Kurbo is a weight-loss app for kids as young as 8. But experts say it could do more harm than good.

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
Courtesy of Weight Watchers

WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers) just released an app designed for children as young as 8. They say it's an effective, scientifically proven program that can help the many kids and teens who are classified as overweight and obese. But critics say the app will end up doing more harm than good.

The app, called Kurbo by WW, was created several years ago by a mom whose child was deemed overweight by the pediatrician, but who says she struggled to find resources and practical information to help. (WW acquired Kurbo last year.)

Kurbo is based on Stanford University's Pediatric Weight Control Program, which uses a "traffic light" system to classify foods as green (foods to eat more of, like fruits and veggies), yellow (foods to be "mindful of" like lean protein, whole grains, and dairy), and red foods (foods to reduce, like sugary drinks and treats).

In Kurbo, kids track their daily food intake and are encouraged to gradually decrease the number of red light foods they have per day. They get credit for physical activity and can watch videos about mindfulness. For $69 per month, they can also have weekly sessions (via Skype) with Kurbo-certified coaches. The goal of the app is to be an effective and engaging way for kids to reach a healthier weight, said Kurbo co-creator Joanna Strober in a company webinar.

According to WW, the app is meant to help an underserved population: the one in three kids ages 5-17 who are overweight and obese. They note that there are only a small number of treatment programs in the country (mostly in urban areas) and that most teens who attempt to lose weight are simply winging it, often emulating unhealthy behaviors they see on social media. They say the app provides a sensible, science-based alternative.

But the backlash has been swift and intense. A Change.org petition asking WW to remove the app has garnered more than 10,000 signatures, and the hashtag #WakeUpWeightWatchers is trending on Twitter, with accusations that WW is selling diets to kids in the hopes of snagging lifelong customers—and that tactics like tracking food at such a young age could set kids up for eating disorders. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised against both dieting and "weight talk," saying they're linked to a higher risk for eating disorders and obesity.

"Encouraging weight loss, even in kids who could use improvements in eating or exercise patterns, isn't harmless," says Rebecca Scritchfield, RD, author of Body Kindness. "It puts a child at risk of malnourishment at a time they should be growing." She points out that it's normal for kids to gain weight during puberty, which can occur between age 8-14, a range the app is targeting.

Critics also say that it's parents—not kids—who should be getting education about food choices and family lifestyle changes. "In my experience and practice, it's not appropriate to target kids," says Parents advisor and pediatric dietitian Jill Castle. "Kids are for the most part, existing and living in the environment created by their parents. Rather than an app targeting kids, their eating, and weight, I feel it's more appropriate and effective to support parents in their job of nourishing and feeding their children."

The focus on the weight and appearance of kids troubles many people too. The website features before-and-after photos of children as young as 8, along with their weight loss or BMI reduction. Among the goals kids can choose from in the app are "lose weight," "feel better in my clothes," and "make parents happy."

And though WW says their intention isn't to classify foods as "good" or "bad," there's the question of how tracking and sorting foods will affect kids' long-term attitude about eating. It has been used for decades, but the traffic light system can oversimplify and confuse things. When I downloaded the app and logged my food choices for the day, I bristled at the fact that many of my favorites—ones I serve to my own kids regularly—were considered red light: peanut butter, cheese, popcorn, and salad dressing. Tofu, baked chicken, and unsweetened cereal were classified as yellow light but became red light foods as the portion grew. If I felt dismayed as a grown-up, would children feel downright shame in their choices—and what could that mean for their lifelong feelings about food? Tracking can also lead to a fixation or even obsession with food for some adults—what could it do to children?

"What we really need to do is include helpful health advice for kids of all sizes and empower parents to model healthy eating patterns and balanced plates in the home. We need parents to support enjoyable movement, play, and sports in kids' lives because it's part of care for their bodies, not because the end game should be weight loss," says Scritchfield. "We need to encourage adequate sleep and socialization with limits on screen time. All these things work together to enhance well-being at any size. Body positive parenting can help, not an app."

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor and registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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