Weight Watchers' new focus on teenagers is prompting the ire of some health advocates

  • Weight Watchers will offer teens ages 13 to 17 free memberships this summer.
  • Some consumers and health advocates are skeptical of the plan, saying it promotes unrealistic body images in young people.
Weight Watchers International Inc. food products.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Weight Watchers International Inc. food products.

Weight Watchers is attracting the scorn of social media users for offering teenagers free memberships as part of a new corporate strategy.

This week, Weight Watchers said it plans to partner with families to establish healthy habits, by offering free memberships to teens 13 through 17 this summer. The company plans to help "the development of healthy habits at a critical life stage," it announced on Wednesday in a press release.

Teens will be required to attend meetings with a parent or guardian who will provide consent. Weight Watchers said it will share more specific criteria and guidelines when it launches the program.

The move mirrors a trend in the health and wellness industry toward overall wellness as people shun diets. "We think there's a real opportunity to make an impact on a problem that is not currently being addressed effectively," a Weight Watchers spokeswoman told CNBC on Wednesday.

Yet some people were not convinced, and they accused Weight Watchers of preying on youngsters who could develop unhealthy habits and body image.

In a statement, the National Eating Disorders Association said it was "very concerned" about Weight Watchers' promotion, because 35 percent of "normal" dieters can develop disordered eating and teens are at an especially vulnerable stage of life.

"Half of teenage girls and one-third of teenage boys use dangerous weight control methods — such as smoking, laxative abuse, and skipping meals — in an attempt to meet unrealistic body ideals," a spokeswoman said.

"We hope Weight Watchers acknowledges the risk and implements steps to screen for potential early signs of disordered eating and provides information on resources to find help," she added.

Those criticisms were echoed by other health advocates, who say encouraging teens to count calories and diet is dangerous. Tomi Akanbi, clinical nutrition coordinator at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, sees patients who adopt their parents' weight-loss plans, without realizing that teens need to eat certain foods to help them grow.

"Our decision to open our program to teens, with the consent of a parent or guardian, is driven by a family-based approach," Weight Watchers said in a statement provided to CNBC.

"This is not about encouraging dieting, but rather helping teens to form healthy habits at this critical life stage. We are engaging and look forward to dialogue with health care professionals as we roll out this program in a few months," the statement added.

When teens focus on calories, Akanbi said, they tend to skip meals and eat too little, or replace nutrients with empty calories from sugary sources like soda. Instead, Akanbi encouraged teens to create a diet that's heavy in fruits, vegetables, protein and grains — and void of refined starches and sugars, mixed with at least an hour of daily exercise.

"Weight Watchers really is dieting and focusing on just weight, and research has shown when the focus is on weight and dieting in teens, that is not an effective way to promote and sustain weight loss," Akanbi said.

"It's not even helpful to promote overall wellness, because we're also talking about body image and how these kids are experiencing themselves and food and their bodies, and dieting does not help with that," she added.