Should a 9-year-old be on Weight Watchers?

(ThinkStock Photos)(ThinkStock Photos)Actress Ginnifer Goodwin just admitted she's been on the Points plan for 23 years. That means the 32-year-old "Big Love" star started calculating her meals as a 9-year-old tween. Should kids be counting calories before they reach their double digits? Not according to Weight Watchers. In 2003, the company announced a policy officially banning kids under 10 from joining the program. Kids between 10 and 16 however can join with a doctor's referral and guardian signature. The policy was a response to the growing obesity crisis in young people. But it also pointed to the fact that some kids are too young to be measuring their food intake to the number.
"Chronic dieting is associated with the onset of adolescent eating disorders," according to the 2008 textbook, Abnormal Child Psychology. Kids obsessed with food, and under strict mandates from their folks, are at a higher risk for anorexia and bulimia, which can commonly develop around age 11. Experts warn parents that too many restrictions on food at a very young age can cause developing kids to want to please or rebel in extreme ways. That's when binge eating or starvation habits can come into play.

Pre-tween dieting can also have physiological consequences. The pediatric caloric requirement suggests kids that age require around 1600-1800 calories a day, and an equal proportion of grains to meats. While the revised Weight Watchers plan announced last month allows for a more flexible, fruit and veggie-based diet, any kind of high-protien plan is risky for a developing 9-year-old. One 2010 study from the University of Calgary suggested a high-protien diet at too young an age can contribute to overeating as an adult. And University of California researchers found two-thirds of obese women they studied started dieting before age 14, possibly contributing to their adult weight problem.

But as child obesity rates exponentially rise (over 18 percent of American kids are medically overweight), the concern isn't just body type. It's diabetes, high blood pressure and other long-term medical problems. And the causes of extreme weight gain, in part, may start with school lunches and vending machines. Maybe a lifestyle diet like Weight Watchers, which is adaptable to most meals, can inspire kids to make better choices away from home. But can a third grader even grasp the concept of the Points plan? And should they have to?

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