• Bari Stricoff, MSc, RDN

My Experience with Weight Watchers and My Opinion on the New Teen Program

Updated: Feb 19, 2018

As I mentioned in my Instagram story, I wanted to write a blog post commenting on the new Weight Watchers Program designed for teens. I know this topic is a bit controversial, as I have read multiple op-ed pieces and blog posts already. However, I wanted to enter this space and give my personal experience as a 12-year-old girl on Weight Watchers! I want to start by telling my story and defending my parent’s decision to enrol me in WW, for at the time (2005), it was the right decision for me and my parents (probably not what you thought I would say). And then I will go on the type of rant you expected – how putting a vulnerable teenager on a diet is not only detrimental to their self-esteem, but exposing them to diet culture will corrupt their relationship with food and themselves.

My Story:

I was an extremely athletic and over-active kid. I played soccer and basketball regularly and even danced on the off-seasons. I was also extremely conscious to the fact that I wanted to be “healthy” because I felt that it was the “right” thing to be. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure where I learned that. It was probably a combination of the media, overhearing parents and teachers talk about their diets, athletic coaches and my mom. So, I began to engage in what I perceived to be “healthy” habits, which were actually mini cycles of restriction that resulted in binges. My mom quickly caught on and wanted to address the situation. However, my mother unfortunately suffered a serious eating disorder (ED) when she was younger and was still in active recovery at the time. Thus, she feared that if she gave me any nutrition-related advice, her ED voice may shine through and may misinform me or lead me in the wrong direction.

So, my mom spoke to my Pediatrician and they decided I would go with my mom to her Weight Watchers meetings. Back in 2005, private practice RD’s were not common and insurance would not cover healthy eating education for an outpatient RD. So, Weight Watchers it was, haha. I had a doctor’s note that I was not allowed to lose weight nor did I get “weighed in”. I was there for the education and the support. I was there to learn about portion control and the WW motto of “everything in moderation”. At the time, this was the best decision and I really appreciate that my mom wanted to consult a medical professional for advice, and ultimately just wanted to help me the best she could! Her intentions were nothing but pure and I think she made a great decision.

I genuinely looked forward to the Weight Watchers meetings! I loved how Weight Watchers brought together people of all ages, as well as men and women! I loved hearing people offer support and discuss strategies and how everyone wanted to help others be their healthiest self! Reflecting back, I think this was one of the first experiences where I thought “wow, I want to do this when I grow up”.

Unfortunately, I became a bit obsessed. It’s sad that something that started out with the most loving intentions corrupted my views on food and my body. I was 12 years old and I started my unconscious dieting. I distinctly remember sitting in bed one night READING the Weight Watchers book with all the foods and points listed. I studied it. Memorized it. Internalized it. And now I subconsciously following the WW program. I bought their sugar free 1-point yogurts, their 1-point bread, their 0-point jelly, and their 1-point ice cream! I fell victim to the WW diet culture, but the worst part, is that it made me feel powerful, as if I knew more about what I was eating compared to my friends!

At the end of the day I did not enrol in WW for weight loss. I enrolled for nutrition education – and it still had a negative impact on my relationship with food. Now, imagine I was put into WW as a teenager to LOSE WEIGHT!!!!! How terrible that could have been for my self-esteem, my relationship with food, my relationship with the scale, and my relationship with my mother! WELL, that is exactly what Weight Watcher’s is promoting…

Weight Watchers New Teen Program:

WW now invites teens between the ages of 13-18 to join for free. Participants still need doctor’s consent and continued review. However, WW is still promoting FREE DIETING FOR TEENS!!!!! Look – I understand that child obesity is an issue and WW might want to address the public health issue. But they also want to make money… (join our program for free, get hooked to our program, buy all the endorsed food, turn 18 and now start to pay) ….

WW actually tries to justify teen weight loss as “1 pound a month” for safe and healthy weight loss. They also state they get a higher “Point Budget” for growth and development. I mean… at the end of the day, WW is still labelling children as overweight and telling them they need to lose weight. They also give them a “point budget”, which is a fancy and disguised way of saying “if you eat X number of calories or less, you will lose weight”. They also claim this will help teens “develop healthy habits”, but as a health profession with a Master’s Degree in Eating Disorder nutrition therapy, teaching kids to count calories or assess every morsel of food they consume is NOT a healthy habit!

While I understand that WW offers a support system for teens and wants to teach them “everything in moderation and you can still lose weight”, it is the diet-lingo they use that is detrimental. Additionally, the meeting leaders who initiate and prompt discussion do not always have extensive nutrition education!

Research on Teens and Dieting:

A 2004 study reported that 41-66% of teenage girls and 20-31% of teenage boys have attempted to lose weight at some point. That baffles me! Society as created such thin ideals and beauty standards that drive teenagers to view themselves as “not good enough”, which lowers their self-esteem and increases their susceptibility to diets (and eventually EDs). Unfortunately, diets are not sustainable, and whatever diet methods teens are using to lose weight cannot last forever. What eventually happens is the weight comes back when the diet tactics cease, which sends individuals messages that they have “failed”, thus sending them back into another diet!

Research states the most important risk factors for unhealthy weight control behaviours are discontent with weight, obesity and self-esteem. In fact, dieting during teenage years is one of the biggest risk factors for eating disorders, binge eating and low self-esteem. Early dieting is also associated with excessive weight gain over time.

Here are some statistics that stand out and related to the new WW program: 35% of occasional dieter’s progress into pathological dieters (disordered eating), and as many as 25% advance to full blown eating disorders. Additionally, 40% of newly identified cases of anorexia are in girls 15-19 years old.

My Final Opinion:

Dieting is a viscous cycle, regardless of age, gender, starting weight, etc. Everyone who has ever been on a diet knows what that “success” feels like, but also what that “failure” feels like. And that “success” that felt so good was probably a result of some sort of restriction or disordered eating. Teaching our nation’s youth to engage in diets and enter this viscous cycle is not healthy. In fact, for a company such as WW who wants to promote healthy eating, this new program promotes the opposite. It teaches vulnerable teens that weight loss is about counting calories (or points) and that if they eat that piece of cake (maybe worth 10 points), they can only eat low point options for the rest of the day. To me, that sounds like the indulge > guilt > restrict cycle? Weight loss for teens is a very delicate subject and should ALWAYS include a healthcare professional that specializes in this area. Exposing teens to the WW program may result in lower self-esteem, disordered eating patterns, development of the “diet” voice, and even clinical eating disorders.

My recommendation is if you know someone struggling with weight issues as an adolescent, make sure you consult a registered dietitian that specializes in either weight management or eating disorders. This is a very delicate population and enrolling them in WW is NOT the answer! While I was a teen in WW for different reasons, it was not always a positive experience.

Feel free to message me for references or questions!

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