Why the New Weight Watchers App for Kids Is Raising Concerns
August 28, 2019
- Weight Watchers, now rebranded as WW, has launched Kurbo, a new weight-loss app aimed at ages 8 to 17.
- Kurbo uses a green light, yellow light, red light system to indicate which foods kids can freely enjoy and which they should limit.
- Children need nourishing diets that are full of healthy fats, yet the app villainizes such important foods by placing them in the red (unhealthy) category.
- Experts warn that using such apps without proper guidance could result in children developing an unhealthy relationship with food.
It’s been almost a year since Weight Watchers, the brand that has catered to the desires of many to slim down and shape up for nearly six decades, rebranded as WW in an attempt to shift public perception and frame themselves as being more focused on wellness than weight.
Just a few weeks ago, the brand launched Kurbo by WW, a weight-loss app designed for children between the ages of 8 and 17.
The company claims that 8 out of 10 kids who try the app lose weight, but the Kurbo app has come under fire from parents and experts who say a weight-loss app aimed at kids sends the wrong message.
After the app’s release, The New York Times featured a registered dietitian who blasted the app as a precursor to eating disorders.
The Atlantic also ran a piece pointing out that putting kids on diets is bound to cause more problems, not less.
The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) also took a strong stance against the app.
And GMA highlighted less-than-positive responses from parents who raised concerns about several aspects of the app, such as featuring before and after weight-loss photos of children as young as 8 — what some parents say essentially amounts to “thinspo” for the already vulnerable pre-teen crowd.
Robin Long is one of those moms who is deeply concerned about the message Kurbo is sending to our kids, and the flaws she sees in its design.
The mom of four shared a series of screenshots to her Instagram page after she downloaded and tried the app for herself. She called out Kurbo for highlighting “healthy, nourishing foods with protein, healthy fat and carbohydrates — foods that support growing bodies and brain development” as being in the “red” zone.
In other words, foods Kurbo recommends kids limit.
Kurbo uses a green light, yellow light, red light system to indicate which foods children can freely enjoy, and which they should limit. Some of the foods they include in the red light category are:
- whole milk yogurt
- olive oil
Foods that are otherwise considered healthy fats the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)deem “an essential nutrient that supplies the energy, or calories, children need for growth and active play.”
The AAP also says these foods should “not be severely restricted” in childhood.
“Children need nourishing diets that are full of healthy fats, protein, and fresh produce to support their growing bodies and developing brains.” Long told Healthline.
Yet, she says when she put an ideal day for her son into the app, one that included peanut butter, olive oil, avocado and cashews, the app warned that he’d consumed more foods in the red category than in green.
“This app targets kids and teenagers and sets them up with a diet mentality from a very young age and I find that concerning,” Long said. “Studies show that dieting is not an effective approach to managing weight and I worry that the long-term effects will do more harm than good.”
She’s also afraid that children won’t understand the nuance behind the rating system.
“It’s concerning that half of an avocado and almond butter are ‘red’ foods, which puts them in the same category as Skittles,” she said.
The AAP released a clinical report in 2016 that found dieting and weight talk to be dangerous and not at all helpful for adolescents. And while Kurbo tries to frame itself as being a wellness app, as opposed to a diet app, marketing it as a tool to help kids lose weight and using a system for classifying food choices sends a very different message.
The app itself is set up in such a way that children under the age of 13 are supposed to use it only alongside a parent. But while warnings exist, there are no controls to prevent kids from lying about their age, or parents from simply handing the app over.
And even if families are using the app in line with those specifications, that still leaves young teenagers on their own to decipher the app’s rating system.
A system that ultimately designates foods as good (green) or bad (red), something most experts agree is not in line with developing a healthy relationship with food.
“This is a system that produces foods that are villains,” Dr. Mark Corkins, pediatric gastroenterologist with Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee recently told Healthline. “I don’t like anything that creates villains. I’m anti-villain.”
Corkins said that designating healthy fats as red goes against common-sense nutritional advice. “Fat is not the enemy. In fact, the first few years of life, we are supposed to have a high-fat diet. Breast milk is very high in fat.”
Though he believes the Kurbo is well-intentioned, he said the app’s approach isn’t healthy for children and their relationship with food.
“I know what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to give people direction. But anything that designates food choices as villains is a mistake,” he said.
Healthy eating expert Chelsie Kenyon also worries that an app like this takes the control out of a child’s hands, teaching them they have to rely on an outside source to achieve a healthy lifestyle.
“There may be some benefits in the short term,” she explained. “Especially if you have a child who really hasn’t been educated on food. But in the long term? We’re indoctrinating them to think they need a point of accountability.”
She called that disastrous.
“What it does is it trains them at a very young age to believe they need an app, or some sort of a system, to be healthy. It convinces them there has to be a strict, regimented way of eating,” she said.
As a result, she says, kids don’t learn to listen to their bodies and learn to eat naturally.
“It takes away a person’s power. And that’s what gets me,” she said. “We need to remind these children, you’re powerful right now.”
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AAP pediatrician and nutritionist Dr. Natalie Muth, author of the upcoming book Family Fit Plan(published by the AAP), told Healthline, “Programs for children that are not medically supervised and that market themselves in a way that is weight focused, or programs that show ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of children, raise some concerns.”
She explained this is because there is the potential for these tools to negatively impact body image.
She also said it could, “trigger a preoccupation with weight loss rather than a focus on building skills that improve healthy habits.”
However, registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick of Cleveland Clinic Wellness said she does see the potential behind the app.
“I like that this approach meets kids where they are, which is technology driven,” she said. “It allows them to participate in a program that is more suited to their needs (as opposed to the hundreds of group programs for kids) and it pairs them with relatable individuals who they may actually listen to and find motivation from.”
Nevertheless, she said she doesn’t support the app for kids under the age of 13. She also doesn’t think any children should be engaging with the app without supervision and involvement from their parents, “the most powerful influencers of their eating habits and weight.”
Leslie Sartan, a mom of two in Alaska, raised an additional concern when it comes to the latest app.
“WW is a company that is for profit,” she told Healthline. “I don’t trust them with my child’s health. Ever. Especially being a past WW member where they push their products and encourage processed foods.”
While the app itself is free to use, those who sign up do begin receiving marketing materials from WW almost immediately, offering add-on coaching services. These coaching services run anywhere from $12.25 to $17.25 a week and are pushed aggressively over the course of several emails.
What’s more, the coaching services may not be as beneficial as one might initially assume.
“They say it’s ‘health coaching,’” Kenyon points out, “but they only showcase a young woman ‘coach’ who is a former soccer player and does not sound like an educated health professional.”
When Healthline reached out to the makers of Kurbo asking to speak with someone about the science behind the app, they declined an interview opting to send the following statement from Gary Foster, PhD, the chief science officer at WW, instead:
“Kurbo is a family-based program, focused on behavior change for healthier eating and more activity, not dieting or calorie-counting. Studies show that behavior-based weight management programs do not cause eating disorders. In fact, they provide kids with tools to make balanced food choices and manage their weight in a healthy way.”
Kenyon was quick to point out some issues with the study they linked.
“The article provided by WW is a study comprised of reviewing data from other studies found on four different databases,” she explained.
It concludes that “structured and professionally run obesity treatment interventions with a dietary component may reduce the risk of an eating disorder in the short and the long term.”
But, Kenyon pointed out the tools used in the studies were “not validated in the treatment seeking samples of children and adolescents with overweight and obesity.”
Furthermore, she said that she’d spent a fair amount of time playing with the Kurbo app herself and discovered another concern.
“I do not see any behavior modification. It uses a food-scoring system, similar to the WW point system, using green, yellow and red lights as a way to categorize food,” she said.
She also pointed out that while the research suggests dietary modification should be a “component” of the overall treatment, it appears to be Kurbo’s main focus. And while the study suggests educated health professionals should be monitoring this behavior modification in order to reduce the risk of eating disorders, Kurbo’s app provides no such monitoring.
Childhood nutrition expert and registered dietitian Jill Castle expressed all the same concerns to Healthline about Kurbo’s rating system and the app’s vilification of healthy fats. But she also raised the point that the app is “targeting children to be in charge of their food and health at a young age, when this is a parent’s job.”
For parents who are truly concerned about their children’s weight, she said, “The best way to address problematic weight is through the whole family and focus on lifestyle behaviors, not diets or weight loss.”
She made a point of clarifying that metabolically unhealthy weight should be the real concern, as “not all kids who are bigger or heavier are metabolically unhealthy.”
For parents who might not know what a modification of lifestyle behaviors looks like, Castle suggested:
- Food should be nutritious, balanced, and sufficient to meet a growing child’s needs.
- Mealtimes should be positive and not include pressure to eat with phrases like “take another bite” or “clean your plate.”
- Food should not be used as a reward or restriction, as it can disturb eating patterns and the development of a healthy relationship with food
- Daily routines should support healthy habits such as getting enough sleep, physical activity, and moderate amounts of screen time.
“The routines with food, feeding and habits get started very young, as early as the high chair,” Castle explained.
In other words, the earlier parents can start on instilling healthy habits, the better.
On a societal level, Muth had some additional ideas.
“The best way to address childhood weight issues is on a population level, ensuring ready and affordable access to healthy foods for all children, including home as well as at school and in the community,” she said.