The weight-loss company is offering free memberships to teens this summer. Here’s the problem with that.
Apple, small. 60 kcal.
Peanut butter, 1 tbs. 90 kcal.
Green tea, 8 oz. 2 kcal.
One Saturday several months ago, deep in the throes of wedding planning, I flipped open an old notebook to jot down some questions for my caterer. It was filled with pages of entries like this — more than five years old, lying dormant in my home like a relic from a past life. At first, I hardly recognized the handwriting as my own.
Each daily entry included a painstaking list like the one above — everything I’d eaten that day, the amount, and the calories — and ended with the results of that day’s weigh-in, expanded to two decimal places. Some pages included multiple weights: Days I’d been lured back to the scale when I’d finished breakfast, and again before I left the gym, and once more before bed.
I thought of this notebook again a few weeks ago, when a press release from Weight Watchers popped up in my Twitter feed. On Feb. 7, the weight-loss company announced its plan to offer free memberships to teenagers ages 13 to 17 this summer, in order to aid “the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage.”
It didn’t take long for the Internet to respond. Using #WakeUpWeightWatchers, people began Tweeting their own experiences with the program and expressing distaste about the company’s objective to target adolescents. The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) even shared its thoughts:
“The link between dieting & #eatingdisorders is clear and we are concerned about the new @WeightWatchers promotion for teens. Our voices are being heard. They have reached out to us. Stay tuned for updates. #WakeUpWeightWatchers”
The link between dieting and eating disorders is clear. One study published in the BMJ found that for 14- and 15-year-old boys and girls, dieting was the most important predictor for developing an eating disorder. Girls who dieted at even a moderate level had a fivefold increased risk.
After the NEDA tweet, Weight Watchers clapped back with another public statement. “We know that the teenage years are a critical life stage,” it reads, “and opening WW to teens with consent from a parent/guardian is about families getting healthier. What we will be providing for teens is a program that guides healthy habits for life, not a diet.”
Giving teenagers the tools they need to develop healthy habits is an important goal. As of 2012, nearly 21 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 19 were considered obese — a figure that has quadrupled since 1980. In a time when it’s cheaper to order a drive-through double cheeseburger than to buy fresh produce and prepare a nutritious meal at home, free education programs seem like a promising first step in helping Americans reclaim their health.
Still, Weight Watchers is inarguably in the dieting business. The entire model is based on calorie restriction — a patented points system that encourages measuring and recording every bite of food. Of course, this habit could help draw one’s attention to particular eating patterns or encourage meal planning. It could also fuel an unhealthy body image or obsession with the scale.
Assigning a point value to foods invariably labels certain ones as “good” or “bad” — and can create false dichotomies that don’t take macronutrients like protein and healthy fats into account. If a sugar-laced fat-free yogurt is one point while a salmon fillet is five, the choice for an impressionable kid is pretty clear.
“We need to teach teens what and how to eat rather than encouraging them to focus on numbers, whether a calorie, a gram, or a point,” says Cindi Lockhart, RDN, national nutrition program manager for Life Time Medical.
I did a short six-month stint with Weight Watchers, years before I made those painstaking entries in my old journal, and I developed a long list of “fear foods”: bread, cheese, pasta, red meat, nuts, French fries. The experience instilled in me a host of habits that hamstrung my health and happiness long after I ended my membership. I couldn’t go out to a restaurant, or eat in front of other people, or enjoy a drink with my friends.
To be clear, I don’t blame Weight Watchers for that struggle — at least, not entirely. Even if I hadn’t had the program at my disposal, the odds were never in my favor: Some 75 percent of American women ages 25 to 45 engage in unhealthy thoughts or behaviors related to food or their bodies. Luckily, I escaped largely unscathed. And now, as I am part of the team at Experience Life, it’s my job to think critically about what it means to live a happy, healthy lifestyle, and to share that knowledge with our readers.
I know now that my health is about so much more than numbers. It’s about whole foods and moving my body and stress reduction and mindfulness and sleep and friendships and phytonutrients. I want an education program for teens that checks all those boxes.
Opening that notebook and recognizing how far I’ve come was an incredibly proud moment. I realized that some small, sad part of me expected that I’d cave to the immense social pressure in this season of my life — all the stress of wedding planning, everyone’s increased attention to my body, the all-knowing Internet feeding me avalanches of ads for bridal boot camps and weight-loss supplements — and slide back into my old habits.
Instead, I meditated. I did a lot of yoga. I talked to people I trust about how I was feeling. And the night before my wedding, I had pizza and beer with the people I love most in the world, and I didn’t track a thing.