Last week, Weight Watchers announced that they would be offering offering their program to teenagers ages 14-17 for free for a 6-week period this summer.
Here’s their statement from this Today.com article:
“For a six-week period this summer, teens will be able to join Weight Watchers for free and can continue their membership through age 17. They will be required to go to one of our meeting locations for their parent/guardian to provide consent, as we know a family-based approach is critical at this age.”
This is problematic in so many ways, but I’ll break down the main one.
Weight Watchers is a Diet
Weigh Watchers likes to tell people that their program is a lifestyle, not a diet. However, anything that teaches us to track food based off of calories, nutrients or even points is in fact a diet.
The needs of our bodies change from day to day, and we can reach a healthy balance in life when we learn to trust our own bodies, rely on own judgment, and consume food based off of our hunger and fullness cues.
What would happen if you reach your 23-point maximum for the day but you’re still hungry for a 2-point food item? You would either deprive yourself of the additional item and crave it later, or you’d eat the additional item and feel guilty for it. And maybe punish yourself later. What happens if you feel completely full and satisfied when you reach 21 points? You’d likely eat something else just because you still have room for 2 points, even though your body is telling you otherwise.
These 2 examples are the foundational errors with dieting.
Teenagers & Health
There’s one thing I think we can all agree on…the growing number of adolescents who are developing nutrition-related health issues, including type 2 diabetes, is seriously disturbing.
But here’s the thing: putting teenagers on a diet is not going to fix this.
You may remember that I worked in school nutrition for 6 years prior to switching to clinical dietetics. It gave me a firsthand view of all of the ways we set our teenagers up for failure when it comes to nutrition, exercise and wellness. Here are some suggestions that can improve the health adolescents. Please note that none of them have to do with counting points:
Provide substantial nutrition education as part of the K-12 curriculum
Did you know that in many states, a child can go through elementary, middle and high school and hardly receive any nutrition education? Nutrition is so unique in that it is something that applies to *everyone*. Does it make any sense that we learn about the Pythagorean theorem in school, but we don’t learn much about the relationship between nutrition and health?
Something I find with most of my clients, especially those with heart disease, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, is that they welcome nutrition education with open arms. They also thrive with making healthy dietary changes and achieving good balance once they gain more knowledge about the food they are eating. It’s a shame that it took being diagnosed with a chronic illness and being referred to a dietitian to receive that nutrition education.
Teach about grocery shopping and basic cooking skills in school
When I graduated high school, I only knew how to “cook” grilled cheese sandwiches and spaghetti. I thought healthy groceries were too expensive. I ate fast food 1-2 nights per week because it was easy, and I thought it was a lot cheaper than going to the grocery store. I remember once when I made my college boyfriend dinner and saved him the leftovers, he called me the next day because he didn’t know how to heat up leftovers.
Once I started chipping away at my nutrition degree, I started experimenting more in the kitchen, going grocery shopping and cooking more at home. I did this just because I was given a little bit of nutrition education. Eating healthier just started to come naturally because I realized it wasn’t too complicated or expensive.
For example, a module in one of my classes was about cooking skills. Watching a 20-minute power point on knife skills (the different types of knives, when to use which type, and how to chop specific types of foods) was seriously life-changing. I immediately bought a cheap knife set and a knife sharpener. So many of my clients today don’t buy fresh vegetables because they hate chopping them, and huge part of that ends up being related to using the wrong knife, not having chopping skills or even just that their knife is dull.
Provide better funding for school nutrition programs
Many people don’t realize that school cafeterias operate like a business. While other school departments are given a certain amount of money for the school year, school cafeterias have to earn their money by selling meals. Money to pay for food items, cafeteria supplies, kitchen equipment and even staff paychecks comes from selling breakfasts, lunches and a la cart items. Schools get reimbursed from the government for a “free” or “reduced meal”.
Which meals do you think will sell better: pizza or baked chicken?
When I worked for schools, I remember choosing between two chicken products for the menu but one was $0.01 cheaper per serving. One cent sounds like nothing. Well… the item would be one of the staple menu items offered daily, and the difference in that one penny added up to over $18,000 per school year. All of my menu choices were dictated by minute food costs and what I thought would sell best. It was hard.
Schools are doing great work, but I think their funding system is broken. It’s hard to serve the healthiest meals possible when you’re working in the pennies business.
Encourage a Healthy Relationship with Food at School
Something that was really hard for me to watch in school was how so many things set student up for a poor relationship with food.
Kids who eat school breakfast, which are usually the kids who don’t get great nutrition at home, were rushed to get through breakfast from the time they got off of the bus to when the bell rang for class. Telling kids to hurry up in the breakfast line, to eat as fast as possible once they got to their table and then discouraging socialization because it is slowing down their meal intake are all things that we should NOT be doing.
Students also had pretty short lunch times. They were often encouraged to finish everything on their meal trays and scolded when they threw food away. They were not allowed to take any extra food from their tray out of the cafeteria after lunch. I once saw a high schooler trying to take his apple with him for later after lunch, and he was told to eat it right then or throw it away.
I’m not placing blame on teachers or school administrators. I know working in schools is complicated (who knows where that apple would have ended up if the high schooler had taken it out of the cafeteria).
I know each school system is different and I’ve only worked for 2. But these types of examples really mold the way children and teenagers think about food. Kids naturally stop eating when they’re full, which is a fundamental part of mindful eating. Providing a good environment for meals where kids are encouraged to take their time and listen to their bodies is really important for establishing healthy eating habits.
I don’t think a Weight Watchers diet is going to address this issue.
Make Physical Activity a Requirement in K-12 in Schools
Here is what this 2016 Shape Report says about PE in my state, North Carolina:
Amount of Required Physical Education: The state survey
reported that the state does not require elementary or middle
school/junior high schools to provide students with physical
education. It also reported that high schools are required to provide
physical education and students in grade 9 are required to take
physical education for graduation credit. A State Board of Education
policy specifies that North Carolina K-8 students are to be offered
physical education and participate in the local education agency’s
physical education curriculum. The policy is highly encouraged and
recommended, but local districts make final determinations. The
policy directs elementary schools to consider the benefits of and
move toward 150 minutes per week of quality physical education. It
directs middle schools to consider the benefits of and move toward
225 minutes per week of Healthful Living Education, divided equally
between health and physical education.228 Local education agencies
submit an annual report that includes the number of minutes of
physical education provided to students. The report is provided to
the North Carolina State Board of Education, the North Carolina
Department of Public Instruction, local boards of education, and
Our bodies were made to move, not to sit at a desk all day. Again, I know this varies by state but being physically active through PE class, sports, and classroom activities should be part of K-12 education everywhere. A huge piece of our healthcare crisis is that only 51% of adult Americans meet exercise recommendations.
I really don’t know where to start with addressing food insecurity with our kids, but these issues also feed into our healthcare concerns with adolescents…
When kids call the school system on a snow day crying because they’re not going to get a meal at home
or they say mom doesn’t bring food into the home because the apartment is infested with roaches
or parents don’t own a pot or pan because they can’t afford them
or a kid eats potato chips for dinner because the convenient store is the only thing within walking distance and the family doesn’t own a car…
I don’t think counting Weight Watchers points will address any of these issues
Weight Watchers thinking that they are helping kids live healthier by offering their diet to them is honestly just ignorant. I hope Weight Watchers understands that by setting kids up for failure in so many ways when they are young, but then saying “Here, go one a diet!” as they get older, is simply capitalizing on diet culture in our country. They should be ashamed.