On February 7, the weight loss company Weight Watchers announced the launch of a new program this summer that includes free membership for teens ages 13 to 17. This program aims to promote “the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage,” according to a press release.
But many are criticizing the program, claiming it could do the opposite of that. In fact, dieting as a teen could lead to inadequate nutrition, promote unhealthy body image, and even contribute to eating disorders, according to dietitian Melainie Rogers MS, RDN, founder of the BALANCE Eating Disorder Treatment Center in New York City.
Rogers and her team started the #WakeUpWeightWatchers Twitter campaign to spread awareness that dieting when you’re young could lead to unhealthy habits. Using this hashtag, people have been sharing their personal experiences with diets that led to eating disorders, reminding people that you can be happy and healthy at any size, and calling on Weight Watchers to stop marketing to teens.
“Last week, we shared the future vision of Weight Watchers, including some changes we are making to bring health and wellness to all, not just the few,” Weight Watchers said in a statement to Teen Vogue.
“As part of that, we announced we would open WW to teens for free. We know that the teen years are a critical life stage and opening WW to teens with consent from a parent or guardian is about families getting healthier, not dieting.
But Rogers believes any eating plan geared toward calorie restriction is, in fact, a diet. “A lifestyle choice is about intuitive eating, eating according to caloric need, and certainly not about weight loss,” she says.
Beyond this, programs like Weight Watchers could contribute to an overall culture in which people, especially women, feel pressured to be thin from a young age and taught that weight gain is somehow a moral failing. In reality, no body type is better or worse than any other.
“Weight Watchers promotes weight loss, and promoting weight loss to teens sends the clear message that to be considered as ‘good enough,’ you must fit a physical ideal. You must look a certain way — no matter your genetics, your upbringing, your family history.
It promotes the idea of ‘one size actually does fit all,'” says Rogers. “The message the promotion of dieting sends is that you are not enough as you are, [that] thinner is definitely better, and perhaps even more profoundly, that taking up space is not permitted.
If you do want to improve your eating habits, the best approach would be to make sure you’re getting enough nutritious food, not to worry about eating too much. “Teens should be thinking about getting a balanced diet — lots of fruits, vegetables, proteins, healthy fats, and especially carbohydrates for energy,” says Rogers.
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