Nfld. & Labrador

Weight Watchers teen program 'heartbreaking' for woman recovering from eating disorder

A woman in St. John's says starting Weight Watchers at age 12 led to an unhealthy obsession with food, and targeting teenagers with diet programs can lead them down a dangerous path.

Melanie Oates started dieting at 12, says counting points became an obsession

Melanie Oates shared her frustration on social media after hearing about a new Weight Watchers free membership offer for teenagers. (Submitted by Melanie Oates)

Melanie Oates was listening to CBC Radio's The Current when she heard something that made her angry — a discussion about a new program from Weight Watchers offering free summer memberships for teenagers.

"I couldn't believe it at first that they were actually targeting teens. It really blew my mind, and I was kind of pacing back and forth in the kitchen as I was listening to it, enraged," said the 30-year-old writer and filmmaker.

She shared her frustration on social media.

Oates started Weight Watchers when she was in junior high school after watching family members use the program. 

She calculated the points for every food she consumed on the sliding card that came with the package almost two decades ago, and stopped eating once she reached her point limit for the day. 

"It wasn't enough for a growing body, and being so focused on that number ... it just becomes an obsession."

Oates says she started dieting at 12, and had developed an eating disorder by the time she was 18. (Submitted by Melanie Oates)

It was the first of many diets Oates tried as a teen.

"I did Weight Watchers a bunch of times on and off, there was a period in high school where I did the crazy Atkins Diet, I did the Special K diet, the famous cabbage soup diet, any one you can think of really." 

Dieting to disorder

Her focus on food restriction eventually turned into an eating disorder. Oates started bingeing and purging when she moved out on her own at the age of 18. 

You could point to any food and I could tell you how many points it is in Weight Watchers.- Melanie Oates

About a year later she was in Ontario, where she spent two months at an in-patient treatment facility. She did well while in treatment, but two days after returning home Oates was bingeing and purging again, and her disorder got even worse.

"It was almost like a training ground for your eating disorder because you would learn, kind of tips and tricks from other experts, things you might not have thought of," she said.

"There can be almost a competitive nature to it too, I know a couple of girls in the weight-gain program, so they had anorexia, would hide rolls of change in their underwear to make themselves heavier at their weigh-ins and things like that."

Culture of restriction

The focus on food that began as an adolescent turned into a battle she still fights at almost 30 years old.

That's why Oates is so concerned about a point-counting, diet-focused weight-loss program targeted specifically to teenagers.

Oates working on a short film as costume designer. (Duncan De Young)

"Looking back at my teenage years I just felt like I wasted them, I didn't do anything that normal teenagers do and I just spent all this time locked up in an eating disorder for nothing," said Oates.

"All of my twenties I've still been going back and forth to therapy on and off. It's a full-time job."

CBC did not receive any response to an email containing questions sent to Weight Watchers communications department Tuesday morning.

However, in a response to CBC for a story published March 2, Weight Watchers said its teen weight-loss program will be responsible.

"We know that the teenage years are in a critical life stage for developing healthy habits, and opening WW to teens with consent from a parent/guardian is about families getting healthier," the company said in a statement. 

"We have and will continue to talk with health-care professionals about the criteria and guidelines as we get ready to launch this program."

'Work in progress'

Rather than creating a culture of restriction, Oates suggested parents who are concerned about a child's weight should encourage them by modelling healthy food choices and eating habits at home. 

Meanwhile, Oates called her recovery a continuous work in progress and still to this day, she tries not to count. 

"I try not to, but I know. Like you could point to any food and I could tell you how many points it is in Weight Watchers." 

With files from the St. John's Morning Show