Free Weight Watchers Program for Teens – More Harm than Good?
Weight Watchers recently announced that teenagers between age 13 and 17 will be able to sign up for a free 6-week membership this summer. While this may seem like a good idea at first, given the increasing obesity rate among adults and teenagers, there is no proof that restrictive diets are successful for children and there is evidence that diets can cause long term damage.
Because teenagers’ bodies and minds are not fully developed, any suggestion which implies that there is something wrong with their body can result in continued weight gain or eating disorders. Why? When we tell anyone that eating certain foods are “good” or “bad” we are setting them up to rebel, eat the “bad food”, feel like a failure, and then eat more. Or for some individuals they engage in disordered behaviors such as overly restricting what they eat, skipping or missing meals entirely, purging food, or exercising excessively after they eat.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 13.2% of girls have exhibited some type of eating disorder by age 20. Eating disorders can result in death and they have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, with heart failure and suicide being the most common causes. While there are many different factors which can cause someone to develop an eating disorder, the most important risk factor for developing an eating disorder is dieting according to a clinical paper released by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Even for those teenagers that do not develop an eating disorder, research shows that restricting calories with the goal of weight loss (dieting) can actually lead to weight gain. When we eat less food then our body needs it can cause intense cravings. And when we give in to those understandable cravings, we are likely to not only regain the weight we lost in the first place but often regain even more. We can get caught in a cycle of yo-yo dieting.
What does work?
Rather than talking about weight loss or other numbers (calories, BMI, percent body fat, etc.), parents of teenagers with weight problems should focus on moving the whole family toward healthier behaviors. How can we all eat healthier and get more exercise together? Eat family meals together as often as possible and eat without electronic distractions like televisions and phones. Serve fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains at meals and don’t keep sweet drinks like soda, sports drinks, and juice at home. When you decide to share “treat” foods as a family (sweets, fried foods, chips, etc.) do it occasionally instead of every day. Plan and do fun family activities that involve movement such as walking, hiking, biking, dancing, or playing sports. It is critical to avoid negative body talk about anyone, but especially about your teenager or yourself. Avoid talking about people’s weight at all. Even well-intentioned messages about weight can be damaging.
The bottom line is that counting calories and fat grams is not likely to teach teenagers how to live a healthy lifestyle. Parents who enjoy a variety of healthy foods and physical activities are the most likely to lead their children to mirror these behaviors.