Weight Watchers this week announced its plans to offer free six-week memberships to kids as young as 13, beginning this summer. The company’s move is part of a bigger plan to grow revenue and a loyal customer base for life. (Start ’em young, right?)
As a health professional and mother, I am appalled. With celebrity names such as Oprah Winfrey, who is on the board of directors, and DJ Khaled, the latest spokesperson for Weight Watchers, the company is on track to exert powerful influence on people far and wide. Kids will undoubtedly pay a heavy price for this “free” membership, in the form of body shame. It will not only affect those who participate, but also every other teen who is exposed to the message that some bodies are “problems,” and if you’re at a higher weight, your body needs to be fixed. Thus, kids of all sizes will have something to fear.
The name is Weight Watchers, not Health Enhancers. The second the focus turns to weight, the potential for mind and body damage begins.
Although parents will need to offer consent for their teen to participate in the free Weight Watchers program, consider that parents may have their own food and body image issues. An estimated 45 million Americans are dieting every year, and about 91 percent of American women report body dissatisfaction. Kids are following in their parents’ footsteps, with about half of teenage girls and a quarter of teenage boys saying they are dissatisfied with their bodies. But a parent’s intention to be helpful, no matter how innocent, could cause harm.
In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a clinical paper stating that dieting — defined as calorie restriction with the goal of weight loss — is a risk factor for the development of eating disorders and obesity. Citing several large studies of kids and teens, researchers found that dieting was associated with binge eating and a twofold increased risk of becoming overweight, and that dieting was the most important predictor of a developing eating disorder.
How can dieting possibly increase the risk of weight gain? The answer lies in our brains and mechanisms that are outside of human control.
The short version goes something like this: Our bodies have a weight range they prefer to defend, and although genetics is a factor in determining our defended weight range, it can be different for everyone. There is no one ideal number we should all weigh.
Despite our best efforts, diets inevitably fail. The body goes through weight cycling, thanks to systems in place that boost body weight back to a range it can comfortably maintain. It does this by heightening a dieter’s attention to food, increasing thoughts and cravings, and creating urgent needs to eat. Dieters don’t enjoy this at all. They hang on, trying to fight the sensations. Some people can resist this biological drive to eat, but not forever, and the body can overshoot its defended range when cycling back up in weight. Not to mention there are psychological ramifications of weight cycling. Chronic dieters feel even more body shame and desperation to fix what feels broken, so they continue to seek the next diet as the answer. The cycle repeats itself, and they become attached to the process of yo-yo dieting.
Deb Burgard, a psychologist, eating-disorders specialist and fellow of the Academy for Eating Disorders, says the last thing teenagers need is indoctrination into diet culture. “Dieting is diabolically effective at increasing body distrust, and it increases other people’s perception that higher-weight people aren’t in control.”
This should offer enough motivation to never diet again and give us special pause to consider what is actually helpful for our kids. But the powerful force of weight stigma keeps people pursuing a lower weight above better health. “I would hope parents ask themselves, ‘Has a diet ever given me lasting peace with food and a loving relationship with my body?’ ” Burgard says.
Of course, parents will have concerns for their kids when all they hear is higher weights are unhealthy, without any regard to actual habits, medical labs or other reliable assessment data. (That said, if your child’s labs do show problems, work with your pediatrician to come up with a plan that puts health forward, not weight. Do they have high blood sugar? It might be time to cut out soda and add exercise.) Thinner is not healthier for all kids, and parents who buy in to this fear-based belief system could very well set off a downward spiral of emotional distress for their teenager. Even if there are habits to improve, shame is not the way to go. In fact, it’s likely that the weight stigma a person experiences is far worse for their health than their fat cells. Studies indicate adverse health outcomes of weight bias include anxiety, stress, depression, low self-esteem and body image issues.
There are ways to help kids improve their health and well-being without the risks associated with directly pursuing weight loss, starting with body acceptance. When we teach kids “your body is good no matter what,” we’re teaching them unconditional self-love and respect. Where nutrition is concerned, cooking and eating together as a family has been shown to improve eating patterns and quality of food intake, though it has not been shown to prevent obesity. Help kids use exercise as a way to connect to their bodies, moving joyfully and staying engaged in activity because it’s interesting, not dreadful.
When broaching the subject of behavior change, caring adults have to make it clear that weight loss isn’t the recommended outcome, even for kids who say they want to lose weight. A more helpful conversation is to talk about why. Are they being teased, for example? Parents can foster resilience in their kids by helping them understand that weight shaming is an injustice and that they are inherently good in the body they have. If our goals for kids’ health are truly about wellness, then let’s consider more diverse options. Some kids may change their habits and lose weight, some kids may grow in height without much weight change, and some kids will remain at a higher weight, even with positive lifestyle changes.
In its news release announcing the free program, Weight Watchers International says that its goal is “to help those who need healthy habits to develop them at this critical life-stage. It is a limited joining period, but the free access will continue 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 that a family-based approach is critical for kids. We think there’s a real opportunity to make an impact on a problem that is not currently being addressed effectively. We’re very excited about the potential impact this could make on the next generation . . . and on families as a whole.”
I think most parents are trying to save their kids from unnecessary suffering. Is a Weight Watchers meeting really the best place to help teens take care of their bodies? Or should parents look for a solution that doesn’t start by saying “Your body is a problem”?
Rebecca Scritchfield is a District-based dietitian, certified exercise physiologist and author of the book “Body Kindness.”