Are free Weight Watchers classes for children the answer?

Weight Watchers have announced that they are going to be offering free classes to teenagers in the UK as well as America and potentially many of the other countries they operate in. Some see this as a positive move and appreciate this multinational company contributing something to the health epidemic that many countries are facing.

Many others say that Weight Watchers is shamelessly profiteering and are attempting to increase their bottom line by getting people at a younger age into their programmes. This article takes a look at what Weight Watchers is up to and if there might be a better alternative.

The system of converting amounts of foods into different points was developed by Weight Watchers in 1997. This system was known to be ineffective for some time but the company stuck with it. As a technique, it made sense even if in reality the process was of very little benefit to the majority of people.

After 14 years of the calorie counting approach being hailed as the solution to being overweight Weight Watchers president has now announced: “Calorie counting has become unhelpful.”
Become unhelpful? That word suggests that it was once helpful which is something many health professionals would take issue with. What happened that made it unhelpful? I think it is likely that nothing changed, it is just that they are now admitting what many already knew.

Weight Watchers is constantly having to evolve what they do and how they do it. As new research and evidence comes to light through scientific study and statistical research it shows that the long-term success of the weight watchers approach is very low. If they keep changing what they do and what they recommend that it is impossible to compare up to date research with what they do because what they do now is different to what they did 5+ years ago. It also means that there insufficient evidence in the present for their new approach so it can not be criticised statistically in the present. Clever!

In 2016 Weight Watchers had an $11m quarterly loss in value. In one quarter! The company is struggling in many ways so it is looking for ways to boost their profits and they have set their sights on our children.

They will be offering a six week course for free to children as young as 13. This move has the potential, some say, to boost their revenue in America alone by $2 billion. Just imagine what effect this could have if it was done in every country Weight Watchers operates in.

Christine Morgan is the National Director of the National Eating Disorders Collaboration said she is “absolutely horrified” by the announcement from Weight Watchers. There is growing evidence that any kind of dieting in children can lead to their relationship with food being adversely affected in later life.
Weight Watchers have said that their programme for children isn’t about being on a diet. Weight Watchers have such a long history with weight loss though there is little else that they could be associated with. Even if they have completely transformed what they are doing and even if their programme for children is not about dieting at all it will be hard for anyone involved to think it is about anything other than dieting.

Ms Morgan said “You don’t go to Weight Watchers for anything other than to have your weight measured and to see how much weight you lose each week. That is not health promotion, that is not healthy activity for a young person,” she said.

What you have to ask yourself is “Why would a huge company like Weight Watchers want to offer a free 6-week course to children?” What do they get out of it? Their business model is based on as many people as possible engaging with their brand for as long as possible. This means attending classes, buying books or apps and buying their custom food. They do not want people to learn to be healthy and able to self-regulate because then they lose a customer.

Weight Watchers are not doing this course for children out of the goodness of their hearts. They are doing this to make money. As much money as possible for as long as possible.

The 6-week course they offer has led to a significant backlash, especially in America, where the hashtag #wakeupweightwatchers is gathering pace. Many people are unhappy with how Weight Watchers are targeting children.

The British Diabetic Association is concerned about the effects that this course could have on children. They have said that this approach sends the wrong message to these kids. There is the potential that because of this kind of approach that there could be an increased chance of the course participants becoming yo-yo dieters.

A spokesperson for the BDA said “Suggesting a teenager needs a diet is a negative message, suggesting that they are not good enough just as they are, at a point of life where things are already turbulent. One of the issues with offering free membership to teenagers is that young people’s bodies are not fully developed during these teenage years, both in shape and size,” she said.

There has been some cautious optimism for the Weight Watchers approach though. Professor Russell Viner is from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and said that he could see that there could be benefits in the Weight Watchers course but “I do have serious concerns that if not managed sensitively, it could have alarming consequences.”

This course will be managed by a private company who has a poor success rate and who is driven by making more money for their company and shareholders. They are not a benevolent and altruistic organisation so I would be concerned about the potential for alarming consequences. Many others on Twitter are also concerned about this potential for harm.

If you are looking for help and support for developing a healthy attitude towards food that is appropriate to your age you can contact the organisations linked to in this post or you can contact the Sheffield Wellness Centre to speak to nutrition, activity and mentality and attitude focused professionals who will be able to give you more information.