Weight Watchers Founder Still Spreading the Word on Slimness

Times Staff Writer

She arrived bearing the same message as ever: If you follow this program, you lose weight and you keep it off.

The road to slimness is as simple as that, Jean Nidetch said repeatedly as she visited Los Angeles this week to promote the 25th anniversary of the Weight Watchers program she founded as a New York housewife in the early 1960s.

A lot has changed since Nidetch, who weighed 214 pounds in 1961, began the program by sharing her fears and experiences about obesity with six friends in her modest Queens apartment.

For one thing, Nidetch has gotten a lot smaller. Following the methods she was beginning to believe in, she shed 72 pounds and shrunk from a size 44 to a size 12.

'I'll Never Be Skinny'

Today the 5-foot-7-inch grandmother weighs 150, a figure she says she is happy with.

"I'll never be skinny," Nidetch, 64, said this week during an interview in her Beverly Wilshire hotel room. "I don't feel I'm skinny. But I feel I'm at the weight that's comfortable for me."

And as Nidetch has changed, Weight Watchers has taken some new approaches to satisfy the latest of the 30 million members worldwide who have joined the organization since Nidetch incorporated the program in 1963.

Although the company does not release specific demographic figures, a spokesman said membership, which runs about 95% female, is getting younger and that more enrollees are employed and are earning salaries in excess of $50,000 annually.

To meet the challenge, the organization has begun offering new types of meetings, said Fred Rifkin, owner of the Weight Watchers franchise for half of Los Angeles.

Weight Watchers now holds gatherings for teens only. It began taking meetings to the workplace in 1984 and, in another development, started a slightly more expensive Inner Circle service a little over a year ago for people who want to be in small groups of eight to 12 or who need individual attention. The normal cost of membership in Los Angeles, Rifkin said, is $25 to join and $8 per week.

Those modifications aside, Nidetch says that the core of the program is much the same as when she started it.

That program allows the would-be dieter multiple choices of foods in seven categories and requires participation in group meetings, much as members of Alcoholics Anonymous do, to share feelings and gain support.

Group counselors, who have all been through the Weight Watchers program, try to help members realize how they developed their unhealthy eating habits. Not to be left off of the exercise bandwagon, Weight Watchers now distributes an optional exercise program for group members.

Remains as Consultant

Nidetch continues to promote the core system she developed even though she sold Weight Watchers to the H. J. Heinz Company in 1978 for $71.2 million. She remains with the company as a consultant and travels at a rigorous pace.

This week it was interviews and meetings with Weight Watchers employees in Los Angeles; next week more of the same in Toronto, and a few weeks later she heads for Australia. Later this year she is scheduled to visit Montreal, Detroit and cities in Maine and New Hampshire. Talking about losing weight is still her favorite work.

"I love doing this. I never get tired of it," she said, smiling and tilting her head back like a young model as a photographer snapped pictures of her on her hotel balcony this week. "Do you know how wonderful this feels? It feels full. It feels like eating a cake.

"I would work every day if I could," she continued, adjusting the tortoise-shell glasses above a high-collar purple, rust and gold suit. "I have to pace myself a little. My body doesn't want to do as much as it used to. I feel more energetic than I did when I was 20, but I do get tired."

A Homecoming

She especially enjoys coming to Los Angeles because it is a homecoming. After starting the Weight Watchers program in New York, Nidetch moved to Los Angeles in 1968, living in Brentwood for 13 years and working out of a Westwood office. She moved back to New York in 1981 to be closer to her only grandchild, Heather, 9, and her two sons, David, 36, and Richard, 31. She has been married twice but is currently divorced.

Looking out her hotel window at the rain-washed sky, Nidetch said she might move here again when her granddaughter gets older and doesn't want to spend as much time with her grandmother.

Contributing to her grandchild's happiness is important to Nidetch, who recalls many unhappy childhood experiences as a result of her obesity.

As a young person, Nidetch said, she excelled in school but never participated in classroom discussions because she didn't want to draw attention to herself.

She remained heavy as an adult. She married, had two sons and made many unsuccessful attempts to diet. She was 38 years old and weighed 214 pounds in 1961 when she decided to go to the New York Board of Health clinic for obese people.

'I Was Devastated'

"When I got there," she said, "I was devastated. I was one of the fattest people in the group. There were 10 ladies. None of them talked to each other (about their problem).

"The leader was a nutritionist who was very thin. She said things like, 'When I look at a big display of food, I get sick to my stomach.'

"When she said that, we all looked at each other. It was a secret look. Nobody in that group got sick looking at food."

Nidetch made a mental note of her observations about the leader and other group members but stayed involved with the group. She also stayed on the Board of Health diet "with a little cheating." In a short time she noticed something: She was losing weight. After a while she had lost 20 pounds.

Her overweight friends noticed her success and she invited them to the Queens apartment she shared with her bus-driver husband and sons to listen to what she had learned.

That was fine, Nidetch thought, because she had always loved, even needed, to talk to people. But while her friends clamored for her information during their discussion, Nidetch became aware of her own need to talk about losing weight and about cheating on her diet. She compared the cheating to stealing.

'You Have to Tell'

"I think when you steal, you have to tell someone," she said. "I could not tell the skinny nutritionist. She got sick when she looked at large displays of food. How would she have any empathy?

"I couldn't tell the ladies in the Board of Health group because they weren't telling either. Who do you tell? Your fat friends. They won't laugh. They won't ridicule you."

So Nidetch shared information with her friends that she was cutting out middle-of-the-night snacks and had room for breakfast. She was eating three meals a day as well as fruits and skim milk and was satisfying her hunger. As a result she was sleeping better and felt healthier.

Her friends adopted the process and started getting the same results.

"Something was happening in the group in my home," she said. "That something was talk. It was open, honest, legitimate talking about our eating habits. Not necessarily why we do it, but when and how."

The women who had been too ashamed to talk about their obesity noticed common patterns beginning to emerge. They realized they were not unique.

"When I asked what they did when their children didn't finish their meals," for example, Nidetch said, "they said they packed the food and refrigerated it. Finally one brave soul said, 'Well, I nibble once in a while.'

The Group Expanded

As the women discussed their eating and weight loss, the group expanded rapidly. What started out as six people became 40 three months later.

In this down-to-earth setting, a key group philosophy began to develop: that every successful effort to avoid overeating deserved praise even if it did not show up as an immediate weight loss.

As word of the discussions continued to spread, Nidetch formed other groups in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Long Island. Soon she needed to incorporate the program and to rent a room over a movie house, which provided space for 50 people. When she opened the doors for her first class at 10 a.m. on May 15, 1963, however, 400 people were waiting.

"I didn't even know what I was going to charge," Nidetch said. "I looked at the movie cashier's window. It said $2. I turned around and yelled, 'It's $2 per meeting. Does anybody object?' "

No one protested and Nidetch talked to groups of 50 people for two hours all day long. In a modern-day Horatio Alger story, the business never stopped growing.

One reason the program grew, Nidetch said, was that it warned dieters not to let go of their good eating habits for too long.

"You are taught to weigh yourself once a week," she said. "You need to keep yourself within two pounds of your goal.

"It's a little like staying a blond," she said. "I choose not to have gray hair. You get a little root line that says nature is coming through. That's when you do something! It's the same thing with weight."

As she carries that message, she said, she is happy with what Weight Watchers has accomplished. To her, it has been an education.

"People care about each other," she said. "That was a surprise to me. When they are in Weight Watchers, people are interested in how their neighbor is doing. There is no generation gap. It's a camaraderie that I did not know existed in the world. Among all ethnic backgrounds it sort of cuts through everything."

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