Jean Nidetch, a New York housewife who tackled her own obesity problem, then shared her guiding principles with others in meetings that became known as Weight Watchers, died today at her home in Parkland, Florida, at age 91. Plagued by a weight problem since childhood, Nidetch had tried all manner of fad diets, pills, and treatments in failed efforts to slim down before, at 214 pounds, she began picking up tips at an obesity clinic sponsored by the New York City Board of Health in 1961. No skipping meals. Fish five times a week. Two pieces of bread and two glasses of skim milk a day. More fruits and vegetables. But Nidetch disliked the way the clinic's leader imparted information and how little the group's members shared, so she gathered six overweight friends in her Queens living room to share what she'd learned and talk about their own food compulsions.
Nidetch reached her goal weight of 142 pounds in 1962 and in 1963, the weekly meetings at her home developed into Weight Watchers International. By the following year, classes were being held across New York, with dozens of participants going on to lead sessions of their own. Franchises were opened, a cookbook sold millions, and by 1968, the company went public with adherents across the globe. Nidetch traveled the world preaching Weight Watchers' simple gospel and became a millionaire along the way, selling the company to H.J. Heinz Co. for about $71 million in 1978. Though her 2009 autobiography stated, simply, "I'm not a millionaire anymore," her greatest legacy, she always said, was the millions of men and women who lost weight using her plan. To the end, she was unwavering in her message and still received rock-star treatment when she attended Weight Watchers functions, prompting standing ovations, the flash of cameras, and requests for autographs. (Read more Weight Watchers stories.)