Weight Watchers Slammed Over Its Free Program for Teens

After the diet company's announcement of new offering to younger set, folks on social media went nuts about 'body shame' and 'fear'

Our nation is suffering from a youth obesity epidemic. And it’s getting worse. Study after study confirms that obesity in youth has sobering health consequences throughout kids’ lifetimes — and some consequences are lethal.

For good or ill, America’s obesity problem represents more than a health crisis. It’s also big business. Very big.

An article in Friday’s Washington Post offered sharp criticism of one of the country’s biggest weight loss-related businesses that has set its sights on helping combat the teen obesity crisis — for free.

The objection?

“Kids will undoubtedly pay a heavy price for this ‘free’ membership, in the form of body shame. It will not only affect those who participate, but also every other teen who is exposed to the message that some bodies are ‘problems,’ and if you’re at a higher weight, your body needs to be fixed. Thus, kids of all sizes will have something to fear,” said dietician Rebecca Scritchfield in her piece in The Post.

But wait, let’s back up a moment. If kids with weight problems aren’t going to Weight Watchers or similar organizations for assistance in getting healthy, where else might they go?

Dietitians, for one — some of whom, like Scritchfield, charge hefty fees for their advice and input.

Weight loss comes down to eating less (fewer calories) and exercising more. All the kind, feelings-sparing verbiage in the world will not change that simple reality. And when a child’s physician tells the parents that the child’s weight is a health problem — well, finding a means for helping the child eat fewer calories and exercise more is the answer.

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It’s finding the right balance of the two that will be effective for children at that time of their lives that’s the key. It isn’t fun. It isn’t easy. And it isn’t comfortable. But it’s vital.

It is essential to consider the self-interest of those offering commentary on weight loss issues — even folks who are professionals in the area, when deciding if a given program will be beneficial for a child or not. Pharmaceutical companies, weight loss companies, gyms, physicians, mental health professionals, and assorted health care providers (and scads of other businesses) are all vying for the same dollar.

Obviously, Weight Watchers is a for-profit business. Might it hope to cash in, eventually, on the very real possibility that overweight teens who are successful in the program as kids might return to the program as paying adults if they put the weight back on?

Of course.

Related: Weight Loss Journey Doesn’t Have to Lead to Dead Ends

Does that mean that parents should keep their kids from benefiting from the possibility of gaining immediate health benefits from participating in a solid weight loss program that’s been around since 1963?

Of course not.

In a statement to CNBC, Weight Watchers said of the program, “Our decision to open our program to teens, with the consent of a parent or guardian, is driven by a family-based approach.”

“This is not about encouraging dieting, but rather helping teens to form healthy habits at this critical life stage. We are engaging and look forward to dialogue with health care professionals as we roll out this program in a few months,” the company also said in its statement.

Social media commenters, of course, had a field day. A number of the posters, interestingly, assumed the program, which is set to launch this summer, will result in negative body image, eating disorders, and a host of other problems should parents allow their children to participate.

Pretending that children aren’t aware they are overweight is nonsense.

Multiple studies indicate that more than 50 percent of the variability in the development of eating disorders is attributable to genetic factors. Early dieting is correlated with the onset of eating disorders; dieting is among the criteria for diagnosis for some eating disorders. Correlation isn’t necessarily causal, in other words.

Pretending that children aren’t aware they are overweight is nonsense. By age 13, they know — their peers have made sure of it. Any child exposed to school, television, magazines or the internet for more than 30 minutes is well aware.

Protecting kids from reality by suggesting it is perfectly fine to be at an unhealthy weight is killing them. By the scores. For parents with obese teens, part of loving them must be helping them lose weight in a healthy manner. If that means Weight Watchers, that’s what it means.

Related: Eating Well to Live Longer and Better

Encouraging them to “love their bodies at any size” is a nice catchphrase, but it won’t lower their blood pressure. It won’t get their type 2 diabetes under control. It won’t help arteries caked with plaques.

Weight Watchers competes with other professionals such as nutritionists, dietitians, and self-styled “wellness coaches” for dollars that Americans continue to pour into this leaky sieve. We’ve not solved this weighty issue yet, but until we do, denigrating offers of assistance — even imperfect offers — isn’t going to help. Nor is putting our collective heads in the sand in an effort to “protect” teens by lying to them about the health consequences of obesity.

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Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and regular contributor to LifeZette.