Nidetch struggled with her weight from childhood through early adulthood. One of her food obsessions was Mallomars, a chocolate-covered marshmallow cookie, she says. “That was my Frankenstein,” her name for a craving that’s impossible to resist. “For some crazy reason I had to have them. I didn’t want my husband or children to see, so I put them in a plastic bag and put them in the hamper.”
The turning point
She kept getting bigger.
She weighed 214 and wore a size 44 when she was finally motivated to lose weight in 1962 by a chance encounter in the supermarket.
“I ran into a neighbor who said, ‘Oh, Jean, you look so good.’ I was feeling very good about the compliment, and then she said, ‘When are you due?’ I didn’t know how to answer her because I wasn’t pregnant. I don’t remember what I said, but I will never forget it.”
Nidetch says she realized she needed to look at herself in a full-length mirror, but she didn’t have one. “I didn’t look at my body. I only looked at myself from the neck up. I was very interested in my makeup and hairdo.”
She decided to try a diet program run by the New York City Board of Health Manhattan. She lived in Brooklyn at the time and had to take two buses and the subway to get to the offices for the board of health.
When she arrived, “there was the thin girl at the desk, and I asked where the group was. And she said, ‘You want the obesity clinic.’ I had never heard the word obese before. It shocked me. I said, ‘I guess I do.’ “
She found a seat in the last row “and I didn’t take my coat off. I sat next to a woman who was also wearing her coat.”
The woman running the meeting was a very thin nutritionist who had a picture of a fat woman next to her. She told the group it was a picture of her.
The nutritionist gave the participants a diet that recommended, among other things, that they eat fish several times a week, eat two slices of bread and drink two glasses of skim milk a day, Nidetch says. “I had never bought skim milk. I never drank milk. I drank soda. I drank everything that was fattening.”
She lost 20 pounds in 10 weeks. Then she decided to invite some overweight friends to her apartment to tell them about the diet. “I am a sharer,” she says. “When you give of yourself, you get back. I had to share it, so I called all my overweight friends. I only had overweight friends.”
Start of something big
That meeting snowballed into more meetings, and in 1963, she created Weight Watchers International with the help of a savvy businessman.
Nidetch has had plenty of time to observe obesity in action since then. She noticed years ago that thin people have different meal-time habits than overweight people. “Thin people release the fork,” she says, “and they chew the food with the fork on the table. They chew their food slowly. They look around at each other or the wall or a picture. They listen to the music. They sit back and take a breath. They do something other than concentrate on shoving the food into their body.
“Overweight people never let go of their fork. They hold it when they are talking. They hold it when they are chewing. I discovered that is one of the secrets. Let go of the instrument that made you fat.”
She says she has never told anyone he needed to lose weight. “I don’t believe in telling people. But people say to me, ‘I wish I could lose weight.’ I say, ‘Wishing won’t do it. I know you can. If you want me to, I’ll help.’ “
It’s often a matter of putting food into perspective. “Food is not your remedy for problems,” she says. “Food is not going to change your life. If you are lonely, food is not going to be your company. If you are sad, food is not going to give you solace.”
And she continues to offer encouragement to others. “If you want to lose weight, you will — you can,” she says. “You are capable. I’m 86, and I have blonde hair. That’s not nature. It takes a desire … and sometimes it’s rather uncomfortable to get it done. It costs time and money. If you really want to do it, and you know it’s your desire and you’re capable of it, you will. It’s that simple.”
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