Is 13 too young for a diet? Weight Watchers doesn't think so

Weight Watchers is facing a mounting backlash for opening its doors to teenagers.

Earlier this month, the world’s oldest and largest weight-loss company announced it will offer children ages 13 to 17 free summer memberships as part of its strategy to more than double revenue and memberships by the end of 2020.

“They will have free access to Weight Watchers when they join with an adult, helping them develop healthy habits at a critical life stage,” new CEO Mindy Grossman said during an employee event in New York on Feb. 7.

She told the audience she accompanied her mother to Weight Watchers meetings when she was 14.

“I was feeling very insecure. I had this desperate desire to be a cheerleader. I did it with my mom. I lost weight. I felt better.”

Both the National Eating Disorder Information Centre of Canada (NEDIC) and the National Eating Disorders Association in the U.S. have condemned the offer. 

NEDIC spokesperson Kelsey Johnston said dieting is a significant risk factor in young people for developing eating disorders. The organization said approximately one in five Canadian teenagers is already dieting.

​”[Weight Watchers] stated that it is not a diet program, but with a name like Weight Watchers … we think that preoccupation with body image is problematic for young people,” she said.

The social media campaign #WakeUpWeightWatchers and a petition on Change.org call on the company to rescind its offer to teens.

In response to the pressure, Weight Watchers offered assurances that its teen weight-loss program will be responsible.

“We know that the teenage years are in a critical life stage for developing healthy habits, and opening WW to teens with consent from a parent/guardian is about families getting healthier,” the company said in a statement. “We have and will continue to talk with health-care professionals about the criteria and guidelines as we get ready to launch this program.”

‘That’s not their place’

Toronto dietitian Rosie Schwartz is not persuaded. 

“But the kids are still coming in, and the first thing that would happen is that they would be weighed on the scale. And that’s the issue — weighing kids at that point is not what should be happening.”

Schwartz’s clients include young people who are overweight or living with obesity. She said the child obesity epidemic is a symptom of a deeper problem that is often not addressed by dieting.

“We need to change the food environment for kids,” she said. “Families need to be eating better together. Families need to know how to cook. Parents need to know how to cook and kids should get into the kitchen, prepare food.”

Katelynne Edmonds

Katelynne Edmonds, 25, calls the offer of free memberships for teens ‘a slippery slope.’ She’s recovering from an eating disorder.

Toronto university student Katelynne Edmonds, who is recovering from an eating disorder that began in her teens, agrees that minors joining Weight Watchers is not a good idea.

“Introducing young teens to a diet culture is such a slippery slope.”

The 25-year-old said there definitely needs to be a place where teens can get help if their weight is affecting their health.

“I don’t think it’s a diet company like Weight Watchers, that’s not their place.”  

‘It could be a benefit or it could potentially cause harm.’
– Dr. Tom Warshawski

Dr. Tom Warshawski, chair of the B.C.-based Childhood Obesity Foundation, said he had mixed feelings when he heard about the Weight Watchers offer. 

“Well, my first thought was that it could be a benefit or it could potentially cause harm. You really have to know what the curriculum is like,” he said.

Warshawski acknowledged dieting can lead to eating disorders, but he said “the magnitude of the problem doesn’t quite compare to the epidemic of overweight and obesity.” 

The Kelowna pediatrician said when he treats young patients for obesity he considers a variety of risk factors such as body mass index, family history, ethnicity and their stage of adolescence.

The goal, he said, is a healthy rate of weight gain. 

“As you grow taller you’ve got to put on some more muscle mass. You have to get heavier,” he said. “So weight loss is sometimes not even what we’re looking for in teens. We’re looking for weight maintenance and have the body grow into the weight.” 

Since former TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey became a major shareholder of Weight Watchers in 2015, the company has boosted revenues and memberships, while trying to rebrand itself as a partner in promoting healthy lifestyles.

The company recently recruited American music producer DJ Khaled as a brand ambassador.

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CBC | Health News