Kids Who Diet: When Are They Too Young?

Why dieting in childhood is risky.

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Some popular commercial diet programs exclude kids. Weight Watchers no longer accepts children under 10, and older children up to age 16 need a doctor's referral before being considered. "The methods deemed most appropriate for adults cannot simply be assumed to be appropriate for all children," chief scientist and global director Karen Miller Kovach has written in program materials. "I challenge anyone who currently says they have a safe and effective weight-loss program for children to back up their claims with long-term data." Nutrisystem is off-limits to anyone under 18, and Slim-Fast products are intended only for those 18 and over. Jenny Craig dieters must be at least 13.

The most effective way to keep children at a healthy weight, say experts, is to adopt a whole-family approach that emphasizes a balanced diet and adequate calories. Rather than focusing on cutting calories, the emphasis should be on improving diet quality and making modest changes that can make a big difference—choosing water or nonfat milk in lieu of soda and juice, say, and eliminating processed foods. Sometimes that equals fewer calories, but that's not really the point. It's about improving the quality of those calories. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and non-fat dairy should always be central, with room for the occasional splurge. And physical activity is a must, whether it's joining the soccer team or simply playing in the backyard. "Children need to be taught what to eat for life," says Sarah Krieger, a registered dietician and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "These are lifelong habits we're teaching them, and we want to avoid lifelong dieters."