When it comes to weight loss and diet programs in the United States, there are so many different choices, it can feel overwhelming. Some swear by small diet tweaks, while others try programs like the BodyBoss Method and Intermittent Fasting. However, one thing has become clear: there is no longer an age limit on the weight loss conversation. On February 12, Weight Watchers announced via press release that it would offer teenagers free membership in order to “encourage healthier eating habits and help curb obesity.”
Weight Watchers CEO Mindy Grossman made the announcement, stating that teenagers ages 13 to 17 will receive free access to Weight Watchers when they join with an adult during the summer of 2018. As one of the largest commercial providers of weight management services in the world, Weight Watchers boasted about 1.2 million members in 2016, per WebMD.
While this new initiative to bring teens onboard to the diet plan of a low-carb, low-fat diet subscribes to the new point system unveiled earlier in the year, many are skeptical that a program designed to help those in need lose weight is a good long-term choice for teens. From portion sizes to food choices, Weight Watchers has long been criticized in today’s current climate of body acceptance.
The Medical Response
As for the professional response, WebMD reached out to Linia Patel, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, to gage her opinion on the new initiative that could put teens interested in losing weight at risk.
As Patel told WebMD,
“What we know in terms of addressing obesity in children in teenagers is that we have to address the family circumstances and the psycho-social reasons why they’re obese. Weight Watchers does not focus on that whatsoever. It focuses on foods, it focuses on calories, and it focuses on points.”
It seems that with this new program, WeightWatchers is setting its target on the next generation, hoping to get out in front of competing weight loss programs.
As Patel points out, Weight Watchers’ strengths are in its weekly meal plans, group meetings, and pre-designed weight-loss plan meant to encourage participants on their weight loss journey through the best diet and healthy foods for them. While it does indeed work for some, the thought of convincing young teenagers that they need a weight-loss diet is the real kicker for the outrage.
The Social Response
So what’s the problem with this free membership plan? Well, there are multiple studies that point to the fact that dieting early in life can lead to disordered eating. Per Eating Disorder Hope,
“Dieting may not be the cause of eating disorders, but it is often a precursor. The National Eating Disorders Association reports that 35 percent of ‘normal dieters’ progress to pathological dieting and that 20 to 25 percent of those individuals develop eating disorders.”
Most post to the fact that Weight Watchers point system of SmartPoints values, easily accessed through the Weight Watchers app, can begin an unhealthy obsession. Here are some of the responses from around the web condemning the faux healthy living message of the brand.
As many accuse the brand of playing into body insecurity and disdain for a current weight, only time will tell if Weight Watchers’ new approach will pay off. As for Patel, the registered dietician told WebMD that,
“If we start getting teenagers and children just to focus purely on calories and not understand nutrients in food and that some foods are more nutritious than other foods, then that could lead to a higher prevalence of disordered eating.”
Weight Watchers reached out to Cosmopolitan, who first covered the new program, stating that, “Our decision to open our program to teens, with the consent or a parent or guardian, is driven by a family-based approach. This is not about encouraging dieting.” Many are still unconvinced.
The concept of different foods being off limits seems to be the most worrisome, as healthy eating shouldn’t be an obsessive hobby, but instead part of a general lifestyle change to ensure that the effort sticks.