Free downloads and diet plans for teens will hurt, not help, their health.
Parents, eating disorder professionals, and body image experts around the country are up in arms over Weight Watchers’ new business strategy: Offering their diet program to teens this summer for free. No matter how healthy and reasonable a plan seems, participating in a program that focuses on changing their body size or shape can damage a child’s body image and relationship with food forever. In this clinical report from 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that dieting—a.k.a. reducing calories, macros, or points for the purpose of losing weight—increases a child’s risk of developing an eating disorder, and of actually gaining weight in the future.
Starting Diets in Your Teens
That certainly was the case for me. I first signed up for Weight Watchers at the age of 15, and found myself drawn back to it again and again, no matter how many times I “failed.” I was talking to an acquaintance about this the other day, who went on her first WW diet at the tender age of 8, and she likened the Weight Watchers experience—now fully digitized and appified—to an addictive game. I couldn’t agree more.
And that’s one of the things that makes me so frightened for this whole new generation of children being offered a taste. In a recent response to the current controversy around the free plan for teens, a Weight Watchers spokesperson pointed out that users are now able to choose their own goals, including non-weight goals such as “being able to play with their grandkids longer before tiring.” It’s improbable that teenagers who have not been told by doctors, friends, or family that they’re overweight would sign up for Weight Watchers at all, and equally improbable that kids who have been told they’re too fat would set such “non-weight” goals for themselves. Either way, to play the game, you record what you eat and drink in your WW app or online, and follow your “healthy”-sounding rules as closely as you can.
It’s NOT All Fun and Games
I don’t know about you, but when I keep losing at something, I get frustrated. Recently my husband and I have been playing an addictive new card game called Rivals for Catan, and he beats me every single time! After every loss, a part of me says, “I don’t want to play anymore.” But this other part of me wants to try just one more time—maybe this time it’ll be different. Maybe this time I’ll win! Similarly, the Weight Watchers game pulls you in and makes you hope over and over, sometimes for a lifetime. People also get obsessed with the rules: Unable to look at a food without calculating how many points it has, eating fat-free salad dressing and cheese (yuck) whether they like them or not. Some even try to juke the stats: Preparing for the weekly weigh-in by not eating or drinking that day, stripping off clothes, earrings, and shoes to nudge the numbers on scale down.
Many people blame themselves for not playing the game better when really it’s the game itself that’s a bust. When I started Weight Watchers at age 15, I’d go down into the church basement on Thursday evenings where the meetings were held, and weigh in. The repeat game players were all there, cheering on the teenager, the mascot, as she slowly and perfectly followed the rules and eventually “won” by reaching her goal weight. But my insecurities only increased, since I was then super-focused on what I ate and how much I weighed. This created a very real food insecurity and body image dysmorphia that eventually turned into a full-blown eating disorder that wasn’t corrected till more than a decade later.
I know that rules of the Weight Watchers game have changed a bit in the decades since I last played, but in many ways it is still the same. Mobile apps and websites instead of sheets of paper, more supposed flexibility with hundreds of “free” foods, less focus on “thin” and more on “health.” But Weight Watchers, like any diet, is a dangerous game for kids to play. Instead, children—and their parents!—need to learn to listen to their bodies and regulate eating through internal cues. Learning to get in touch with hunger and fullness cues, noticing that some foods we eat, in certain amounts, combinations and at certain times either feel good or don’t feel good. Noticing that we do indeed have a choice about what we eat and when—that no one but our own bodies is telling us what to do.
Weight Watchers may call this free teen program a “wellness initiative,” but like Candy Crush, Smurfs’ Village, and other “freemium” games that draw you in then charge you for upgrades and new levels, it’s really big business. The draw of someday finally “winning” the weight game will no doubt keep business thriving for WW stockholders for years to come—at the emotional, physical, and mental expense of our kids.
For a similar article on this topic: Dieting, Weight and Making Peace with Food: A binge eating therapist’s perspective on Oprah’s success with Weight Watchers.
Originally Posted on Psychology Today on Feb. 22, 2018.
Golden, Neville H. et al (2005), Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents. Pediatrics, e20161649. doi: 10.1542/peds.2016-1649
Jacobs, Harrison (2015, March 19). Gaming guru explains why ‘freemium’ is actually the best business model for multiplayer video games. Business Insider. Retrieved February 19, 2018, from http://www.businessinsider.com/sean-plott-explains-why-he-thinks-freemium-games-are-the-best-business-model-for-both-players-and-developers-2015-3
Medaris Miller, Anna (2018, February 20). Weight Watchers for Teens: Helpful or Harmful? U.S News & World Report. Retrieved February 21, 2018 from https://health.usnews.com/wellness/food/articles/2018-02-20/weight-watchers-for-teens-helpful-or-harmful
Scritchfield, Rebecca (2018, February 9). Weight Watchers is targeting teens with a new free program. That’s a problem. Washington Post. Retrieved February 21, 2018 from