It all started in 1961 in Jean Nidetch's living room in New York City. A few overweight friends met each week to talk and troubleshoot their way through a sensible but strict diet from the health department's obesity clinic.
Soon the group grew to more than 40 women. By May 1963 the group had hundreds of members and a name: Weight Watchers.
Nidetch, who turns 90 this year and has moved to South Florida, sold the company in the 1970s.
Today Weight Watchers is the No. 1 commercial diet plan in the country and boasts more than 1.3 million members who attend 45,000 meetings worldwide each week. It also enjoys endorsements from medical authorities, insurers and celebrities like spokeswoman Jennifer Hudson, an Oscar-winning actor and singer.
In the beginning, it cost just $2 a week and all you got was that strict, sensible diet sheet. Now you can expect to pay $42.95 for a monthly pass, and a lot more if you can't resist the many books, cooking and measuring gadgets, scales, fitness tools, electronic gewgaws and all manner of convenience foods that bear the Weight Watchers corporate logo. You're still encouraged to go to meetings, but they can be accessed online from anywhere in the world.
It's still a sensible plan, emphasizing sound nutrition and exercise. But the details have evolved dramatically. Gone are the days when dieters had to eat specific foods like fish and liver (cooked without fat), and precise portions of skim milk (powdered, if you'd prefer).
Now the message is flexibility. Weight Watchers members can eat and drink virtually anything — provided they keep careful track of their intake, follow the good health guidelines, and don't exceed their daily limit of what's now called Points Plus. And they can "buy'' more food by increasing activity, which also must be carefully tracked.
This year, Weight Watchers celebrates its 50th anniversary with countless pounds lost — and sometimes gained and lost many times over — and lives altered.
To get a glimpse of how Weight Watchers and its members have changed over the years, we recently checked in with Audrey Northup, a Tampa Bay area resident who is one of the group's earliest, and longest-lasting, success stories. It has been decades since her life-altering weight loss, but she still works at it every day, inspiring others as she goes.
• • •
By 1971, Audrey Northup was fed up with being fat. The New York state resident had been on diets for more than three decades — since age 3. She weighed more than 200 pounds by the time she was 11.
When she found Weight Watchers, she set a goal to lose 100 pounds. She remembers eating fish five days a week and liver once a week — which was what the plan required back then.
The diet forced her — a farm girl raised on heavy cream — to switch to skim milk and eliminate fat from her diet. Exercise wasn't part of the plan. "I went from breakfast to sitting on the couch to wait for lunch, then I waited for dinner," she said.
The support she got from fellow members who cheered when she lost weight, and encouraged her when the scale wouldn't budge, worked for Northup.
A year after joining, she had surpassed her goal, dropping 125 pounds. In 1976, still slim and weighing in regularly (still a pillar of the program), Northup was invited to share her story in Weight Watchers magazine.
"It was a highlight in my life which I'll never forget," she said, recalling the trip into New York City and the professional team that did her hair, makeup and clothing.
On the cover, she wears a plunging red jumpsuit with the confidence of a model. Inside, she's shown in equally glamorous garb alongside "before'' photos that seem to belong to another woman entirely.
Now 76, Northrop lives in the south Hillsborough community of Wimauma. She's still slender and makes sure of it by weighing in every month.
She loves to share her story with a new generation of members.
At a 50th anniversary celebration event in January at the Weight Watchers storefront in Riverview, Northup shared her story with about 40 men and women. She has maintained a 115-pound weight loss and still keeps a journal of her food and exercise (known as "tracking'' in Weight Watchers parlance).
"I experimented in 2001 just wanting to try something new," she said of the year she retired from her job for New York state. "But that just proved to me that Weight Watchers is best."
Still, Northup prefers the restricted plan of the early days.
"There are too many food choices now, many more eating situations," she said.
"And portion sizes are so big. I think it's harder to lose weight now than it was when I lost my weight."
• • •
Several women in the audience nodded in recognition when Northup held up her now-yellowed copy of that Weight Watchers magazine from 1976.
"I came here today to meet Audrey," said Jene Evans, 63, a middle school teacher who lives in Sun City Center. Evans was a Weight Watchers member in the 1960s, in her early teens, when she had just 15 or so pounds to lose.
Evans has more than that to go now, but has lost 20 pounds since returning to the program. "It's a livable, doable program," she said.
"Seeing Audrey, meeting Audrey, shows me (weight loss) is attainable." Evans has a copy of the 1976 magazine at home and hopes to meet Northup again after she has reached her goal weight. "My goal is for her to sign my copy in a year," she said.
Inspiration is all around this meeting room. A large wall-mounted bulletin board is loaded with before and after photographs of members. Jeanie Cofer, 44, of Gibsonton proudly points out her pictures. The mother of two works part time and is married to a chef but has lost 101 pounds in 2 1/2 years at Weight Watchers.
"There are no 'can't have' foods. You just have to account for them,'' said Cofer, who faithfully tracks her intake, often with the help of a bar code scanner app in her phone that gives her Points Plus values for thousands of products in seconds.
Stephen Pagano of Valrico, 24, also says technology helped him lose. He uses his smartphone to track all his food, weighs and measures everything he eats, attends weekly meetings, and wears a special Weight Watchers monitor called Active Link to track his physical activity.
"I've tried to lose weight before, but this time I'm taking it seriously," said Pagano, who is down nearly 180 pounds from when he joined in January 2012 at 601 pounds.
Tammy Turner of Ruskin lost 70 pounds in her first year with Weight Watchers. She got her type 2 diabetes under control and no longer must take insulin. With another 100 pounds to go, Turner, 45, says it's especially helpful to get help online from people who have lost large amounts of weight.
"They give good advice and support and help you get back on track when you slip," she said. "They taught me not to let one heavy meal define the rest of my day."
Hearing Northup's story boosted her commitment. "When I am ready to give up, I think of Audrey and how wonderful she looks over 35 years later, and I know that this is for a lifetime. If I just don't give up, that can be me one day."
Irene Maher can be reached at email@example.com.