Why Weight Watchers’ plan to offer free memberships to teens could be so damaging, and what we should be doing instead.

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On Nutrition

By now you’ve probably heard that Weight Watchers is planning to offer free memberships to teens. You might have also heard about the backlash from dietitians, therapists and other health-care providers who understand the dangers of dieting — especially for children and teens.

In my own professional experience, I am a frequent witness to the physical and emotional health effects from decades of body hatred and yo-yo dieting that started with a parent who thought their child or teen was too large. Too often, I hear comments like, “I was always a little bigger than other kids, but my mother wanted me to be petite and wear pretty clothes.” Often, a normal childhood relationship with food and physical activity is destroyed by that first diet, twisted and warped by rules and restrictions and moral judgments (“I ate a ‘bad’ food, ergo, I’m a bad person.”).

But what about health, you ask? Consider that no one is discussing sending “normal” weight teens to weekly meetings to learn how to eat and exercise, even if they shun vegetables and physical activity. If we’re really concerned about the health of teens, sending them to Weight Watchers isn’t the answer. Don’t let marketing messages like, “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle” fool you: when you’re counting calories or macros or points and participating in mandatory weigh-ins, it’s a diet.

Telling a child or teen that they should eat differently in order to control their weight increases the risk of binge eating and unhealthy weight-control methods like meal skipping, fasting, purging, or use of diet pills or laxatives. Plus, being told that the body you inhabit is wrong is stigmatizing, leading to stress and possibly triggering overeating as a coping mechanism, both of which can contribute to weight gain — the very thing that so many people want to avoid.

Science has yet to identify a method of producing sustainable weight loss, so willingly starting teens down the path of yo-yo dieting seems especially cruel — even if the repeat business would be good for Weight Watchers’ bottom line. The very act of weight loss from dieting triggers the body to fight back by increasing hunger — making food more appealing — while slowing metabolism and encouraging fat storage. Repeated dieting attempts can worsen the damage.

Food restriction can lead to obsession and overeating when forbidden foods are available (the “last supper” syndrome). This is often accompanied by shame and guilt, which can trigger emotional eating or, even worse, binge eating. Think of food restriction as a pendulum — the further the pendulum swings one way (restriction) the further it’s eventually going to swing the opposite way (overeating). This restrict-binge cycle is the opposite of a moderate, balanced, peaceful approach to food and eating.

On the flip side, talking to all children and teens about balanced eating, without mentioning weight, may reduce the risk of unhealthy eating behaviors. Even better, walk your talk by cultivating habits as a family that encourage both physical health and a healthy relationship with food and eating. Research suggests that when parents model healthy habits — that don’t involve dieting — it has a more beneficial impact on their children’s health than directly meddling.

We know that nutritious food and regular movement — along with social connection, self-compassion, access to green spaces and freedom from stigma and discrimination — are vital for health and well-being — for everyone, regardless of weight. It’s time for public health and business marketing to be less divisive, more inclusive.