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Anti-obesity pioneer fought good fight, but it's still unwon

By Rupert Cornwell

Published 05/05/2015

Weight Watchers: Jean Nidetch
Weight Watchers: Jean Nidetch

An American pioneer died last week. In her heyday in the 1960s and 70s, Jean Nidetch might have been an aspiring actress or a gangster's moll. In fact, she was the founder of Weight Watchers.

In 1961, when her moment of truth arrived, she was a New York mother and housewife in her late 30s who couldn't stop eating. Epiphany came one day at the supermarket when she ran into a neighbour who took one glance at her bulging belly and said: "You look great, Jean. When are you due?"

A mortified Nidetch enrolled at an obesity clinic, but nothing could quell her addiction. Clearly this was not a problem to be tackled alone. In desperation she started meeting a group of friends in similar predicaments: one thing led to another and by 1963 Weight Watchers was born.

The company was an instant hit. H J Heinz bought Weight Watchers in 1978, before it was acquired by a Luxembourg-based private equity company in 1999. Today Weight Watchers is a $1.3bn enterprise that operates in 30-odd countries.

Its basic formula remains the same: a sensible diet, realistic goals and support groups to keep you on the straight and narrow. Ultimately, it's a matter of self-control.

Alas a growing number of Americans still just can't. A third of the population is now officially classified as obese; childhood obesity has climbed to about 17%.

Almost every US First Lady has her pet issue: Nancy Reagan proclaimed "Just Say No" to drugs; Hillary Clinton fought for women's rights; Laura Bush was deeply into education. Michelle Obama's chosen cause is childhood obesity.

The health focus extends to her husband as well. More than any of its predecessors, the Obama White House exudes a "jock culture". Personal trainers abound and (grey hair aside) this enviably slender President, who reportedly has even claimed that broccoli is his favourite food, is fitness personified.

But how much has all this high-profile setting of examples helped? There are some encouraging portents. According to federal data, the obesity rate among children aged from two to five dropped by 43% in the decade to 2014. This, however, implies that things have, if anything, grown worse among teenagers.

And future problems pile up. Adult obesity with its attendant risks of diabetes and heart illness has become the country's greatest single health challenge, one that could overwhelm vital welfare programmes such as Medicaid and Medicare, already burdened by a baby-boomer generation moving into retirement and old age. The culprits are well-known, and far tougher to overcome than in Jean Nidetch's era of lesser plenty. They range from a fast food industry that barely existed in 1961 when she had her supermarket moment of truth to the huge portions served in ordinary restaurants.

There are hopeful signs. Consumption of fizzy drinks has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years, with 63% of Americans, according to one study, saying they actively avoid the stuff.

But that wasn't enough to save former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's initiative to ban the sale of jumbo-sized Cokes, Pepsis and the rest.

Ultimately, Bloomberg fell foul of obesity's greatest defender: the belief of Americans that freedom of choice is paramount, that government - above all, the "nanny state" that Bloomberg seemed to epitomise - must be kept at bay.

In other words, it's up to the individual, as Nidetch herself acknowledged. Sadly, easier said than done.

Belfast Telegraph

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