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The History of Weight Watchers

From a woman's obsession with cookies to a worldwide weight-loss service

In September 1961, an overweight woman from Queens, New York, called a group of friends over to her house and confessed that eating cookies was her obsession.  Her name was Jean Nidetch, and with that first admission she discovered that one of the most effective keys to weight control are "empathy, rapport and mutual understanding." Her discovery resulted in a seventy pound weight loss and one of the most successful weight-control organizations in the world - Weight Watchers.

It all began when Jean, a 214-pound housewife who wore a size 44 dress, became discouraged by years of fad dieting. Desperate to lose weight, Jean attended a free diet clinic sponsored by the New York City Board of Health. Sticking grimly to their diet, Jean managed to lose 20 pounds, but then found her motivation waning.  That's when she picked up the phone, called a few overweight friends, and made her "cookie confession."  Her friends not only understood, they shared their "Frankensteins" too, as Jean called their food obsessions. After that, the women came to Jean's house each week for mutual support and sharing.  They all lost weight, and the word spread.  Soon, Jean was squeezing 40 people into her apartment.  Together, they came to realize that losing weight was more than just a diet.  It was all about changing habits and getting support and encouragement from people who cared. Today, more than 41 years later, Weight Watchers still cares.  It was this caring that enabled Jean's "little group" to expand into an industry.  The first steps came when Jean began holding meetings at other people's houses. Two of these people, Albert and Felice Lippert, suggested that Jean set up weekly classes at a business location.

WEIGHT WATCHERS BECOMES A COMPANY In May 1963, Weight Watchers was incorporated and the first public meeting was held in a loft in Queens.  The meeting was not advertised, but to Jean's astonishment some 400 people were waiting outside the loft when she arrived at 9:30 a.m.  Since she had only rented 50 chairs, Jean and a friend, whom she recruited from the line as her assistant, spent that day meeting groups of 50 of the people who were waiting. The company rapidly began to expand, as former members who had successfully completed the program and extensive training opened franchises throughout the U.S. and abroad. What had worked in Jean's living room now works in meeting rooms from New York to California and from Australia to Brazil. As the company grew in size, it also developed in the management and scientific areas, making it the state-of-the-art in weight loss and control.  Changes were made to the basic Food Plan to reflect the most current nutritional findings.  And, the Food Plan continues to evolve today, adjusting to fit the lifestyle needs of consumers, while still maintaining the highest standards for a nutritionally-balanced, healthful weight-loss and control program. A behavior management program was designed by a leading psychologist, based on the belief that the best way to control weight is to change bad eating habits.  And, in 1978, an Exercise Plan was added, making Weight Watchers one of the first organizations to stress the importance of walking as an aid to overall fitness.

JOINING THE HEINZ FAMILY This comprehensive approach to weight loss proved so successful that, in 1978, Weight Watchers International was sold to the H.J. Heinz Company. Since its acquisition by Heinz, Weight Watchers has continued to grow and prosper.  Weight Watchers now boasts more than one million members, who attend 29,000 meetings, in 27 countries. Weight Watchers also offers a complete line of good-tasting, reduced-calorie, portion-controlled entrees, breakfasts, snacks and desserts in the supermarket. Manufactured by the Weight Watchers Gourmet Food Company, also an affiliate of H.J. Heinz, and by licensees, these items are designed to fit into the Weight Watchers food plan and can be used by members.  Non-members interested in good-tasting, portion-controlled foods can use them too.  A number of other products and services are also offered under the Weight Watchers trademark, like best-selling cookbooks, appointment calendars, exercise tapes, and a national magazine.

WEIGHTWATCHERS ROLE IN THE INDUSTRY Through the years, Weight Watchers has taken its position as a leader in the weight-control industry very seriously. In 1990, when the Secretary of Health and Human Services announced health goals for Americans, called Healthy People 2000, Weight Watchers was a major corporate sponsor.  Weight Watchers Health Watch 2000 was later launched by Weight Watchers to help educate Americans that research shows that obesity is an independent risk factor for many major chronic diseases, including cancer, stroke, heart disease and diabetes.  Today, Weight Watchers continues to support initiatives to give Americans practical advice on how to lead healthier lives, focusing on such areas as weight control, nutrition, and physical fitness. With this commitment to public health and education, Weight Watchers has shown, once again, that the caring which Jean Nidetch expressed in her Queens home, the caring that has guided the development and growth of Weight Watchers, will continue to help people change their lives for the better into the 21st century and well into the future.

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