Amid controversy over diet programs for teens, these four students share their reasons for losing weight

By Julie Mazziotta Stephanie Emma Pfeffer
August 29, 2019 01:13 PM
Niche Bryant; Kaley Worst
Melanie Acevedo

Weight loss and dieting — especially in 2019 — are complicated topics for people of any age. But they’re particularly contentious when you bring teens in to the mix, and controversy broke out when WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers, announced a new weight loss program for children and teens.

Some argue that putting kids on diets could lead to eating disorders. Others say we need more tools to help address the obesity crisis that affects 20 percent of Americans ages 12 to 19.

Here, four teens share what motivated them to get healthy.

Niche Bryant, 16

Niche Bryant
Melanie Acevedo

Bryant can remember when he first started struggling with his body image. In the summer between fifth and sixth grade, the Brooklyn teen gained 80 lbs., and his classmates started taunting him.

“It was painful for me,” he says. “I had never been bullied until I got big.”

Over the next few years, he kept “eating and eating,” hitting nearly 300 lbs. while his parents tried to help.

“My parents would tell me to take a walk with my grandmother, but I would rather stay home and eat a pack of cookies,” he says.

But when Bryant got to high school, he decided to make a change.

“I became interested in girls, and it made me want to fix myself.”

He joined Live Light, Live Right, a local, community-based nonprofit where doctors and nutritionists provide supervision and counseling to help overweight teens lose weight and learn healthy habits. There, Bryant discovered he enjoyed eating broccoli over “five fast-food burgers” and going to the gym.

“It’s like I had a brick wall on my back, and I was able to break it down,” he says.

Kaley Worst, 17

Kaley Worst
Melanie Acevedo

Growing up in Cadillac, Michigan, Worst was dedicated to her extracurricular activities. She loved being on the softball team and playing flute in the marching band. But she started to notice that she couldn’t keep up with her high school classmates.

“I got out of breath sooner than other kids, and I wasn’t as active — or as happy,” she says.

Worst chalks it up to her eating habits.

“I snacked all day and didn’t have very many meals,” she says.

When she was 15, her grandmother brought her along to a TOPS — Take Off Pounds Sensibly, a weight loss support group. There, Worst learned how to shape her meals and portions, and got advice on exercise.

“Knowing people would support me even if I didn’t lose weight was motivating,” she says.

Over two years, Worst lost around 40 lbs., and now pays closer attention to what she eats.

“I focus on what’s going to be better for me in the long run,” she says. Plus, “I’m definitely more comfortable with myself.”

Mason Hicks, 17

Mason Hicks
Melanie Acevedo

The high school senior from Conroe, Texas remembers feeling overweight as a kindergartener, when he would wake up and eat four bowls of cereal. By his sophomore year, he was 6 ft. tall and 350 lbs.

“I never felt good about myself,” he says. “I accepted I would be big my entire life.”

Hicks was always active, playing football and swimming, but soon he starting experiencing pain.

“I told my football coach that my knees were hurting, and he said it might be because of my weight,” Hicks says.

The teen decided to try reducing his portion sizes and intermittent fasting — waiting about 16 hours after he ate dinner before his next meal. Hicks also upped his protein and vegetable intake, and started powerlifting on his school’s team.

When Hicks went back to school for his junior year, healthier and 140 lbs. lighter, people didn’t recognize him.

“That was incredible — but it was also heartbreaking to see how people change the way they treat you just because of how you look,” he says. Being overweight was “one of the hardest things,” he adds. “Now I feel great!”

Juliana Wells, 18

Juliana Wells
Melanie Acevedo

“No matter what, in this day and age, kids think about their weight,” says the teen from Lloyd Harbor, New York. “At 5’9” I always felt taller than everyone — taller and heavier. I thought that I would never be healthy.”

In school, Wells began feeling so self-conscious about her weight that she started eating lunch in the library to avoid her classmates. “I felt like I was being judged,” she says. Meanwhile, as a member of the volleyball team, she had to special-order a larger uniform because they ran small, and the shirt she got was a different shade of red from her teammates’.

“It hit me really hard,” she says. “I almost felt like I wasn’t part of the team.”

Wells, then 15, decided to try the Kurbo app, which WW acquired in 2018 and relaunched this month. Through the program, she worked with a coach and learned portion control and changed her food choices, along with increasing her exercise.

“Apps don’t make kids feel pressured,” Wells says of the controversy. “It’s society in general. If a child is motivated to focus on their well-being, there’s no reason to stop them.”

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