Footprint: Jean Nidetch

Compiled, Edited,  and Written by Palmer Hasty

Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch (before and after).
Photo: Public Domain Courtesy of Michael Ochs/Getty Images.

Jean Nidetch
Founded “Weight Watchers International” … “Drop the damn fork.”

Jean Nidetch, founder of Weight Watchers, died in April of last year in Parkland, Florida, at age 91. She moved to Florida to be near her son and spent the last nine years of your life there. Ms Nidetch was a Brooklyn native and the founder and driving force behind the psychological principles that became the internationally famous Weight Watchers’ diet.
According to the South Florida newspaper, the Sun Sentinel, when she died Nidetch was living “in a one-bedroom apartment in an unpretentious retirement community northwest of Fort Lauderdale.”
Born Jean Slutsky, October 12, 1927, her father was a cab driver and her mother was a manicurist. She spent her youth in Brooklyn struggling with obesity.
She said as a child she was addicted to cookies (by the box full) and that her family encouraged the use of food (primarily sweets) to compensate for anything bad that happened. “I’m sure that whenever I had a fight with the little girl next door, or it was raining and I couldn’t go out, or I wasn’t invited to a birthday party, my mother gave me a piece of candy to make me feel better.”
Nidetch graduated from the Girl’s High School in Brooklyn, and, according to Wikipedia, she received a partial scholarship to Long Island University but did not have the financial resources to attend. She entered a business course at New York University but dropped out and went to work.
She worked for a furniture company, a publishing company, and the IRS. When she met her husband at the IRS she was still struggling with weight.
She tried different diets and though she lost 20 pounds on a diet prescribed by the New York City Board of Health in 1961, she kept feeling like she couldn’t keep it up. According to the Business Day, around that time her 5 foot seven inch frame carried over two hundred pounds with a waist size of 44.
As the Associated Press described how Nidetch realized a missing ingredient in her weight-loss struggles.  “She took off two pounds the first week but disliked the way the clinic’s leader imparted information and how little the group’s members shared. So she gathered six overweight friends in her Queens living room to relay what she’d learned and talk about their own food compulsions. She found it a relief to share her struggle with others, and they did too.”
She was in a grocery store one day and saw a friend who told her she looked great but then asked her when was she due, thinking she was pregnant. That’s when she contacted several overweight friends and created a support group, and the rest, so to speak, is diet history. That was in fact the key, or what was called her stroke of genius, group support.
It was in the early 1960s when Nidetch and her friends, the weight watchers, started meeting above a Pizza Parlor in Queens, New York. The owner of the Pizza Parlor wondered what was going on because of the lines that began to form outside his shop once a week but the people were going upstairs to the Weight Watchers meetings. Nidetch actually talked him into creating and selling a Weight Watchers milkshake that became very popular.
A man named Al Lippert and his wife were attending the meetings and Lippert convinced Nidetch that she had the foundation for a good business venture. With Lippert’s help they incorporated in 1963 and adopted the name “Weight Watchers International”, which began marketing a psychological approach to food consumption disorders. Nidetch always believed that overeating was an emotional problem with an emotional solution.
Success came quickly. According to “Business Daily” thousands of franchises were created and membership reached the millions worldwide. There was even a daily syndicated television program and an appearance on The Johnny Carson Show.
In 1978, just 15 years after incorporating, Weight Watchers International was sold to the Heinz Company for $71 million. Nidetch became a multi-millionaire with rock star status as the spokesperson for the company. After retiring from that position in 1984 she remained a consultant for the company. Today, Weight Watchers International has over 1.4 million people on its weight loss program.
Along with two Weight Watchers cookbooks she also wrote; “The Story of Weight Watchers” (1970 with Joan Rattner Heilman), and her autobiography “The Story of Jean Nidetch” (2010).
Another interesting fact about her success story is that when she died last year at 91, true to her message, she weighed 124 pounds, the same goal weight she set for herself and reached during the time Weight Watchers was incorporated just over 50 years ago.
She is known for saying “It’s choice, not chance, that determines our destiny.” And one of her most famous lines related to weight loss, from an interview with the Associated Press, was the blunt advice, “Drop the damn fork”.