Weight Watchers scandal over group offering free membership kits to kids as young as 13
In a controversial move, Weight Watchers is set to offer free memberships to teenagers as young as 13 this summer.
Nearly two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese and nearly 20 percent of children and teenagers are obese.
However, the American Academy of Pediatrics has previously cautioned that messaging intended to encourage healthy eating habits can have the unintended consequence of pushing impressionable teenagers into eating disorders.
Some experts have met the company’s Wednesday announcement with enthusiasm while others have questioned whether offering free diets to impressionable teenagers is healthy for their self-images.
Weight Watchers will begin offering free memberships to its diet programs for teenagers between 13 and 17 this summer
The company’s offer will extend through the summer of 2018, according to its announcement.
Teenagers who sign up with an adult family member will have free access to a six-month membership that starts at $3.99 a week for other subscribers.
The move is part of Weight Watchers’s larger attempt to reorient itself as a wellness and healthy lifestyle brand rather than simply a diet company, and to make its services more universally accessible.
‘Weight Watchers intends to be a powerful partner partner for families establishing healthy habits,’ the company said in a statement.
At the end of 2016, Weight Watchers had 1.1 million active subscribers. Its new initiative could drive scores more young people to the program.
The company’s shares shot up by 16 percent on the heels of the announcement.
Oprah Winfrey, who holds a 10 percent share in the company said: ‘Weight Watchers positively impacts the lives of millions, including my own.
‘I am inspired to be part of this purpose-driven mission as we deepen and expand our connection to communities, making wellness accessible to everyone,’ she added.
Research demonstrates that establishing healthy eating habits early in life predict better habits throughout adulthood.
However, eating disorders also plague teenagers disproportionately, making diet programs targeted to the age group worrisome to some experts.
Childhood obesity (green) has become increasingly common in recent years, and will only further fuel rates among adults (blue) down the line
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) cautions teenagers through its guidance for their eating habits that not everyone needs the same number of calories every day.
Weight Watchers’ programs are not exclusively premised on calorie-counting, but do incorporate the practice as part of their diet tracking services.
According to Eating Disorder Hope, more than half of teenage girls and one third of teenage boys are trying to diet. The organization reports that about the same proportion of students in each gender group try to do so by unhealthy means.
On the other hand, other research has documented a link between teenagers’ unhealthy eating habits and poorer mental health.
Weight Watchers said that, in order to get a free membership, teenagers have to go to one of its physical locations, accompanies by an adult.
Weight Watchers CEO Mindy Grossman announced the new program, citing data on the ‘ripple effect’ – which have shown that people who start a diet or healthy eating regimen have a positive impact on the habits of those close to them.
She said that teenagers’ ‘diets are full of added sugar, sodium and saturated fat,’ and that her company’s new plan is geared toward ‘helping those who need healthy habits develop them at a critical life stage.’