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Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

12 Things You Might Not Know About Weight Watchers

Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Though devices like the Fitbit have chewed into their market share, Weight Watchers remains a formidable presence in the $60 billion weight loss industry—so much so that Oprah Winfrey just purchased a 10 percent stake in the company. Unlike many fad diets and dubious supplements, there’s actual scientific evidence that says the program—which combines caloric control with social support—works. Take a look at these 12 facts about points, spokespeople, and the role of animal organs in a balanced diet.

1. THE FOUNDER WAS MISTAKEN FOR A PREGNANT WOMAN.

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When 37-year-old Queens housewife Jean Nidetch walked into a supermarket in 1962, she ran into a neighbor who complimented her on her appearance. Before Nidetch could thank her, the neighbor asked when she was due. Unsatisfied with both the social faux pas and her weight of 214 pounds, Nidetch decided to go on a diet and visited the New York Board of Health for advice. After cutting out soda and eating more protein, Nidetch lost 20 pounds in 10 weeks. To help stay motivated, she began meeting with friends to exchange stories about food temptations. One confessed to eating a donut out of a garbage can. A movement was born.

2. THE FIRST MEETINGS WERE HELD OVER A PIZZA PARLOR.

Once Nidetch (who eventually lost 70 pounds and kept it off) realized there was a demand for meetings beyond her circle of friends, she started Weight Watchers as an incorporated business in 1963. Those early meetings were held in an empty space over a New York pizza parlor; the owner was puzzled as to why there was a line of people outside who never stopped in for a slice.

3. THE ORIGINAL PLAN CALLED FOR LIVER AND BRAINS.

Weight Watchers spent its first decades endorsing a limited-quantities program, which didn’t count calories but restricted members to certain kinds of foods. “Group A” meats included organs like liver, brains, and kidneys, as well as white-meat turkey and chicken. The diet also welcomed frankfurters. It excluded bananas, avocados, and pancakes, however.

4. THEY USED TO BE OWNED BY HEINZ KETCHUP.

When you think of shedding pounds, you probably don’t think about slathering your meals in sugar-laden condiments. But when Nidetch’s meetings grew from neighborhood chats to public assemblies, it caught the attention of the H.J. Heinz company, the ketchup manufacturer. Heinz purchased Weight Watchers for $71 million in 1978; they sold the business off to a European investment firm in 1999, but maintained a small stake and still distribute frozen foods bearing the Weight Watchers brand.   

5. THEIR MAGAZINE WAS FOR “ATTRACTIVE PEOPLE.”

The Weight Watchers movement has bled into frozen foods, apps, and other licensed products, but one of their most enduring tie-ins has been Weight Watchers magazine. When the publication first appeared on newsstands in 1968, it presented simple food tips and lifestyle suggestions. In 1975, editors (including Matty Simmons, who would later found National Lampoon) added the subtitle Magazine For Attractive People.

6. THEY MESSED WITH SUCCESS. TWICE.

Weight Watchers had long been a program based on social support and dietary recommendations. It wasn’t until 1997, when the company debuted its “Points” system, that the brand became a cultural phenomenon. By assigning points to a large variety of store-bought and restaurant foods, program members regarded choices like a banana (now allowed) or cupcake as being worth a certain number of points. As long as they didn’t exceed their total allowance for the day, they’d lose weight. The revamped PointsPlus, introduced in 2010, recognized 200 calories of protein and 200 calories of baked goods were indeed different and shifted their numerical values accordingly.

7. NOT EVERYONE WAS HAPPY ABOUT THE CHANGE.

On then-CEO David Kirchhoff’s blog, posters complained that the new system upended their comfort level with what had come before. “I hate it,” one member wrote. “I hate learning the new points and losing all my foods that I’ve put in over the last three years. I’m completely annoyed that microwave popcorn is three points now!!!!”   

8. THE SERVICE MIGHT COST YOU $75 A POUND.

Judit Klein, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Duke-National University of Singapore did a little number-crunching in 2014 and discovered that, with an average of $377 in annual membership fees and roughly five pounds lost per year, Weight Watchers costs members about $75 for every disappearing pound. But it’s still a much cheaper alternative than Jenny Craig, which requests members buy the company's own food at a cost of roughly $2,500 per year. At an average 16 pounds lost, that's roughly double the cost.

9. THEY DON’T THINK YOU’LL ABUSE YOUR FREE FRUIT PRIVILEGES.

Under the PointsPlus system, members get a free pass with fruits and vegetables: they equate to zero points. While some dieticians and nutritionists argue that eating too much fruit could literally tip the scales, Kirchhoff explained that "There’s so little evidence that people abuse fruit. It takes a while to eat. It’s filling. Could you eat 12 bananas and count it as zero points? Yes. But how would you feel afterward?"

10. CHARLES BARKLEY WAS CAUGHT DISSING THEM.

One of many celebrity endorsers, Charles Barkley (a.k.a. “The Round Mound of Rebound”) became a spokesman in 2011. According to the New York Daily News, he was announcing an NBA game in January 2012 and—not realizing his microphone was still live—declared his deal with Weight Watchers to be a “scam.” He was apparently referring to getting paid to lose weight, not the program itself; the company later said in a statement they “love Charles … he’s unfiltered.”

11. THEY HAD TO REALLY WORK FOR CHINA.

Kirchhoff visited China in 2011 to see how the culture was embracing the Points system. Because pre-packaged food has confusing, spare labeling, and because the Chinese frequently eat out, the company had to stand by while chefs made nearly 20,000 common dishes and then measured their nutritional content.

12. SOME PEOPLE ARE BANNED.

Not from eating sensibly, obviously, but from actively participating in the Weight Watchers community. Demographics that are not welcome at meetings: anyone under the age of 10; anyone suffering from bulimia nervosa; anyone five pounds or less above their minimum-weight chart; and anyone pregnant.

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How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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Inhaling Cleaning Product Fumes Can Be as Bad for You as a Pack-a-Day Smoking Habit, Study Finds
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People who use spray cleaners on a regular basis may want to reconsider how they tackle their spring cleaning. A new study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine [PDF] offers strong evidence that inhalation of these sterilizing and polishing chemicals may be as bad for their lungs as smoking one pack of cigarettes per day, as Newsweek highlights.

A team of scientists led by Cecile Svanes, Ph.D. at Norway’s University of Bergen tracked 6230 study subjects for two decades, looking for a correlation between diminished lung capacity and use of cleaning products. Those who regularly used chemicals for cleaning, like housekeepers, displayed worsening lung function when researchers asked them to blow air into a tube. Even using cleaners once per week was associated with reduced lung capacity.

Those who reported use of the products also had increased rates of asthma when compared to those who did not use cleaners. It’s believed the particles of the abrasive chemicals are damaging the mucus membranes, leading to steady and progressive changes. The results applied to both occupational cleaners as well as those who were responsible for cleaning at home. The study also demonstrated that women were more susceptible to the effects of the chemicals than men, although a comparatively smaller number of men took part.

What can you do to mitigate the risk? Oistein Svanes, a doctoral student who worked on the project, recommends cleaning with a damp microfiber cloth using only water. If you feel you must use a chemical agent, it's better to pour it into a bucket instead of relying on a spray nozzle—the latter is what causes the chemicals to become airborne and respirable.

[h/t Newsweek]

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