On February 2nd, Weight Watchers announced they will be offering free memberships to teenagers (aged 13-17) by the end of 2020. Many are unhappy about this including Dieticians, Nutritionists, Therapists, and members of the Body Positive and Eating Disorder Recovery Communities. The hashtag #wakeupweightwatchers has over 1,000 posts in protest.
Since we still have some time between now and 2020, I thought I’d share some alternatives to putting your 13-year-old on a calorie or point-tracking plan.
In the interest of full transparency, I am against this move. As someone who was introduced to diets at a young age within my home and eventually developed patterns of disordered eating that evolved into a serious eating disorder, I do not believe 13-year-olds or 15-year-olds or even 17-year-olds should be put on restrictive or “tracking” diets.
I think it’s important to first mention that at its core, Weight Watchers is a for-profit business.
This means, for better or for worse, they need to consider earnings first and foremost. If Weight Watchers couldn’t profit off of your teens, they would not be offering this discount (and I say “discount” because free membership ≠ free food or membership beyond the age of 17 once they are “trapped” in the program).
Before writing, I spoke with my friend Josée Sovinsky, who is a Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Therapist who specializes in eating disorders, intuitive eating, and community nutrition. I asked her what her thoughts are on this Weight Watchers announcement and she said:
“Teenage years are crucial when it comes to developing a positive body image. By putting teens on Weight Watchers, we teach them their body is wrong and can’t be trusted. This increases their risk of having a difficult relationship with food and their body. At worst, this could lead to the development of an eating disorder. Counting points and measuring weight are not health-promoting behaviours in teens. There are more gentle, positive ways we can approach the topic of food and bodies.”
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With that, let’s jump straight into some alternatives to putting your teens on Weight Watchers or any other diet regimen:
1. Model body love and acceptance
First and foremost, it is important to model a positive relationship between body and self in your home.
Remember, the way you treat or talk about yourself sends a powerful message to your children about the way they should treat and talk about themselves.
Shaming your own body — despite its possible difference to your sixteen-year-old’s — is less likely going to result in them also shaming you than it is in them shaming themselves.
By modelling that certain body types and sizes are “wrong” or “shameful” or “ugly” you are instilling fear in them that their bodies could also develop to be shameful or ugly.
Instead, if you foster an environment of body acceptance and self-love, then your children will grow up to adopt these same values in their approaches to themselves and others.
2. Practise Intuitive and Mindful Eating in your home
Intuitive Eating is an approach developed by Registered Dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch that is adopted by many in the nutrition, body positive, and eating disorder recovery field.
The philosophy around Intuitive Eating, in short, is that our bodies can be trusted and if we relearn how to understand our natural hunger/fullness cues, we can develop a healthy, balanced approach to food and weight.
Intuitive Eating believes that no foods are “good” or “bad” and that our body knows how to naturally regulate itself at a healthy weight.
This can be achieved by ditching any shame surrounding food and learning to honour our hunger and fullness cues and to eat what our body craves.
Mindful eating is similar but has its own set of principles.
Both Intuitive and Mindful Eating have literally been lifesavers in my journey. Following these two approaches allowed me to recover from my Eating Disorder and history with orthorexia and disordered eating.
3. Seek assistance from a Dietician/Nutritionist who specializes in Intuitive Eating or the Healthy At Every Size Model
If you are looking for guidance from an outsider, rather than turning to a business like Weight Watchers, consult a professional.
There are many Dieticians and Nutritionists who follow the Healthy at Every Size (HAES) and Intuitive Eating approach (we have two on our Ask an Expert Team: Josée Sovinsky and Alex Raymond). Do a google or social media search and find one in your area.
Remember, if you are seeking help for your teen, it is important they are comfortable with whoever they go to.
Feel free to search around and ask for free consultations before committing. The goal is to find a licensed professional who can help guide you and your family to a healthy, balanced way of living.
4. Focus as a family on the things you want to eat more of not less of to avoid the development of food guilt, shame, or fear.
This approach is something I’ve adopted recently. Let’s be honest, there are a lot of unknowns about the food we eat. There are many valid warnings mixed with lots of misinformation.
For me, I find any time I try to limit my intake of refined sugars or fried or processed food, I find myself leading down familiar paths of food fear and feelings of restriction. This becomes a trigger for overeating and binging out of rebellion.
If I approach nutrition from the standpoint of what I want to eat more of, it becomes a partnership between my body and my mind.
I want to love and care for my body, so I do what I can to fuel it. Focusing on eating more vegetables, more fruit, more omega oils creates a sense of freedom of choice and results in a happier and healthier me (inside and out).
5. Josée suggests involving your children in the food planning and preparation process.
“One way to help children and teens develop a healthy relationship with food is to involve them in the food planning process. From making grocery lists, to planning a budget, to helping prepare meals, children and teens get to learn valuable skills while exploring new foods. Try to avoid making any food “off limits”. Children and teens will learn to trust themselves and their bodies with all foods.“
I will close with what is the most important point: as a parent, you are the leader. Lead by example by being active, fostering a balanced approach to nutrition, and developing healthy emotional coping mechanisms.
Encourage your children to be active by being active yourself (walking, biking, playing sports, and other enjoyable and fun activities) — not in a battle against your body, but as an act of loving and caring for it. (here are some articles on balanced approaches to exercise)
Encourage a balanced approach to nutrition through Intuitive Eating and a “more” approach to diet (see #4).
Lastly, work on healthy coping mechanisms. Remember: emotional/mental health is just as important as physical health. Don’t use food as an emotional crutch or a method of punishment or reward. Instead, find hobbies you enjoy, work on self-improvement, and advocate therapy when needed.
Lead by example with an active lifestyle and balanced food choices. Lead by example by rejecting diet culture and body-shaming. Lead by example by putting mental health on par with physical health and taking care of yourself so your children can learn what self-love and self-care really look like.
Your children are always watching: be careful what you are teaching them.
I hope this article will give you some food for thought before you consider putting your teens (or even yourself) on Weight Watchers or any similar plan.
And if you are considering putting your teenager on a weight loss or management program of any kind, please consider not only the implications this may have on how they develop physically, but also how they develop emotionally, mentally, and socially.
Here is an additional resource from the American Academy of Pediatrics: “Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents” (note: this article doesn’t fully align with the HAES model, but is a valuable resource nonetheless)
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