Do teens need to diet? Experts discuss Weight Watchers decision to offer program to teens

Weight Watchers has drawn criticism for offering its program for free to teens this summer, with health advocates warning against eating disorders and other effects.
by Scott Stump / / Source: TODAY

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Do teens need to be on diets? That's a question lots of people are asking after Weight Watchers recently announced they'll be offering free memberships to kids ages 13 to 17 this summer.

The decision has drawn criticism from health advocates warning against potentially negative effects like eating disorders and unhealthy body image. While Weight Watchers has stated the move supports "the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage," and was endorsed by Weight Watchers spokesperson Oprah Winfrey.

Weight Watchers Meeting Location In New York City
Weight Watchers has been criticized for offering its program to teens for free this summer. Getty Images

Lori Ciotti, a regional assistant vice president of operations for the Renfrew Center in Boston, which treats eating disorders, does not recommend teens using the Weight Watchers system.

"Dieting is a slippery slope into an eating disorder,'' Ciotti told TODAY. "It sends a message that one should not listen to their body's hunger or fullness cues, so it's really concerning from that perspective."

"I think what (Weight Watchers) is doing here is offering a sanctioned method of counting calories or points or whatever they want to call it," Ciotti continued. "It's not teaching teens anything about self-care or self-worth. Instead it teaches them that their worth is about a number on a scale or the back of their jeans."

Kristi King, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a senior pediatric dietitian at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, spoke to TODAY about the effects of a calorie-counting diet while not commenting directly on Weight Watchers.

"This is a time that (teens) are developing habits that are going to be life-long,'' she said. "Our concern about counting calories and being very restrictive is the fact that we know that having those behaviors in that particular age group can lead to eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa or bulimia."

A restrictive diet could also deprive teens of important vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins or fats that they need for a growing body, King said.

"Long-term effects besides eating disorders, if we are extremely restrictive in that time period, you could potentially cause growth stunting,'' King said. "When you're counting calories, you're not looking at what types of healthy foods you should be putting into your body. You could eat a candy bar for lunch and still meet that caloric requirement."

The Weight Watchers announcement also spawned the hashtag #WakeUpWeightWatchers from people angry with the company appealing to teens.

Weight Watchers said its aim is educating teens about eating more nutritious foods.

"Our goal is to help those who need healthy habits to develop them at this critical life-stage; this is not about dieting,'' Weight Watchers said in a statement to TODAY. "For a six-week period this summer, teens will be able to join Weight Watchers for free and can continue their membership through age 17. They will be required to go to one of our meeting locations for their parent/guardian to provide consent, as we know a family-based approach is critical at this age."

"We have and will continue to talk with healthcare professionals about specific criteria and guidelines as we get ready to launch this program," Weigh Watchers said. "We think there’s a real opportunity to make an impact on a problem that is not currently being addressed effectively."

Weight Watchers did not clarify whether its free program this summer will be specifically tailored to teens or whether it will be the traditional program used by adults.

"We'll share more specific criteria and guidelines when we launch the program,'' the company said in a statement.

Ciotti also questioned the approach of having teens attend Weight Watchers meetings with family members.

"That isn't necessarily the family message we want to hear,'' she said. "We want families to be eating together and supporting their child's changing bodies and development.

"The statistics are already about 35 percent of people who diet, it turns into an eating disorder, so I think that they're sort of walking them right into that statistic."

Ciotti believes examining the underlying behaviors around food is more crucial for teenagers.

"We want to focus on emotional health and what is driving someone to hyper control their food or exercise,'' she said. "It's really hard when you're between 13 and 17 to understand all the changes you're going through. If someone is using any behavior in an extreme, we want to make sure that we understand what is behind that behavior and treat that, and not focus on the food."

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