Last year, Weight Watchers changed its name to WW, apparently in an effort to accentuate "wellness" rather than "weight loss" in an increasingly diet-averse culture. Now the company seems to be throwing away any goodwill it earned with that more enlightened approach with its launch of Kurbo, an app designed to help children as young as eight years old "reach a healthier weight." The move has unleashed a great deal of opposition, as the trending Twitter hashtag #wakeupweightwatchers makes clear. 

Kurbo was originally a startup created by Joanna Strober and Thea Runyan, lead behavior coach at Stanford's Pediatric Weight Control Program. Last year, WW acquired Kurbo, and also sparked controversy when it announced it would offer its program for free to teenagers. The company, whatever you may call it, just took a further step into the childhood obesity arena by launching Kurbo as an online program and iOS and Android app.

The app begins by asking children some simple questions about their weight and height (but not their activity level) and then to choose among seven goals, which include items such as: Eat Healthier, Lose Weight, Improve Clothing Fit, Maintain Weight, and (intriguingly) Make Parents Happy. But even if you choose a not-necessarily-weight-related goal such as Improve Confidence, the app will begin by asking you to track what you eat, assigning a green light to fruits and vegetables, a yellow light to such items as lean meats and pasta, and a red light to things like hamburgers and sweets. The idea is to eat as much as you want of the green light foods, the yellow foods in moderation, and to "stop and think" before choosing the red light foods.

Users who pay $69 a month for the premium version of Kurbo also get a weekly 15-minute coaching session with a coach of unspecified qualifications, as well as the opportunity to text with your coach through the week. Coaches listed on the website have degrees in fields like business and economics. Kurbo also encourages children to be active, and incorporates things like breathing exercises.

Getting kids to be more active and introducing them to breathing techniques seems like a great idea to me. But the main focus of the program and the app--the green/yellow/red light foods--has so much wrong with it I don't know where to begin. Does it really make sense to indoctrinate eight-year-olds with the idea that their confidence should depend on their weight and food choices?

For that matter, does it make sense to assign "good" and "bad" labels to foods at all? Although this is certainly a common practice--"I was bad today, I had ice cream after dinner"--in fact some experts say it's a dangerous approach for both your waistline and your mental well-being. Here's an explanation of why by a registered dietitian from a well-known hospital.

Or, check out this discussion of childhood obesity and how to fight it from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Its authors cite studies that show that dieting, "weight talk," and body dissatisfaction are all risk factors for both eating disorders and obesity in adolescents. That's right--diets can make adolescents obese and/or give them eating disorders. Kurbo claims that its program is not a diet, but Merriam-Webster defines a diet this way: "a regimen of eating and drinking sparingly so as to reduce one's weight," which is exactly what the yellow light/red light system seems designed to do.

Short-term weight loss

Kurbo claims to be science-based, and cites weight-loss success stories over a period of a few months--and that is by far not long enough. I could have been one of those success stories too, if you evaluated me the summer that I was 14 and my parents sent me, against my wishes, to weight-loss camp. I did come back from camp much thinner than when I went there, but the change didn't last long. My well-meaning parents were both highly concerned over their own weight as well as mine, and they had started telling me to lose weight around the age of eight, the youngest age for Kurbo. In fact, if Kurbo had existed back then, they would certainly have installed it on my smartphone. But no amount of weight loss or healthy eating could ever provide enough confidence to undo the damage being raised to think of myself as fat and unacceptable. I've struggled with both weight and body image ever since, a living example of exactly what the AAP warns against. 

If dieting and weight talk and body dissatisfaction won't help young people lose weight, what will? The AAP has found a few answers. One is having a healthy body image. "Adolescents who were more satisfied with their bodies were more likely to report parental and peer attitudes that encouraged healthful eating and exercising to be fit, rather than dieting; they were less likely to report personal weight-related concerns and behaviors," AAP reports. A second factor is family meals. Not only does having regular family meals seem to protect adolescent girls from eating disorders, researchers also found that families that had seven or more family meals every week consumed one more serving of fresh fruits and/or vegetables per day than those that didn't. They also found that adolescents who ate these fruits and vegetables during family meals continued the habit, eating more fruits and vegetables than their peers into young adulthood.

Cooking family meals and trying to give children a positive body image is certainly much more work than downloading an app would be. On the other hand, these approaches are much more likely to help them, and much less likely to make things worse instead of better.

Published on: Aug 15, 2019
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