1969 Weight Watchers kicks off weight loss industry in Australia

Weight Watchers advertising from 1972

It warranted a full page in the Australian Women’s Weekly. In 1969, Nancy Richardson arrived from the United States to launch weight loss industry pioneer, Weight Watchers, in Australia. Richardson was a living example of the success of the program which had been developed in the USA in 1961 by Jean Nidetch and incorporated in 1963. The Weekly’s headline screamed: ‘From “real fatty – 11st. 5 – to 7st. 12.’  (It seems the term “fatty” was perfectly acceptable back then.)

The article chronicled Richardson’s weight loss journey and gave some details of the Weight Watchers regime, which included weekly meetings with others seeking to slim down. “Being fatties together means we can encourage each other to diet and maintain a weight loss,” Richardson said.

Given the Weekly’s fascination with slimming diets, it’s not surprising that after the Weight Watchers launch the magazine became a significant forum for the organisation. Through the 1970s the magazine published articles and recipes carrying the diet organisation’s imprimatur and in 1976 became the joint sponsor of a Weight Watchers weight loss competition. In the early 1980s, the Weekly ran a series of (no doubt paid) Weight Watchers supplements.

From 1965, the Weight Watchers organisation had contracted food manufacturers to produce frozen meals and other low-calorie foods under their brand name. In 1978 Heinz saw an opportunity and acquired Weight Watchers. Although it was sold to an investment group, Artal Luxembourg SA, in 1999, Heinz continues to produce many of the branded foods.

Perhaps inspired by the success of Weight Watchers here, the California-based Gloria Marshall Salons opened in Sydney in 1979. Founded in 1964, Gloria Marshall offered slimming programs for women only. Her “guaranteed slimming salons” offered counselling, a calorie-controlled diet regime and specialised exercise equipment designed for ladies who didn’t want to raise a sweat. These “passive” exercise machines did the work for you:

After years of study and development, we designed and manufactured the “Circ-la-matic” for this purpose. Our machines are programmed to work on “spot” problems.

They claimed that one of these machines was a spin-off from the space program. By 1990 there were 48 Gloria Marshall salons across Australia.

Australia was the launching pad for another major weight-loss chain. In 1983, the world’s first Jenny Craig centre opened in Melbourne. Unlike Weight Watchers, which guided dieters in choosing the right foods, Jenny Craig worked by supplying diet meals, plus a weekly session with your Personal Weight Loss Coach.

By 1990, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian weight loss industry was worth $200 million. At that point, Weight Watchers had 130,000 members, and Jenny Craig had 96 centres across Australia. It wasn’t much longer before questions were asked about some of the claims made by the industry. In 1991, Gloria Marshall was fined for misleading advertising. In 1994, with the weight loss industry now estimated at $500 million, the three leading organisations signed a voluntary code of practice designed to address complaints about how the industry was run.

Times have changed. Gloria Marshall is now defunct, wound up in 2000, perhaps left behind when the industry emphasis shifted from appearance to health and fitness.  Weight Watchers rebranded itself as WW, and is now mainly digital and self-guided, although the more expensive programs offer an online or telephone coaching session. Jenny Craig continues to offer a range of meal plans, with a personal coach included in the priciest plan.

And now there’s a new option. It comes with a semi-government stamp. The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet began with a book, published in 2005. Based on the concept of the Glycemic Index, the Total Wellbeing Diet evolved into an online health business in 2015.  The big plus: you get your $199 subscription fee back at the end if you successfully complete the 12-week course.

In June 2021, IBISWorld valued the Australian weight loss industry at $458 million. With the proportion of Australians overweight or obese estimated to be more than 70 per cent, the company made the following prediction:

There is little indication that weight gain in Australia will substantially slow over the next five years, and consumers’ propensity to spend money to alleviate weight problems is anticipated to remain high.

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