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Weight Watchers Founder Still Spreading the Word on Slimness

January 21, 1988|GARY LIBMAN | 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'

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