Why I Worship the Weight Watchers Founder Jean Nidetch

“It’s choice, not chance, that determines your destiny,” Mrs. Nidetch was often credited as saying, a kind of summary of Aristotelian ethics. Every modern era has had weight-loss gurus — Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, Sylvester Graham, Frank Kellogg, Dr. Robert Atkins and Nathan Pritikin, for example — and they all play the role of both philosopher and survivor. Today, Oprah Winfrey owns a controlling stake in Weight Watchers and assures us in her commercials that we can eat bread and still lose weight.


Mrs. Nidetch, center, during a publicity event in Times Square in 1973.

Anthony Camerano/Associated Press

In the old days, Weight Watchers was not so permissive. Avocados, peanut butter, ketchup and yogurt were all verboten. You could have one banana, once a week. Recipes tended toward the wacky: A suggested alternative to nuts was to roast mushrooms in an oven until they dried to a crisp.

“Not eating the hot fudge sundae has to be more important than eating the largest, richest hot fudge sundae in the world,” Mrs. Nidetch wrote. And she’s right: To maintain a weight loss like hers or even one of just a few pounds, constant vigilance is necessary and self-denial has to become its own sort of manic delight. Of course, staying thin was her livelihood, so she had ample motivation to follow her own suggestion of eating half a cantaloupe on one’s birthday after serving cake to party guests.

This was not about the fizzy highs of starving oneself, but rather pragmatism, substitution, portion control. A very American, almost Puritanical kind of determination. Dieting was work, a slog. To make up for that, the Weight Watchers tone was, crucially, upbeat and likable. Mrs. Nidetch wasn’t there to be a mean mother figure, disciplining her dieters like misbehaving children, but instead a fellow traveler…

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