Last week it was announced that Weight Watchers will be offering free memberships for teenagers age 13-17 starting this summer.
I. Am. Horrified.
According to Weight Watchers, their goal is to teach young people to develop healthy habits at a critical age. That might sound all well and good to some of you, but let me assure you, this is just as evil as cigarette companies using cartoons in their advertising to appeal to children. Weight Watchers real goal is to create lifetime users by hooking them while they're young, getting them invested in a company that profits off it's users cycle of weight loss and regain.
Despite Weight Watchers current attempt to rebrand itself as "not a diet, but a lifestyle," it's a diet. Y'all, it's WEIGHT Watchers for goodness sake. They can talk about body positivity and self love and all foods fit all they like, but at the end of the day, you're counting points as a substitute for calorie counting in an attempt to lose weight.
As a non-diet dietitian, I don't recommend diets for anyone, but dieting is especially dangerous for teenagers. Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines recommending parents and providers not bring up weight or encourage weight loss or dieting for children and teens, and instead focus on promoting healthy behaviors. That's because large scale studies have shown putting children on diets results in a twofold risk of them becoming "overweight," and that dieting is the strongest predictor of their developing an eating disorder.
Almost every client I work with for disordered eating has a Weight Watchers story from their childhood or teenage years. I've had clients who went to Weight Watchers meetings before they were even 10. Seriously, how does no one speak up when there is an 8-year-old in a Weight Watchers meeting? It's a traumatic experience that many directly relate to the development of their eating disorder. Does Weight Watchers cause eating disorders? Of course not, but it does trigger eating disorders in those who are susceptible.
One comment I've seen come up again and again in online conversations discussing eating disorder risk and Weight Watchers is this idea of "well, of course you wouldn't want thin kids in WW, but what about children with 'obesity?'"
Anorexia isn't the only eating disorder. Eating disorders can occur at any size, and in fact, most people with eating disorders have a "normal" or "overweight" BMI. Binge eating disorder is the most common eating disorder, and it's more than just eating too much. It's a serious medical condition requiring treatment, and putting someone with binge eating disorder on a diet is the absolute worse thing you can do. I don't know the statistics specifically for teens, but for adults, 30% of those seeking weight loss treatment meet the criteria for binge eating disorder.
Also, someone doesn't have to have a diagnosable eating disorder for dieting to be a bad idea. Studies have shown 80% of women engage in some disordered eating behaviors. Maybe Weight Watchers won't trigger an eating disorder for the majority of people who join the program, but it will trigger body hate, food obsessions, and low self worth.
As I've said over and over (and over and over...) again on this blog, 95-97% of diets fail, and 60% of those will regain more weight than they lost. That includes Weight Watchers. Let's take that out of statistics and think about actual, human teenagers. That means that for every 100 teens who join Weight Watchers, 60 will end up bigger than they started. Can you imagine how that would feel as a teen if you joined a weight loss program and ended up gaining weight? Do you remember how worthless you felt when you were 15? Like, I remember honestly thinking I wasn't good at anything, and there was nothing special about me. And I was semi-popular with good grades and a pretty decent support system.
So yes, of those 100 teens, 3-5 would lose weight and keep it off. But at what cost? The majority of them would have to be extremely rigid the rest of their life to keep weight off. If you look at "successful" dieters, most have to devote a massive amount of time and energy towards suppressing their weight. Don't teenagers have better things to do with their time, like studying or building social connections or playing sports or discovering themselves or plastering their bedroom wall with pictures of Jordan Catalano....oh wait, that was me.
If a teenager is in a bigger body, it could be because genetically, they are supposed to be in a bigger body. Putting them on a diet won't make them permanently thinner, and definitely won't make them healthier. Keep in mind, in the four years around puberty, the average teen gains 40 pounds. How many kids are going to be put on a diet for experiencing the normal, healthy weight gain that comes with becoming an adult?
Other teenagers could be in bigger bodies in part because of the way they are eating. Maybe they need access to healthier foods their family can't afford or doesn't have time to prepare. Maybe they're suffering from trauma and turning to food as a way to cope. Or maybe them and their family would benefit from learning some healthier eating and exercise habits. In all these situations, Weight Watchers will not help, because it focuses on the scale, not addressing individuals needs.
This weekend, me and other concerned health professions started a tweetstorm to #WakeUpWeightWatchers. Here's some of my favorite tweets:
If you're concerned about this, I hope you'll let Weight Watchers know. Share your thoughts on social media, tag WW and use the hashtag #WakeUpWeightWatchers. On instagram, I've been encouraging people to share pictures of themselves as teenagers along with their stories and tag Weight Watchers. Thank you SO much to those of you who have shared and tagged me - your stories are incredibly powerful! Let's remind Weight Watchers of the humanity of the vulnerable teenagers they'll be hurting!
Parents, if you've put your child on a diet or were/are thinking about sending them to Weight Watchers, don't feel bad about it. You're just trying to protect them from unnecessary suffering. But please know there is a better way. Check out Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family and Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming, both by dietitian Ellyn Satter. Or, reach out to a Health at Every Size dietitian. I work with teens out of my Columbia, SC office and virtually throughout the US. Or, if you'd like a referral to someone in your area, shoot me an email and I'll be happy to send you some recommendations if I have one.
If you're a teenager, please know that despite what anyone says, this is a really important time in your life. Your brain is going through a critical time of development. In an attempt to become more efficient, it's shedding connections it's not using and solidifying connections that it is using. That means if you're spending your teens obsessing over points, that's going to get solidified, not other skills that will help you in adulthood. You're supposed to be learning your likes and dislikes, building social connections, developing decision making skills, and basically becoming an adult in this really messy, imperfect and awkward way. Your time and energy should go towards this process, not dieting. You need space in your teenage years to figure things out.
If you're a teen in a bigger body, please know that there is nothing wrong with you. There's something wrong with society. Slowly, but surely, we're changing that, but you don't need to change your appearance. You can have all the things you want - happiness, friendships, relationships, success, by developing who you are on the inside, not changing the outside.
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