Free Weight Watchers for teens… good idea or disaster?

Fad diets have trickled down to the teenage demographic and researchers aren't so sure that's a good idea.

Weight Watchers recently announced that the company will be offering free memberships to teens ages 13-17 during the summer of '18. With parental consent, these youngsters will get free access to Weight Watchers International. Sure, summertime makes us all want to look fantastic in our swimsuits, but is a diet plan for teenagers the way to go?

According to the CDC, "In the United States, the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970." That is a staggering stat, but should parents be concerned with their children's weight or their health?

As The Washington Post points out, "The name is Weight Watchers, not Health Enhancers. The second the focus turns to weight, the potential for mind and body damage begins. If you're at a higher weight, your body needs to be fixed. It will not only affect those who participate, but also every other teen who is exposed to the message that some bodies are 'problems'."

While mindful eating and a focus on health is important for teens as they learn smart eating habits, a diet plan at this impressionable age can have negative consequences. As reported by CNBC, "In a statement, the National Eating Disorders Association said it was 'very concerned' about Weight Watchers' promotion, because 35 percent of 'normal' dieters can develop disordered eating and teens are at an especially vulnerable stage of life."

That said, Weight Watchers maintains, "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."

Hopefully Weight Watchers has teens' best interests at heart and they are not offering this free membership in the hopes for gaining paying members once these kids turn 18. Because as many dieters have come to realize, diets may work at first, but they tend to be short-lived. And Weight Watchers is all about calorie restriction.

As Tomi Akanbi, clinical nutrition coordinator at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center explained, "When teens focus on calories, they tend to skip meals and eat too little, or replace nutrients with empty calories from sugary sources like soda. Encouraging teens to count calories and diet is dangerous."

And as per dietician Melainie Rogers MS, RDN, as reported by Teen Vogue, "Dieting as a teen could lead to inadequate nutrition, promote unhealthy body image, and even contribute to eating disorders."

An arguably better approach? "There are ways to help kids improve their health and well-being without the risks associated with directly pursuing weight loss, starting with body acceptance. When we teach kids 'your body is good no matter what,' we're teaching them unconditional self-love and respect. Where nutrition is concerned, cooking and eating together as a family has been shown to improve eating patterns and quality of food intake," notes Rebecca Scritchfield of The Washington Post.

Rogers adds, "The best approach would be to make sure (teens are) getting enough nutritious food, not to worry about eating too much. Teens should be thinking about getting a balanced diet — lots of fruits, vegetables, proteins, healthy fats, and especially carbohydrates for energy."

Not many would argue with that, and perhaps Weight Watchers agrees as well. With the aforementioned obesity epidemic, are they just doing their part to teach teens to take better care of their health? And while every parent wants the best for their children, not all adults are the best role models or have the knowledge or resources to give their teens sound nutritional advice.

"We think there's a real opportunity to make an impact on a problem that is not currently being addressed effectively," states Weight Watchers.

As Rebecca Reid of Metro illustrates, "Organized diets like Weight Watchers also have value for young people because they're moderated and researched. Weight Watchers might not be perfect, but it brings people together and promotes an atmosphere of sharing."

No matter which side of the fence you're on, this program is ready to be rolled out come summertime. Oprah Winfrey, one of the company's spokespeople, is on board with this free teen program, and we all know how influential she is. Do you think a Weight Watchers plan is productive for teens or is dieting not the best approach for this age group? Hopefully the company will follow these teens after this summer to see how they progress in the coming years in terms of health and nutrition, and not only focus on what the scale says.