Weight Watchers’ Controversial New Focus: Teens

A new initiative by Weight Watchers will offer teens from ages 13 through 17 free memberships this upcoming summer. However, many consumers and health advocates are dubious of the plan, contending it will promote unrealistic body images in young people.

In a press release, Weight Watchers announced it plans to assist “the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage.” Teens will be required to attend meetings with a parent or guardian, who will provide consent.

A Weight Watchers spokeswoman told CNBC, “We think there’s a real opportunity to make an impact on a problem that is not currently being addressed effectively.”

Yet some people believe that teenagers who participate in Weight Watchers may be at a raised risk of developing unhealthy eating habits and body image.

In a statement to CNBC, the National Eating Disorders Association said it was “very concerned” about Weight Watchers’ promotion. Thirty-five percent of “normal” dieters can develop disordered eating habits, and teens, the Association points out, are at a particularly vulnerable stage of life.

“Half of teenage girls and one-third of teenage boys use dangerous weight control methods—such as smoking, laxative abuse, and skipping meals—in an attempt to meet unrealistic body ideals,” a spokeswoman said.

Those concerns are seconded by other health experts, among them Tomi Akanbi, clinical nutrition coordinator at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. Akanbi sees patients who take up their parents’ weight-loss programs, not realizing that they need to eat certain foods for proper growth and development.

For its part, Weight Watchers said in a statement to CNBC “our decision to open our program to teens, with the consent of a parent or guardian, is driven by a family-based approach. This is not about encouraging dieting, but rather helping teens to form healthy habits at this critical life stage.

We are engaging and look forward to dialogue with health care professionals as we roll out this program in a few months.”


Related links: Does My Child Have an Eating Disorder? 

Talking to Your Kids About Body Image