Wake Up, Weight Watchers: The Dangers of Teen Dieting

You may have seen the recent Weight Watchers campaign that promotes free teen memberships starting in the summer of 2018. Weight Watchers is deploying a classic marketing technique—a free startup offer in the hopes that once hooked on the product, participants would pay to sustain an ongoing partnership. The problem here? With this program, Weight Watchers is luring young people into a diet lifestyle and reinforcing that there is indeed a diet out there that could be a potential solution for teens looking to ‘fix’ their maturing bodies. Considering that research has observed that child/teenage dieters gain significantly more weight than matched non-dieters, the establishment of ongoing dieting commitments may do more harm than good.

Adolescence is a time for fluid experimentation and the shaping of one’s identity. It has long been theorized that the adolescent stage is one in which the individual is evaluating their sense of self, formalizing their values and adopting the values of trusted adults. Additionally, at this developmental stage, teenagers gauge their own value based on successes or failures. Given that in recent years, researchers have thoroughly evaluated the negative effects of dieting on self-esteem and the developing brain of teens, teen diet programs stir up concern and controversy.

Research from the Pediatricians Child Health Journal has suggested that the lifestyle habits developed in the adolescent years have “lifelong implications for dysfunctional eating.” As stated in one prospective study, teenage dieting was “the usual antecedent to anorexia and bulimia nervosa.” The article goes on to state that “dieting has been associated with a fivefold to 18-fold increased risk of developing an eating disorder.” Whether or not a teen develops an eating disorder as a result of dieting behavior, research continues to support that dieting is detrimental to the development of stable self-esteem. In a 12-week multidisciplinary weight loss program for obese teenagers, self-esteem was negatively impacted and there was a decline in self-perception.  

Statistics on the efficiency and efficacy of dieting programs have become more commonly referenced in recent years. Studies such as a recent Medicare policy study have suggested that the vast majority of diets do not lead to sustained weight loss. In fact, one third to two-thirds of dieters regained more weight than they lost on their diets. What restrictive or points-based dieting programs often do, is develop a preoccupation with food, calorie/exchange counting, and body-image. As stated in a Refinery 29 article, “because diets don’t work, more often they result in an endless cycle of gaining and losing weight, which in turn increases inflammation and risk for many obesity-associated diseases.”

In response to this campaign, our strong community of mental health professionals, researchers, parents, and survivors are in an uproar. International members of the movement to resist this campaign have begun to voice their concerns on social media. Hashtags such as #donewithdieting and #wakeupweightwatchers have now started trending in an attempt to educate the community about the dangers of luring teen dieters. We must continue to evaluate the messages we are sending to our ever-changing teens and ensuring the materials they are exposed to are in their best interest.