Mega diet-company Weight Watchers just announced they will be offering a free trial membership to teenagers during the summer of 2018. This new programming is centered around "the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage.” While they are constantly coming up with new and creative ways to divert our attention from the fact that their programs are based in dieting and weight loss, we must acknowledge the truth of this new plan.
Weight Watchers is now targeting teens in their quest to grow its revenue to more than $2 billion by the end of 2020. As a certified eating disorder dietitian and a psychologist who specialize in treating teenagers with eating disorders, we are appalled and urge Weight Watchers to reconsider this move.
Dieting is the act of controlling food intake with the goal of weight loss, and the American Academy of Pediatrics clearly states that dieting in adolescents is not recommended (Golden et al., 2016). In fact, data suggests that a focus on weight loss during this critical time increases weight gain, binge eating, disordered eating, and eating disorders (Golden et al., 2016; Fields et al., 2003).
No matter what way you spin it, the core of Weight Watchers’ teen programming will be dieting and weight loss cleverly disguised as health. This will put many teens at risk for a lifetime of being caught in the cycle of dieting. One that Weight Watchers is well-aware of, considering their expectation that this new program will make young customers loyal for years.
There are major issues with this campaign that we have outlined below.
1. They have not explained programmatic differences for adults versus teens. Teens have different nutritional and emotional needs than adults; there is no clear distinction of how the program will account for these developmental differences.
2. Weight Watchers has not addressed how it will screen for eating disorders in this population. Their website clearly states: Weight Watchers is not a medical organization and cannot meet the needs of those with eating disorders. Eating disorder onset often occurs during the teenage years (Swanson et al., 2010); therefore, this company will undoubtedly see an increase in these disorders and must be prepared to connect teens and families with professional help.
3. By expecting to create loyal customers, Weight Watchers only confirms the research that diet and weight-focused programs result in teens’ prolonged struggles with food and weight. This is what would result in teens’ continued loyalty and reliance on Weight Watchers’ programming.
4. The messaging around the launch disguises dieting as ‘healthy lifestyle’ - This is a dangerous marketing tactic, but one that is commonly used due to increased rejection of diet and weight loss propaganda. Fortunately, they can’t distance themselves too far from their core beliefs seeing as the very name of their company implies this message.
5. Targeting this audience with this programming fails to acknowledge the medical recommendations which discourages dieting in this population and even indicates adverse physical and mental health effects.
So, how do I help my teen?
If you want to help a teenager who is struggling with their relationship to food and their body, the last thing you want to do is place them on a diet or in a weight-focused program. But what does a non-diet, intuitive eating approach to teen nutrition look like? Let’s take a quick look.
Connect to hunger and fullness cues - This helps teens learn to trust their bodies and reconnect with the internal cues they were born with. Dieting will only pull them farther away from this critical goal.
Reduce focus on weight, numbers, calories, and counting - Instead, choose to increase food variety, use neutral language about food, and engage your senses at meals.
Learn about your teens’ emotional experiences with food - Recognize the ways they may be using food as a means of coping.
Understand normal growth changes - Teens’ bodies are constantly changing. Helping normalize these changes and providing them with support will aid in body positivity and body acceptance. This will also help with their confidence and peer relationships.
Family meals - Share meals with your teen. Around the table you are able to model a healthy relationship with food, practice mindfulness, and engage in meaningful conversation.
Foster independence - gradually increase teens responsibilities with food. Teach them how to pack a lunch or cook a meal. These skills will last a lifetime and will relieve them from the vicious cycle of dieting.
We recommend rejecting the ‘quick fix’ of a weight loss or ‘healthy lifestyle program’ and seek guidance from a professional instead. There are countless resources out there and trained providers that can help your teen make lasting progress.
If Weight Watchers is truly concerned about teens, they will drop this programming immediately. There is no evidence in support of this approach. In fact, the research indicates that these approaches are downright harmful to teens. We look forward to seeing more empowering, research-based interventions for our youth.
Time to take action! Weight Watchers needs to know how this new program impacts you and your loved ones. Based on our knowledge, expertise, and available research, we know that dieting and weight-control approaches simply don’t work. Many people have painful experiences with food, weight, and dieting. We encourage you to reach out to Weight Watchers and share your story and these statistics in an effort to eliminate this program. Tweet, comment, and even send a letter to let them know that #WWisNOTforteens
Dear Weight Watchers,
As a concerned (insert: dietitian, therapist, parent, teen, eating disorder survivor, etc.), I am writing to urge you to stop your marketing to teens.
[Insert your story]
Here are some important statistics to know about teen health and dieting:
35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full syndrome eating disorders (Shisslak, et. al 1995)
Eating disorders often begin with a child wanting to “eat healthy” ( Sim et al., 20113)
Approximately 3% of teens (13-18) struggle with an eating disorder (National Institute of Mental Health)
Individuals looking for weight loss treatment often show signs of Binge Eating Disorder (Westerberg & Waltz, 2013) and weight loss treatment will only worsen their condition.
If you are truly concerned about teen health, you will drop this programming immediately. There is no evidence in support of this approach, in fact the research indicates that these approaches are downright harmful to teens. We look forward to seeing more empowering, research-based approaches for our teens.
300 Jericho Quadrangle, Suite 350 Jericho, NY 11753
Field, A. E., Austin, S. B., Taylor, C. B., Malspeis, S., Rosner, B., Rockett, H. R., . . . Colditz, G. A. (2003). Relation Between Dieting and Weight Change Among Preadolescents and Adolescents. Pediatrics, 112(4), 900-906.
Golden, N. H., Schneider, M., & Wood, C. (2016). Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents. Pediatrics, 138(3). do
Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., & Estes, L.S. (1995). The spectrum of eating disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18 (3), 209-219
Sim LA, Lebow J, Billings M. Eating disorders in adolescents with a history of obesity. Pediatrics.2013;132(4). Available at: www.pediatrics.org/cgi/content/full/132/4/e1026
Swanson, S., Crow, S., & Merikangas, K. (2010). Prevalence, correlates, and comorbidity of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Comprehensive Psychiatry, 51(6).
Westerberg, D. P., & Waitz, M. (2013). Binge-eating disorder. Osteopathic Family Physician,5(6), 230-233.