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.
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.
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.