Little Neck neighbors saw beginnings of diet empire

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She started a support group out of her home in Deepdale Gardens, and the word got out. Her friends...

By Ayala Ben-Yehuda

Forty-two years ago an overweight Little Neck housewife named Jean Nidetch found that she needed the moral support of her friends to stick to her diet.

She started a support group out of her home in Deepdale Gardens, and the word got out. Her friends phoned their friends, and the movement known as Weight Watchers spread all over Queens and around the world, becoming what is today a $2 billion diet company celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

According to a company history, Nidetch was struggling to lose weight in 1961 when she turned to the New York City Health Department’s Kips Bay Obesity Clinic for help.

Though Nidetch was told to lose 2 pounds a week, there was no plan for getting through her cookie cravings, said Herta Prechtl, a former training director at the Woodbury, L.I.-based Weight Watchers who joined the program in 1963.

Nidetch would say, “‘How do they know when a Mallomar calls you?’” recalled Prechtl, an Astoria native who now lives in Westchester County. “She said, ‘I’ve got to find a better way.’”

That way began with six women in Nidetch’s apartment supporting each other during their diets, trying to stay motivated.

“The talking and listening and sharing of ideas, that’s how it was born,” said Prechtl.

According to Weight Watchers, word about the support group spread and soon Nidetch began squeezing 40 people into her home for meetings.

Prechtl said Nidetch had to move the group into a rented space above Romeo’s Italian restaurant on Little Neck Parkway and Northern Boulevard.

“The first night Jean had to do two sessions,” said Prechtl. “There were hundreds of people lined up.”

From there, support groups sprouted up all over Queens, in Veterans of Foreign Wars halls and other meeting spaces.

“Men would heckle them,” said Prechtl, but “the longest it took was eight minutes before (Nidetch) had everyone in the palm of her hand.”

Prechtl began attending meetings in 1963 at Flushing’s Pomonok Houses. She lost 40 pounds and was so enthralled with the program that she joined the company as a meeting leader and later a training director.

“I had to take a subway and a bus to get there,” said Prechtl. “I would have gone to the ends of the earth.”

The early Weight Watchers eating plan was based on the Health Department’s heart-healthy Prudent Diet, according to the company.

At the time, the Weight Watchers diet had a long list of “no’s,” said Prechtl. The list included most starches except for two slices of enriched bread a day, and limited beef to three servings a week—a revolutionary concept at the time.

Today, the diet is very different, emphasizing portion control rather than elimination of entire food groups.

The company’s Web site says Weight Watchers earned $2 billion in sales in 2002 on the strength of its products and services, which include everything from cookbooks to frozen meals to its mainstay weekly meetings held in 30 countries.

Nidetch, who incorporated Weight Watchers in 1963, currently lives in Las Vegas and is celebrating her 80th birthday this year, said Prechtl. A company spokeswoman said Nidetch had retired from Weight Watchers.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

Updated 7:22 pm, October 10, 2011
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