Weight Watchers recently announced that in the summer of 2018, all teenagers 13 to 17 years old will have the opportunity to obtain a free membership to their program. The company believes the initiative will "help the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage."
"I am inspired to be part of this purpose-driven mission as we deepen and expand our own connection to communities, making wellness accessible to everyone," said Oprah Winfrey, who owns stake in the company and is an avid participant in Weight Watchers Freestyle, in a statement.
While this sounds like a worthwhile endeavor on the surface, the company's promotion might not be the glowing health initiative it seems. Many dietitians and mental health specialists are extremely concerned about the consequences when teens as young as 13 to try to lose weight. Some of the habits the teens could develop, they explain, are far from healthy.
Research shows that children and teens told they are overweight or obese may be more likely to experience low body image, a poor relationship with food, or even an eating disorder later in life. Teens entering the program would be doing so from the perspective that they need to lose weight - a mindset that could damage their physical and mental health.
"Dieting is damaging for everyone," registered dietitian and eating disorder specialist Melainie Rogers explained to The Daily Meal, "but especially on a young teenage body that is still growing."
There are some very real physical health risks that come with dieting before adulthood. "Medically, there are significant consequences to a young growing body when calories are restricted," said Rogers. "There's a delay in the maturation process, inadequate strengthening of bone structure, and inadequate development of the brain, to name but a few."
Abby Thompson, psychotherapist from San Francisco, agreed. Her concern was with the mental health of teens that may choose to join.
"The teenage years are a time when people are trying to figure out who they are, and they often come with cripplingly low self-esteem," Thompson explained. "My fear is that by encouraging teens to diet, they are internalizing the message that something is 'wrong' with them."
These negative beliefs could spiral into much larger mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression. Additionally, low self-esteem and negative self-image has been associated with poorer health outcomes, an increase in criminal activity, and limited economic prospects in some studies.
Proponents of the plan, on the other hand, argue that Weight Watchers is encouraging healthy eating patterns for Americans at a young age.
Dr. John Mayer, clinical psychologist, expressed his support of the Weight Watchers initiative to The Daily Meal.
"I affirm that this Weight Watchers initiative is an excellent idea," he enthused. "Teens respond well to peer reinforcement and belongingness. The cornerstone of Weight Watchers is also great modeling and interaction between parents and kids, a la my book: Family Fit."
But Thompson disagrees with Mayer's assertion that reinforcement through dieting is what teens need to establish a healthy relationship with food.
"What most folks need, regardless of their weight, is to be able to listen to and respond to internal signals of hunger and fullness," Thompson explained. "Restrictive dieting, by its very nature, teaches people to override their hunger and fullness cues." Teens could disrupt their natural and intuitive relationship with food before it even had a chance to develop.
Not to mention, the program might not even work to provide the weight loss it promises.
"Dieting has a huge failure rate, and Weight Watchers in particular is known for 'repeat customers,'" Thompson continued. "We need to start thinking of marketing dieting to children as just as absurd and immoral as marketing cigarettes to them."
Her statement may seem extreme, but Rogers's sentiments echoed the same alarming comparison.
"This feels to me the equivalent of cigarette companies enticing young teenagers to smoke so they would lock in loyalty at a young age," Rogers criticized. "If dieting really worked, it would 'work' the first time, and people would not need to keep coming back!"
In fact, there is a growing body of research showing that dieting of any and all kinds, no matter how "flexible," may result in short-term weight loss, but eventually has a 97 percent likelihood of weight regain. Lasting weight loss through dieting could be a myth we all need to stop believing.