History and Benefits of Diets Weight Watchers

About the history and benefits of Joan Nidetch's Weight Watchers diet plan.


Weight Watchers

The Head Woman: Jean Nidetch was a professional dieter, a housewife who tried every conceivable slimming fad, lost weight with each one, then regained it thanks to her habitually "promiscuous" eating habits. In 1961, when she sought help from the obesity clinic run by New York City's Dept. of Health, she was 38 years old and weighed 214 lb. The clinic put her on a diet by Dr. Norman Jolliffe, best known for his "prudent diet." Convinced that she couldn't stick to it alone, Mrs. Nidetch invited some fat friends to form a group and meet weekly to trade horror stories (secret midnight binging in the bathroom) and helpful hints (put that doughnut in the freezer to cool temptation). Established in 1963, Weight Watchers expanded into an international network of clubs, with a product line of diet drinks, sugar substitutes, and publications--the McDonald's of the reducing industry. "My little private club has become an industry," wrote Mrs. Nidetch, amateur nutritionist, in The Story of Weight Watchers (1975). In 1978 the organization, with about $50 million in annual revenues and a cumulative membership of close to 2 million, was bought by Heinz Foods.

Overview: The Weight Watchers diet provides for a balance of 25% protein, 40% carbohydrates, and 35% fats. Women are limited to about 1,200 calories daily, men to 1,600, but instead of counting calories you count grams, weighing your food on a postage or kitchen scale. The diet distinguishes between "legal" and "illegal" foods (the latter including butter, sugar, alcohol, and fried foods), and between those items permitted in limited quantities (such as eggs) and those permitted in unlimited quantities (such as coffee, tea, soy sauce, and celery). You must eat fish five times a week, liver once a week. No decisions are required, no substitutions are allowed; all meals are compulsory, with snacks prescribed to ward off temptation. The program offers reducing, "plateau," and maintenance plans. A suggested menu on the reducing plan is as follows: half a grapefruit, 1 oz. hard cheese with toast, and a beverage for breakfast; 4 oz. smoked salmon, tomato salad, a slice of bread, and a beverage for lunch; ham steak, baked squash, and cucumber salad for dinner.

Weight Watchers takes the position that obesity is a problem as insidious as alcoholism or drug addiction, one that can never be cured, merely arrested. Within the Weight Watchers groups, members work together to achieve "behavior modification" for a new way of life. The weekly meetings are structured around lectures, discussions, and a public weighing-in ceremony, each "loser" winning a round of applause.

Pro: According to an in-house study, Weight Watchers members lost an average of 1.6 lb. per week; 15 months later, more than half were close to their weight goals--a respectable showing compared to other diets. Over the years, the program has become increasingly flexible, adapting to new developments in food labeling, testing out members' suggestions, and incorporating an exercise program. But the greatest asset remains the group, where dieters find mutual reinforcement for changing their eating habits permanently.

Con: The Weight Watchers diet, while well balanced nutritionally, is too slow and tedious for dieters with a "crash" mentality. The need to weigh food, in particular, may be burdensome. As for the group approach, it seems to work better for some than for others. Sociologist Joan Rockwell reported in 1977 that club membership is overwhelmingly white, female, and middle-aged, with fewer than 5% men and almost no minorities, whose needs apparently aren't met by the program.

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