again.”

“Weight Watchers went public in 1968 and was sold to H.J. Heinz Co. 10 years later” for $71 million, the WSJ’s Kapner reports, while pointing out that she remained the public face of the company for many years. “In 1999, Heinz sold the company to a private-equity firm, which later sold shares to the public again.” 

Her saying, “It’s choice — not chance — that determines your destiny,” became the Weight Watchers credo, according to a news release on the company’s website this morning. 

“Jean was an inspiration and an innovator who leaves behind a legacy and program that has positively impacted the health and well-being of millions of people around the world,” says current Weight Watchers president and CEO Jim Chambers.

Nidetch’s pre-Twitter tweet to would-be weight losers: “Drop the damn fork.” And pick up a barbell and do some aerobic exercise as you do, we — and Weight Watchers itself — might add.

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