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Do teens need to diet? Experts discuss Weight Watchers decision - KVOA | KVOA.com | Tucson, Arizona

Do teens need to diet? Experts discuss Weight Watchers decision to offer program to teens

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Do teens need to be on diets? That's a question lots of people are asking after Weight Watchers recently announced they'll be offering free memberships to kids ages 13 to 17 this summer.

The decision has drawn criticism from health advocates warning against potentially negative effects like eating disorders and unhealthy body image. While Weight Watchers has stated the move supports "the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage," and was endorsed by Weight Watchers spokesperson Oprah Winfrey.

Lori Ciotti, a regional assistant vice president of operations for the Renfrew Center in Boston, which treats eating disorders, does not recommend teens using the Weight Watchers system.

"Dieting is a slippery slope into an eating disorder,'' Ciotti told TODAY. "It sends a message that one should not listen to their body's hunger or fullness cues, so it's really concerning from that perspective."

"I think what (Weight Watchers) is doing here is offering a sanctioned method of counting calories or points or whatever they want to call it," Ciotti continued. "It's not teaching teens anything about self-care or self-worth. Instead it teaches them that their worth is about a number on a scale or the back of their jeans."

Kristi King, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a senior pediatric dietitian at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, spoke to TODAY about the effects of a calorie-counting diet while not commenting directly on Weight Watchers.

"This is a time that (teens) are developing habits that are going to be life-long,'' she said. "Our concern about counting calories and being very restrictive is the fact that we know that having those behaviors in that particular age group can lead to eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa or bulimia."

A restrictive diet could also deprive teens of important vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins or fats that they need for a growing body, King said.

"Long-term effects besides eating disorders, if we are extremely restrictive in that time period, you could potentially cause growth stunting,'' King said. "When you're counting calories, you're not looking at what types of healthy foods you should be putting into your body. You could eat a candy bar for lunch and still meet that caloric requirement."

The Weight Watchers announcement also spawned the hashtag #WakeUpWeightWatchers from people angry with the company appealing to teens.

Weight Watchers said its aim is educating teens about eating more nutritious foods.

"Our goal is to help those who need healthy habits to develop them at this critical life-stage; this is not about dieting,'' Weight Watchers said in a statement to TODAY. "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."

"We have and will continue to talk with healthcare professionals about specific criteria and guidelines as we get ready to launch this program," Weigh Watchers said. "We think there’s a real opportunity to make an impact on a problem that is not currently being addressed effectively."

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