Weight Watchers is planning to introduce new weight loss programs targeted at Australian teenagers – worrying parents who fear the programs could lead to long-term battles with mental illness.
The plans, due to be available from the middle of this year, will be offered free of charge to teenagers aged 13 to 17, with sign-ups requiring in-store parental consent.
However, these teenagers will be required to pay $33.50 to $96.50 every month come their 18th birthdays should they want to continue their ‘healthy eating’ plan.
The initiative was announced at a global employee event in New York earlier this month, with the company now confirming an Australian rollout.
Many former WW clients took to social media to vent their frustration with the new plan encouraging teenagers to join weight loss programs.
“So destructive,” Jennifer Adams, from Seattle, said.
“My mother hauled me to Weight Watchers at this age, thus began a life long battle with eating disorders and self loathing. Shame on you.”
New York City’s Emily Costa said her teenage self would have begged her mum to sign her up for the project.
“To teenagers everywhere … you are worthy, smart and strong,” she said.
“Your worth is not found on the scale. There is much more to life than your body, food and weight. Go live.”
Weight Watchers International spokeswoman Stacie Sherer denied the new initiative is targeting teenagers and any suggestion that the free program is a strategy to lock in clients from an early age.
“Extreme views on social media do not represent the views shared by most parents,” she told The New Daily from the USA.
“Dieting is all about restriction and deprivation. Our plans are about enjoyment of food and movement and thinking about the bigger picture beyond the scale.
“There are no prescribed foods. We want to make health and wellness accessible to all.”
But Butterfly Foundation CEO Christine Morgan was not convinced by its marketing pitch, claiming she is deeply concerned.
“Weight Watchers is a commercial organisation. If they’re offering free memberships for teenagers, the end goal must be to have them eventually paying to sign up,” she said.
“It may be presented as ‘healthy eating’ but the primary purpose of these plans is for you to be weighed on a regular basis and to have your weight monitored.
“I am so concerned about this. Giving weight a level of importance is in itself unhealthy for young people.”
Ms Morgan said about one million Australians suffer from an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating but an estimated 25 per cent do not seek treatment.
There is a 10 per cent likelihood that an Australian will get an eating disorder in their lifetime, she said.
“It’s a real pendulum. The very act of depriving yourself of certain foods sets you up to crave them and to binge in the opposite direction,” Ms Morgan said.
“Our bodies don’t define us – we should take a balanced approach to eating and exercise without putting too much emphasis on it.”
Tracey Wade, a Flinders University psychology professor who has worked as a clinician in the area of eating disorders for almost 30 years, agreed that the WW initiative was “inappropriate”.
“Focusing on weight will simply increase risk for developing an eating disorder – we need to focus on self-compassion and standing up to pressure rather than focusing on how we may fall short of others expectations,” she said.
Obesity Policy Coalition executive manager Jane Martin advised that any weight intervention should be delivered by a trained health professional, tailored for the individual.
Any readers with eating disorder concerns are encouraged to get support by calling the Butterfly Foundation helpline on 1800 33 4673.