Weight Watchers: Genuine Altruism or Poorly Veiled Greed?

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With nearly two-thirds of adults overweight or obese and nearly 20 percent of children and teenagers also falling into the category of obesity, there is little doubt that weight is a problem in our country.

Moreover, there is absolutely no doubt that something needs to be done about young people and obesity, but not this.

Weight Watchers recently announced that it will offer free memberships to its health and weight loss programs to 13 to 17 year-olds this summer. Whereas this company may have been well-intended in making this offer, nevertheless, it is unwise on so many levels.

It has long been known in the behavioral health community as well as the Academy of Pediatrics that early dieting is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder later in life.  So much so that pediatricians are cautioned to closely monitor the height and weight of patients as well as other signs and symptoms of eating disorders such as pallor, dry skin, and dehydration.

We know the vast majority of adolescent girls already feel inadequate or “less than” due to myriad factors such as peer pressure, social media, bullying and the unrealistic images promoted in advertising. Low self-esteem is often predicated on weight.

The truth is, dieting is rarely healthy for anyone, especially a teenage girl whose body is still developing. Restricting food can lead to medical consequences such as impaired brain development, a delay in the maturation process, and insufficient strengthening of the bone structure. Unlike many negative consequences that might be rectified later in life, early damage to the skeletal system is permanent.

In recent days and as a reaction to harsh criticism from the eating disorder treatment community, Weight Watchers has provided updates, claiming they are simply trying to extend health and wellness to all. They continue to stress that dieting will not be a focus and participants will need consent from a parent or guardian to join the program.

So if Weight Watchers offers instruction on healthy nutrition and eating habits, how to identify normal hunger and satiety cues as well as practice moderation, balance and variety around food choices, then we might applaud this free programming. But, the minute the term “points” enters the equation, the altruism of this offer will come sharply into question. Does Weight Watchers really want to guide young people into a healthier future or merely guide the company into a future boasting a stronger bottom line?