I don’t know about you, but I am enraged at Weight Watchers. And as a dietitian, I know that I am not alone. But why are we all so angry?
Dietitians aim to promote healthy lifestyle changes through modifications that we prefer to not label as a “diet.” Many of us have had difficulty with what Weight Watchers is selling for a long time, but the truth is, it’s been hard to find the strength and stamina to go up against a billion-dollar industry. That was before they announced their plans for a program this summer that will offer free memberships to teens aged 13-17. Now, we are ready for our voices to be heard!
First, in 2016 the American Academy of Pediatrics released a clinical paper stating that calorie restriction with the goal of weight loss (aka dieting) is a risk factor for the development of eating disorders and obesity. This may seem confusing to the many people for whom Weight Watchers (or other diet plans) has helped obtain a healthy weight goal in a reasonable manner, without developing an eating disorder. No, diets don’t singlehandedly “cause” eating disorders – it’s not that simple. But the truth is that most people who develop an eating disorder describe that they were trying to diet at the time that the symptoms of the disorder emerged.
Moreover, adolescence happens to be a particularly vulnerable period during which rapid developmental changes, including normal gains in weight and stature, coincide with an increased awareness of societal standards for attractiveness. The first presentation of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa is typically between the ages of 15 and 25 and most often occurs in the context of starting a “diet.” And according to a 10-year longitudinal study, the presence of disordered eating behaviors and dieting in the teen years – behaviors that may not have reached the threshold of an eating disorder diagnosis – predicted a high prevalence of these behaviors continuing through young adulthood. As a dietitian with expertise working with people with eating disorders, I know that the spectrum of eating behaviors people engage in represent a broad range – from healthy lifestyle changes to severe restriction. Yet, a significant percentage of teenagers, and girls in particular, engage in unhealthy behaviors to control their weight once they are introduced to dieting. Dieting comes in many forms. Weight Watchers has transitioned over time from counting points to eating from “unlimited food lists,” and beyond. Regardless of the method, these kinds of diets run the risk of putting an unhealthy focus on food and body size.
Second, this is not a campaign against childhood obesity from a non-profit, wellness group. Rather, it is a marketing ploy by a dieting empire that benefits financially by engaging young, new members who may go on to pay big bucks over their lifetime to count points and restrict calories. Despite claims that “watching weight is no longer what the program is about” and recent changes to their points system, Weight Watchers was not shy about their plans for the initiative. In their words, one aim is to “help grow sales more than 67% from 2016 to over 2 billion by the end of 2020.”
Third, I worry a lot about the mix messages Weight Watchers is sending our children about their bodies. The way we feel about our bodies is constantly developing and changing through our lifetime. Aspects of our self-image can feel positive at some moments in life, and less comfortable at others. Being aware of these changes and how they may impact our relationship with food is an important step to preventing the development of disordered behaviors.
In addition, in this case, the Weight Watchers campaign is being endorsed and marked by a celebrity who stars in a movie aimed to strengthen and empower young girls. What truly is the message being sent? You are strong – break glass ceilings – but don’t forget to look a certain way while doing it?! That strikes me as exactly the opposite message from body acceptance, which is actually considered a vital component of any intervention addressing, weight, eating disorders, and health in young people.
The bottom line for me? Any way I slice it, Weight Watchers promotes weight loss, and in so doing with teens, the company conveys that if a teen’s body does not fit the “ideal,” then it needs to be changed. In other words, thinner is always better, regardless of the consequences. Sure, Weight Watchers can be balanced, it can teach portion control, it can even help give a teen confidence who might be struggling with eating issues. These are all possibilities; I don’t deny that. But the only real promotion that should be marketed to a teen is one that emphasizes the importance of and joy in a life free of food guilt, body shame, and unrealistic expectations.