Capturing teens for diet industry

Weight gain in teenagers

As part of a ‘new corporate strategy’ Weightwatchers in the US, has announced it will be promoting free memberships to teens aged 13 - 17years old.  Weightwatchers claim it will "help the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage".

I would argue that young people will pay a heavy price for this ‘free’ membership in the form of a lifetime of body shame, weight bias, calorie counting and feeling that their body is a problem that needs to be fixed.

There is already substantial evidence supporting the connection between dieting, weight gain and eating disorders. In a large 2003 study focusing on 9 to 14 year-olds, dieting was associated with greater weight gain and increased rates of binge eating in both boys and girls. Dr Eric Stice et al., found that girls without obesity who dieted in the ninth grade were 3 times more likely to be overweight in the 12th grade compared with non-dieters.

I have questions for Weightwatchers…

  1. Will teens be weighed?
  2. If so, will they be encouraged to reduce their weight?
  3. Is there a weight at which teens will be turned away and told they are absolutely fine as they are?
  4. Are group leaders suitably trained to recognise eating disorders and refer teens and parents to seek expert advice?
  5. Will the teens be encouraged to consume Weightwatchers branded foods?
  6. Will group leaders teach self-compassion and body acceptance, or would that be a conflict of interest for Weightwatchers?

There are many ways to help young people (and adults) improve their physical and mental health without pursuing weight loss.

In our 3-day course - Psychological Approaches to Obesity, we encourage health professionals to use a non-diet approach and instead concentrate on working with individuals to improve their quality of life, find joy in food and movement, learn self-compassion and reject the shame and stigma of the fear-based belief system that tells us that thinner is healthier.

In NSW, we already have a program in schools that encourages kids to be weighed; I truly hope this proposed initiative by Weightwatchers is nipped in the bud, just like the doomed "Weightwatchers Black" (Improve your sex life by losing weight!) idea of a couple of years ago.

The Weightwatchers business model relies on repeat business, and I believe their sudden ‘concern’ for young people is merely a marketing ploy to obtain more lifelong customers.  Yes, call me cynical, but I would love to meet someone who has used the Weightwatchers method to lose weight, maintain that weight loss, and along the way has also discovered a relaxed and peaceful relationship to food and their body.
 

Kyla Holley
Director
Australian Centre for Eating Disorders
 
Field, A. E., Austin, S. B., Taylor, C. B. (2003) Relation between dieting and weight change among preadolescents and adolescents. Pediatrics. 112(4):900–906
Stice,  E., Cameron, R. P., Killen, J. D., Hayward, C., Taylor, C. B. (1999) Naturalistic weight-reduction efforts prospectively predict growth in relative weight and onset of obesity among female adolescents. Journal of Consult Clinical Psychology. 67(6):967–974