A new biography of the founder of Weight Watchers also explores its author’s lifetime of counting calories and her own relationship with the dieting industry. Sophie Morris knows from experience how hard it can be to escape the lure of being thin
I’m keeping track of lots of small things at the moment. Checking off minutiae seems one way of grasping at the weeks flying by in this life of lockdown. I know many others are keeping journals or counting steps or eating dinner as a family at the same time every evening, where before they nurtured a relaxed or disinterested approach to any such ritual. But while I track my hours of sleep, ponder my units of alcohol, and shake myself awake if I spot a cul-de-sac of despondency ahead, I am content at the one thing I am not counting: calories.
When people say diets don’t work, something that my 35-plus years of experience tells me is accurate, what they really mean is that diets don’t work unless you stay on them. For ever. Your whole life. That’s how Jean Nidetch, the Brooklyn-born founder of Weight Watchers who died aged 91 in 2015, managed it.
She had a public image as the figurehead of a global weight-loss corporation to maintain. She lost more than 70lb in the early 60s, started a support group for friends who also wanted to lose weight, and transformed herself from plump housewife to glamorous celebrity. Most remarkably, she achieved something very, very few people do. She kept the weight off. More or less.
“Of course, I can tell you that we can say, the hell with it, we’re going to be how we are, and we don’t care. But deep down, there is a part of every fat person that does care - it’s a pose, a pretence based on denial,” said Nidetch. I read this quote in This Is Big, a new biography of Nidetch that is also an examination of the author Marisa Meltzer’s own relationship with dieting and her body. Nidetch is no longer here to respond, but her view is increasingly outdated.
Today we live in bodies that might be fat and also healthy. We are at least partly aware that our reverence for thin is the creation of companies such as Weight Watchers that peddle hope. But as body positivity grows, so does our obsession with attaining narrow ideals of beauty. Whether you call it dieting, clean eating or wellbeing, the weight-loss industry is worth more than £2bn in the UK alone. Meanwhile, in 2015, 63 per cent of English adults and 28 per cent of children were overweight or obese. The cost to the NHS is over £6bn a year, and £27bn to wider society.
Meltzer began dieting as a preschooler, as did I, and went to her first Weight Watchers meetings with her mother, as did I. We have both spent most of our lives if not actually on one completely pointless diet or another, then wishing we were on one, or were able to stick to one. Except that I have been clean for a decade. I am now above all this. I see the damage and manipulation - and wholesale abuse - wrought by diet culture on fallible human beings, and I want no part of it. My cure began with giving up diet foods. There are only full-fat products in my fridge.
Twenty years on from having eaten one, I remain offended that Weight Watchers called the compacted sawdust rusks they sold at meetings “cookies”. This is the kind of snack that pokes fun at your craving and chips out a hole in your stomach and heart the size of the rest of the pack of “cookies”, topped off with a pile of jammy dodgers and a tub of Ben & Jerry’s.
When Meltzer read of Nidetch’s death in The New York Times, she wanted to know more about this woman who influenced so many millions of lives. Group therapy, as used by Weight Watchers, is used and praised in all sorts of settings. “At its core,” writes Meltzer, “Jean’s group was about giving women a place to listen to and support each other.”
She decided to find a Weight Watchers group and to give herself a year on the programme, approaching it in, hopefully, a wiser way than she had her many previous, costly interactions with the industry. “Every diet is a promise that if you change your weight, you’ll change your life. What did transformation mean to me after all these years of chasing one?” When you think about how famous Weight Watchers is, the chain of familiarity that led me to write this piece looks more causal than coincidental. I recognised something of myself in Meltzer, just as she found common ground with Nidetch, despite her early assumption the dieting queen was the “shedevil” to blame for Meltzer’s own tortured history.
The comedian Jessica Fostekew hosts a podcast about the enjoyment of eating, called Hoovering. Her current tour, Hench (now on hold), explores the power she has found in becoming physically strong while rejecting her own history of dieting.
The night I see the show, she is heckled by a Slimming World fan, so I call her to find out how her zip-bustingly funny turn about female strength also addressed dieting. She admits to having only recently stopped wishing she was thin. When a therapist asked her a few years ago, before she began Hoovering, how she was with food, “I honestly felt like she’d asked me to get undressed.” Today, Fostekew appears before audiences in a bra and a see-through top.
Earlier this year I went to a very nice hotel with my mother and sisters. When, in its restaurant, each of us was offered a second slice of bread, the three of them gave the same reply: “Oh no. I mustn’t. I shouldn’t. Oh, go on then. I’ll take that small one.” Maybe the waiter wondered why we didn’t all take 10 slices given what we were paying for it. He certainly wasn’t interested in our carb shame. Greed of almost every kind is rewarded in our society, but physical hunger, which often verges on the greedy, is demonised. “Why can’t we put our hands up and say, ‘I love eating’?” asks Fostekew.
As for me, well I didn’t need a second slice of that fresh ciabatta oozing with garlic oil. My stance that diets don’t work, and make you fat, stands. But the reality is I’m midrelapse with an online dieting app thingy called Noom.
Noom claims to “create long-term results through habit and behaviour change, not restrictive dieting”. Therefore I was furious when I paid up and found myself with 1,200 calories to spend each day and the requirement that I track every mouthful. I remained furious for months. But I returned to the app each morning, unsure what else to do as my pyjama waistband dug further into my c-section scar. I read the cheery posts on exercise and positive thinking, absorbed the subliminal messaging, and grimaced only to myself when my virtual “coach” suggested I swap glasses of wine for herbal teas. I stopped reading it when lockdown hit. Nine months in, as Noom promised, the weight hasn’t returned. I’m guiltily aware that last sentence will smell like a calorie-free Christmas to any lapsed dieter. My sincerest apologies. I’ve enjoyed my decade of freedom, and I’m well past all the bad stuff. I don’t skip meals or deny myself puddings or starve or When I see people doing any of these things, I feel immense pity for them.
It’s all about the food for me. Making it. Eating it. Writing about it. Planning it. Shopping for it. Dreaming about it. I am able to see all of the desirable, indulgent, life-giving and lusty things about food. The desire to be thin, though, will never leave me. I see you, positivity movement. I rate you. But when you have grown up in a world that reveres slimness as saintliness, it’s hard to fully buy into you. The admission of this conflict is one of the many things I like about This Is Big. “I wanted to lose weight without losing myself,” Meltzer writes. “We were supposed to cultivate a healthy sense of wellbeing [at the WW group she attends] but we lived in a world where being fat was looked down upon, and those myriad stigmas affected wellbeing too.” US studies show these stigmas stretch to doctors failing their overweight patients by finding them annoying, a waste of time and not referring them for diagnostic tests.
The hour I spend watching the new BBC Horizon show The Restaurant that Burns off Calories is time I can never be compensated enough for. One half of the restaurant, created for the show, feeds gastropub favourites to happy diners, and in the other groups of fitness addicts work off every calorie eaten.
The nutritional science is explained in a manner surely aimed at five-year-olds, only I would never show a five-year-old such offensive and potentially damaging material. It entirely misses the point of food, and of eating out. If you’re only thinking about working off the calories while eating your fish and chips, it will never meet your hunger.
At the end of her year with Weight Watchers, is Meltzer still hungry? “Peace is not blind capitulation to dieting culture or fat-acceptance culture,” she finds. “I am just beginning to understand that I will always live in that paradox. If I can find greater happiness with what I choose to eat and how much I weigh, imagine what I could do when applying it to the rest of my life.”
The truth is, my outlook has changed for the better since losing 6kg on Noom. I have five pairs of jeans to choose from, when for a year I had one. Dieting remains evil, but we all need to find a body we can put on with pride each morning. Obesity is a social issue we must work on.
However I would like to lose another 6kg, and this is where things get tricky. It’s not only that losing weight gets harder, though it does. It’s the parts of you that you have to give - sacrifice - to the hollow dream. I didn’t eat chocolate for six months because Noom (it is a very clever app, believe me) brainwashed me into thinking I didn’t want it. At the time, I genuinely mourned it. But I do want chocolate, and I’ve welcomed it back into my life.
It’s just a shame I can’t wipe from my brain the number of calories in every square I snap off.
Weight Watchers through the years
In 1961, Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch weighed more than 15 stone. After being mistaken as pregnant, she lost 20lb on a strict diet programme at New York’s obesity clinic. Wishing to recreate the experience but with a friendlier support group, she invited friends to her home to help each other to lose weight. Within two months the weekly weigh-in had 40 guests, and by late 1962 Nidetch was down to 10st 2lb. She claimed to never again weigh more than 10st 10lb.
The first official meeting, in May 1963, attracted 400 dieters. The original plan was strict: skipping meals was forbidden, and permitted foods were lean meats, fish, skimmed milk, fruit and veg, but no sugary or fatty foods or alcohol.
The organisation grew quickly because of a cheap franchise plan and by 1968 had more than a million members around the world. The company was sold to Heinz in 1978 for $72m and Nidetch moved into a consulting role. In 1999 a private equity firm paid $735m for it.
The points system was launched in the 1990s, ostensibly doing away with much weighing and measuring, instead assigning values to every food.
In 2018, the company rebranded as WW, focusing more on health and wellbeing instead of dieting. Many programmes are available but, Jean Nidetch’s idea of a weekly meeting and weigh-in remain the most popular approach.
Every diet is a promise that if you lose weight, you’ll change your life
Our society rewards greed, but physical hunger is demonised