Weight Watchers is an immensely popular weight loss program with many success stories.

But the company’s efforts to reach out to teens has landed the company in hot water with some parents.

As Today reports, Weight Watchers recently announced a series of initiatives aimed at helping members embrace healthier eating habits. But one program in particular is drawing ire: this summer, the company will be offering free memberships to children between ages 13 and 17.

In a press release, Weight Watchers framed the free teen memberships as a way to help children develop “healthy habits at a critical life stage,” and stated their intent was to be “a powerful partner for families” in developing those habits. However, critics argue that teaching children to monitor their food isn’t healthy at all.

Lori Ciotti, a specialist who treats eating disorders, told Today the Weight Watchers method sends the wrong message to teens:

“Dieting is a slippery slope into an eating disorder. It sends a message that one should not listen to their body’s hunger or fullness cues, so it’s really concerning from that perspective.

I think what [Weight Watchers] is doing here is offering a sanctioned method of counting calories or points or whatever they want to call it, and it’s not teaching teens anything about self-care or self-worth. Instead it teaches them that their worth is about a number on a scale or the back of their jeans.”

And many parents and advocates for body acceptance agree. Taryn Brumfitt, a mom of three and body image spokesperson from Australia, wrote on Facebook that Weight Watchers should “get your eyes off our kids”:

Our kids don’t need to be on the scales, our kids don’t need to be counting calories or points, our kids need to be encouraged to listen to their bodies through intuitive eating and moving their bodies for fun and pleasure not punishment.

Weight Watchers says “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle” but no matter how you spin it, dieting is defined as calorie restriction with the goal of weight loss, it’s what Weight Watchers is all about. The diet culture promotes shame and fear, misery and disappointment, the scales are no place for our teenagers. Diets don’t work.

Brumfitt wrote that parents looking to raise “empowered” children should ban diet talk from their homes and focus on mindfulness, positive messages, and realizing athletic ability without regard to size. She continued:

Teach your child that DIET is a four-letter word that comes with its own warning — DIE being the first three letters, um hello, that’s a sign for sure!

Many parents who responded to Brumfitt’s post were equally appalled at the news that Weight Watchers was reaching out to teens:

Some vividly remembered the shame they felt when they were pushed into Weight Watchers programs at a young age:

However, not everyone agreed that Weight Watchers is in the wrong for offering free teen memberships. Several parents took issue with Brumfitt’s assumptions and praised Weight Watchers for helping teach healthier eating habits:

What’s more, some experts believe Weight Watchers’ initiative is a helpful way to fight childhood obesity. Penny Kris-Etherton, a nutritionist at Penn State, told U.S. News and World Report that Weight Watchers ranks highly among diet plans and that professionally monitored diets are unlikely to lead to eating disorders:

“As a health professional, I really think that the studies show that overweight and obesity is not healthy and it can lead to long-term health problems, and I think it’s good for people — even teens — to try to lose the weight if they can. Maybe what they need is a very sensible weight-loss approach.”

Meredith Dillon, a dietitian from Washington, D.C., told U.S. News that the Weight Watchers teen program would have to be very carefully monitored for those at risk for eating disorders, and that it should focus on healthy eating and not weight.

Stacie Sherer, Weight Watchers’ senior vice president of corporate communications, says that the company’s focus has shifted from food and points to healthy choices and personal goals. She told U.S. News that their teen initiative will be heavily focused on issues of adolescent health:

“Our chief scientific officer is deep in conversation with experts in childhood obesity and eating disorders and really looking at, from a scientific, research-based approach, how can we make sure this is a healthy and safe program and approach for teens?”

What do you think?

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