Weight Watchers announced last week that it will offer free membership to teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 this summer.
For six weeks, teenagers will be able to join the program for free and will retain free access until they turn 18, the company said in an emailed statement.
“Our goal is to help those who need healthy habits to develop them at this critical life-stage,” the statement said. “We think there’s a real opportunity to make an impact on a problem that is not currently being addressed effectively.”
While many took to social media to applaud Weight Watchers’ move, not everyone felt positively about the program.
“Start ’em young, right?” a Washington Post article said, claiming that by offering services to teenagers for free, Weight Watchers is employing “a bigger plan to grow revenue and a loyal customer base for life.”
Lauren Absher, a dietitian at the BYU Student Health Center, hasn’t seen success with her clients who had previously tried Weight Watchers.
“The diet failed them,” she said. “They didn’t fail the diet.”
Other health professionals are also concerned that introducing dieting at such a young age could makes teenagers more vulnerable to eating disorders.
“Dieting is a huge predictor in the development of an eating disorder,” Salt Lake City-based dietitian Leah Kirschbaum said. According to Philadelphia Eating Disorder Examiner, 35 percent of occasional dieters progress into pathological dieting, and 25 percent advance into full-blown eating disorders.
“My personal eating disorder started with dieting,” Tiffany Roe, a Clinical Mental Health Counselor who works with people with eating disorders, said. “That is consistent with almost every single one of my clients. It is a huge risk factor and something we need to take seriously.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines says that teenagers are particularly vulnerable and suggests that doctors refrain from discussing dieting and weight loss with minors.
“Half of teenage girls and one-third of teenage boys use dangerous weight control methods… in an attempt to meet unrealistic body ideals,” The National Eating Disorders Association released in a statement. “We hope Weight Watchers acknowledges the risk and implements steps to screen for potential early signs of disordered eating.”
Eating disorders are not the only possible outcome of dieting. According to Kirschbaum, because dieting is unsustainable, it often results in return of weight once normal eating resumes. Discouraged, dieters often attempt to diet again with an even stricter approach, only perpetuating the cycle.
“If you restrict anybody enough, they are naturally going to have the response to binge,” she explained. “That doesn’t breed very healthy food behaviors.”
In response to Weight Watchers’ announcement, many individuals took to Twitter over the weekend, and the hashtag #WakeUpWeightWatchers trended internationally.
“Teens don’t need free #WeightWatchers memberships,” tweeted Colleen Werner. “You know what is healthier? Having a truly balanced relationship with mind, body and spirit. Not feeling the need to count points and put harmful labels on food.”
We rounded up more opposing tweets in the following moment:
Others offered suggestions for addressing physical and mental health for teenagers rather than encouraging them to diet.
“How about we teach our children and our teenagers how to have a healthy relationship with food?” Roe suggested. “That means we don’t restrict calories. That means we model intuitive eating. There’s no good food and there’s no bad food; food is not a moral issue.”
“If you’re concerned about your health, focus on sustainable behaviors rather than making it about weight. Ask what you can add to your diet or lifestyle instead of what you can take away or restrict,” Kirschbaum said, encouraging balance, variety, or more color on the plate. “When the focus is on the number on the scale, it becomes less about health. We have become entirely too fat-phobic as a culture, and as a result people continue to manipulate their weight regardless of if the behaviors are truly healthy or not.”
Absher agrees that society has developed an unhealthy fatphobia. “Weight bias is just as damaging as any other sort of bias against a human,” she said. She recommended people seek dietitians that take a “Health At Every Size” approach and focus on behavior change rather than weight loss.
Weight Watchers has not released all of the details of its free membership for teenagers and said that criteria and guidelines will be released when the program is launched in the summer.