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Backlash Mounts Over Weight Watchers' Free New Initiative for Teens

Last week, Weight Watchers released the company’s plan to grow revenue to more than $2 billion by the end of 2020 — with the goal of helping “10 million people adopt a healthy lifestyle.”

But one part of that plan has caused eating disorder advocates and some nutritionists to speak out against the weight-loss company. In the press release, Weight Watchers announced it will offer free memberships to teenagers ages 13 to 17 in the summer of 2018.

To start a conversation about the potentially damaging effects of this program, BALANCE Eating Disorder Treatment Center launched the hashtag #WakeUpWeightWatchers, and it quickly took off. 

“The reason we initiated the #WakeUpWeightWatchers conversation was to be a voice for vulnerable teenagers everywhere who need our toxic diet culture to diminish as quickly as a teens self-esteem does on a diet,” Emily Costa, social media coordinator for BALANCE Eating Disorder Treatment Center, told The Mighty. “To me personally, targeting teens is beyond concerning because I’m someone who developed their eating disorder as a teenager after many years of dieting.”

While not everyone who diets develops an eating disorder, a history of dieting is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). Melainie Rogers, who founded BALANCE, told The Mighty that often times, dieters who don’t develop eating disorders still go on to struggle with disordered eating and a preoccupation with body and food. Thirty-five percent of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting, and of those, 20 to 25 percent progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders. 

Most people report the onset of their eating disorder began in their teens and young adulthood. 

People on Twitter used #WakeUpWeightWatchers to express their concern over the new free teen membership. 

Weight Watchers tweeted a response to the backlash, explaining the teenage membership would be a program that teaches healthy habits, not a diet. When asked if they could provide specific details about the program, Weight Watchers told The Mighty.

Our goal is to help those who need healthy habits to develop them at this critical life-stage; this is not about dieting. 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. We’ll share more specific criteria and guidelines when we launch the program. We think there’s a real opportunity to make an impact on a problem that is not currently being addressed effectively.

It’s unclear whether this program will include weigh-ins and food tracking, which are standard parts of Weight Watchers’ membership.

Despite Weight Watchers’ clarification that the six-week program would not be a diet, some are still concerned a “healthy habits” program led by Weight Watchers could still send damaging messages to young people.

“Any program that asks you to count points (which is essentially counting calories), closely monitor your food intake, and weigh yourself regularly is a diet,” Valery Kallen, a dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor told The Mighty, adding: 

No matter how hard they try to frame it as ‘healthy lifestyle,’ if it puts restrictions and rules on your food intake for the purpose of weight loss, it’s a diet. A program that helps teenagers develop healthy habits would not include obsessing over points and numbers on a scale because those are categorically unhealthy behaviors and often lead to disordered eating habits.

According to The State of Obesity, an annual report about obesity in America, as of October 2017, 20.6 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds are considered obese. And while education about food and nutrition is never a bad thing — Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity doctor and author tweeted, “For those irate with WW, consider what else is out there – if not WW, where will those teens end up?” — anti-diet nutritionists like Kallen are still concerned “health” taught through a Weight Watchers lens will put too much emphasis on weight, confirming insecurities teenagers may already be struggling with.

“Weight gain during teen years is completely normal, ” Kallen said. “We need to be normalizing weight gain during this time, not further stigmatizing teens at an already vulnerable time in their lives.”

Harriet Brown, science journalist and author of “Body of Truth,” whose daughter lives with an eating disorder, told The Mighty she finds the move from Weight Watchers to be self-serving and irresponsible.

They’re aiming to hook teens on the merry-go-round of weight loss and regain, creating customers for life. Their business model, don’t forget, is predicated on repeat customers, on the fact that their program fails most of the time for most people. They know this. They also know that dieting is the number one risk factor for weight gain because of the way the human body is designed to protect against starvation. They know that weight cycling — weight loss and regain, over and over — is a huge health risk, much more than being at a stable but higher weight for most people. And yes, Weight Watchers is a diet, no matter what they call it.

It’s been more than a week since Weight Watchers announced its new program, and the company hasn’t released more details about how its free membership for teens will differ from a typical membership. In the meantime, BALANCE Eating Disorder Treatment Center plans to continue to conversation. They started another round of #WakeUpWeightWatchers tweets on Thursday.

“I hope more people can see through the BS and realize Weight Watchers is trying to desperately rebrand itself in an age where the body positivity and anti-diet movement slowly spreads,” Costa said, “That isn’t putting an emphasis on the importance of health, that is putting an emphasis on the scale.”

  If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

Lead image provided by Weight Watchers 

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