Weight Watchers plan to recruit teens receives expert backlash

''I was horrified by it, absolutely horrified.'' CEO of The Butterfly Foundation slams Weight Watchers' free 6-week program for teens.

By Bettina Tyrrell

Weight Watchers have announced it will be offering free 6-week programs to teenagers in a mission to increase memberships and grow revenue to more than $2 billion.

The announcement came from the US branch however, it has been confirmed that Weight Watchers Australia will also be adopting the programs targeting teens later this year.

Weight Watchers released a statement to Now To Love on Monday which read: "Our goal is to help those who need healthy habits to develop them at this critical life-stage; this is not about dieting."

The company's new strategy has been met with immediate backlash from health industry professionals.

"I was horrified by it, absolutely horrified," Christine Morgan, CEO of The Butterfly Foundation and National Director of the National Eating Disorders Collaboration told Now To Love.

"It implies that without medical entry-point people can be deemed to need to lose weight. And for a young person in particular, their body size and body composition is really something that is health-related. If you mismanage health in your teenage years, you set yourself up for all sorts of issues going on later in life."

While Weight Watchers claim the new teen program "is not about dieting", Christine doubts the program could be about anything else.

"You don't go to Weight Watchers for anything other than to have your weight measured and to see how much weight you lose each week. That is not health promotion, that is not healthy activity for a young person," she said.

Accredited Practising Dietitian and cookbook author Caroline Trickery, notes more needs to be known about the proposed program, but in the interim she sees a problem in the company's name and what it stands for.

"Weight Watchers, it has the connotation of dieting, yet current research shows that in more than 90 per cent of cases, diets don't work for long-term weight control. And in fact can be very harmful," she explained to Now To Love.

"Diets increase the risk of teens developing an eating disorder and can encourage a love-hate relationship with food and your body."

In fact, a recent study by The Butterfly Foundation found that although anorexia can begin at any age, teenagers 13 to 18 pose the highest risk of onset.

Teenagers should be focused on eating for energy

Weight Watchers, Christine says, encourages the idea that health is based on size and shape, an idea that is for one is untrue and two, potentially damaging to teens.

"In your adolescent years, your childhood years should be about eating for energy to go and do the things that you want to do, not focusing in so much on what you should be eating and what you shouldn't be eating."

Furthermore, Caroline, a dietitian and eating psychology coach, says focusing too much on what we are and aren't eating can result in having a bad relationship with food.

"Too much focus on what you 'should' or 'shouldn't' be eating can cause feelings of guilt after eating, along with stress and anxiety around food, which takes all the fun and enjoyment out of the eating experience," she explains.

Weight Watchers offer teens a free-trial period

The program soon to be available to teenagers between 13 and 17 years offers an initial free period.

"For a six-week period later this year, teens will be able to join Weight Watchers for free and can continue their membership through age 17," Weight Watchers said in a statement.

Caroline sees a potential benefit in programs for teens that focuses on positive body messages along with healthy eating strategies, "and given that it's free, it could be of great benefit, especially for those people who can't afford to pay for such assistance," she adds before noting concern for teens who may be encouraged to join a diet program on completion of the six weeks.

The free-period promise was an immediate red-flag to Christine who read the offer as a way for the global company to increase memberships.

"Weight Watchers has a revolving door," she explains. "They want people to get engaged long-term."

"Weight Watchers don't do this as a public health promotion, Weight Watchers do this to earn money."

In her practice, Caroline says she sees the damaging effects of women who have started dieting young and continued dieting throughout their adult lives.

"I see many women in their 60's who went on their first diet as a teenager, have been dieting all their life, constantly denying themselves foods they enjoy, only to end up heavier than ever."

In the US, The National Eating Disorder Association tweeted their concerns over Weight Watchers' new marketing strategy and what it will mean for teens and their body image.

Weight Watchers took to Twitter to respond to the backlash saying that the program is designed to guide 'healthy habits for life, not a diet".

If you're a parent concerned that your child's weight might be impacting their health, Christine suggests seeking opinion from a health professional like your GP.

"A health practitioner will look at a young person and do a whole range of tests to determine if they're healthy or not and weight may or may not be an issue in that," she said.

If you, or anyone you know is experiencing an eating disorder or body image concerns, we encourage you to reach out for support. You can call the Butterfly Foundation National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 or visit their website for more information.