In case you haven’t heard, Weight Watchers (now going by simply ‘WW’) has launched a brand-new food tracking app called Kurbo. What’s new with this new app? It’s actually for your kids.
That’s right Kurbo, the food-tracking app from WW was created for children and teens from ages 8-17. It uses a traffic light system to categorize foods with the intent of promoting healthier eating practices and discouraging junk food. According to WW, this is a “science-backed tool designed for kids who want to improve their eating habits and get more active”.
A little background
The app itself was not designed or invented by Weight Watchers. Kurbo has actually been around for a few years already and was originally invented by a Mom in the United States who wanted to help her teenage son lose weight using technology she felt was more age-appropriate that the apps that were otherwise available. Apparently WW saw an opportunity so a few weeks ago they announced their partnership and takeover of the brand.
The Times made the announcement in an article with what I thought was a perfect summation of the reactions I’ve seen online so far; “the app will inevitably draw equal parts praise and outrage”. You’ve got that right.
“the app will inevitably draw equal parts praise and outrage”
There are two very passionate yet opposing sides on this issue, and I think it’s worth unpacking both to get a better sense of where people are coming from, and how we should best approach the concerns over children’s health and weight. I’ll also throw my two cents in since this is my blog and that’s kinda what you’re here for, right?
Weight Watchers as a whole has been going through some rebranding, most recently changing their official name to WW rather than ‘Weight Watchers’ (though I don’t see anyone actually referring to it as “WW” in conversation). This is in an attempt to try and distance themselves from their long-standing association with weight loss and become more of a healthy lifestyle brand. There have been some mixed feelings about this from the public and health professionals alike. Some applaud the company’s efforts to promote healthy behaviours vs focusing on weight loss alone, but others feel this is solely a marketing move and that WW is still a diet and is going to cause the same damage that they feel WW always has. It’s important to note that the success stories that consistently include before and after pictures with details about how much weight a person lost using WW is still a regular occurrence on their website, as well as on the Kurbo website’s blog (except, you know, with 12-year olds). So any skepticism regarding WW’s change of heart and new weight-neutral approach is certainly warranted.
So, what are the arguments being made regarding whether or not this is a positive move that will likely improve the health of kids, or a sick and twisted plot to create lifetime yo-yo dieters and secure their next generation of customers?
On one side we have a lot of folks who are PISSED about WW launching an app targeted toward children. And it’s easy to see why. Some of them work in eating disorder treatment, where time and time again they’ve seen the harmful effects dieting has on people at a young age. While it’s true that not *everyone* who goes on a diet at some point in their lives will develop an eating disorder because of it, you’d be hard pressed to find an individual who develops an eating disorder that does not have it’s roots in dieting. Particularly now with the rise of eating disorders such as Orthorexia, and the recognition of anorexia even in people at higher weights, there is definitely valid concern coming from this group about promoting dieting apps for kids. In my practice as a Dietitian I consistently meet people who have struggled with chronic dieting since childhood, and rarely are they satisfied with their bodies or weights as adults. Since eating disorders are amongst the most fatal mental illness anything that can potentially increase their likelihood should be used with caution.
Now, we also have the opposite view that doesn’t really see a huge issue with helping kids make healthier choices. They believe that a little nutrition education goes a long way and teaching kids about healthy food choices is a great idea. They like that it’s kid-oriented, and isn’t focused on counting calories per-say. Instead, the traffic light system can demonstrate foods to eat more often vs foods to limit in a child-friendly way. In my experience as a Dietitian I’ve also seen firsthand the negative impacts of poor nutrition on kid’s health, including high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes being diagnosed in little ones under the age of 10. Here in Manitoba where I live we have the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in youth in Canada. Our rates are more than twice the national average. Many of these kids will have their lives shortened by the burden of chronic disease. It’s not unreasonable to feel like action needs to be taken.
Is an app like Kurbo a good idea? Should we be considering this as a legitimate intervention for healthy eating for kids?
Full disclosure, I do not hate food tracking apps in general. I think there’s a very good time and place for someone to get a sense of their daily food habits, and apps can make that very easy and accessible. I think Kurbo on the other hand has really missed the mark on this one.
So, what are the downsides of a weight loss app targeted at children?
Not only will Kurbo teach your kid about healthy eating, it’ll also give them one-on-one coaching to help them along the way. Unfortunately, their coaches have ZERO business telling anyone anything about health or nutrition. Their team of coaches are not Registered Dietitians, Pediatricians, Child Psychologists or anyone else who may know a little something about children’s health or nutrition. Nope, you’ve got yourself people like Alessandra, who has a degree in TOURISM MANAGEMENT? or Je’von and Brandon who studied business? Or Noha who has a background in Political Economics? Out of the 9 coaches highlighted on their website, only one has studied nutrition. These are the people Kurbo is charging parents a very pretty penny to coach their kids and teach them about nutrition? That’s more than a little concerning.
Adults being able to privately communicate with children and teens through this app is also leaving a door open for some potential predatory behaviours. Some kids may be particularly vulnerable due to low self-esteem and body insecurities which makes the whole thing feel that much more unsettling for me.
Many people who have spoken out about the Kurbo program have voiced concerns regarding the potential for this app to trigger eating disorders or disordered eating in children and teens. And it’s true that while not everyone who’s ever been on a diet will end up with an eating disorder, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has an eating disorder who has never been on a diet. Many people who have struggled with eating disorders also recall using food tracking apps to help fuel their disordered behaviours.
Now, the thing about eating disorders is we actually don’t really have a clear understanding of what exactly causes them, or why some people fall prey while others seem to avoid their clutch. This can make things challenging for people trying to improve healthy eating behaviours even in a very non-diet-y way, because the inherent risk of some people taking it too far is always there.
The Target Audience
Another serious concern for me is just simply the demographic Kurbo targets. Do 8 year-olds need to track the foods they eat? Is it even reasonable to expect an 8-year old to take any sort of responsibility for their body size? Kids are not responsible for purchasing household groceries, cooking and planning meals, or registering themselves for recreational activities. This is what parents are for. Much of the dialogue on the Kurbo website talks about taking the pressure off parents, and allowing kids the ability to handle their weight loss on their own (by being accountable to their Kurbo coach), not their caregivers. According to them this can lead to better child/parent relationships since parents no longer have to nag kids about their food and weight. I have to disagree that this is a smart approach.
My other concern with this type of program is the barrier created by the cost for the families that could potentially benefit from improving their nutrition. We know that children who grow up in lower-income households and experience issues like food insecurity are most at risk of having a higher BMI and developing chronic disease at a younger age than their more affluent peers. There are a number of reasons these children are at a disadvantage when it comes to their health, including the cost of nutritious foods, access to these foods in their home and community environment, the cost of putting them in sports or other activities, and the increased stress level that can be experienced by people living in poverty. These are systemic issues that cannot be fixed with an app. Many of the kids who do stand to benefit from a program that could help improve their health simply can’t afford it. The kids who will be using this app are the ones who have cell phones and parents who can afford to pay the monthly subscription fee. They’re also the families that can probably put their kids in hockey or soccer or gymnastics and are less likely to struggle with food insecurity.
What about the Science?
Kurbo claims to be “evidence-based”, citing research that has been done out of Stanford University. The link will take you to the Stanford Children’s Health Centre Pediatric Weight Control Program, which is a “family-based, group behavioral and educational program, which teaches lifelong healthy eating and exercise habits for overweight children, adolescents and their families”.
Now, this looks like a very reasonable and realistic program. However, this is NOT what the Kurbo app is actually doing. Kurbo is not family-based (tracking your own food intake into an app is actually a rather isolating activity), nor does it include weekly in-person meetings with other families. Perhaps the traffic light system is one component of the nutrition education these kids receive, however pretending these two programs are interchangeable is just ridiculous.
Some final thoughts…
I think a traffic light system as one component to teach and promote healthy eating for kids is probably reasonable, age-appropriate, and likely works well based on the research this app cites in it’s promotional materials. I also think that a huge component of the success of the Stanford Pediatric weight program is that it is family-based and involves a team of experts, which is something the Kurbo app just doesn’t offer.
It seems that whether you believe the app is good or evil depends on what you feel the function of the app really is. Is it simply trying to teach children about healthy eating in an age-appropriate way? Or is it a diet? Even food tracking apps for adults can easily be misused by some people who get too obsessive or who aren’t given any reliable nutrition guidance to go along with their tracking. These apps can be incredibly problematic and confusing for adults who aren’t given enough context to understand what their bodies need. I can only imagine the challenge an 8-year old might have.
I’ve seen some people sharing screenshots of some of the messaging they’re seeing when they try out the app and I’ve gotta say it seems very diet-y to me.
Healthy for the sake of being healthy: Can’t we just support kids eating better and moving more without focusing on their weight?
So no, I don’t believe that children should be using apps to track their food and exercise especially at these very young ages. I think healthy lifestyle interventions are so, so important, but should be family-based and teach a combination of food skills and hands-on physical activity in a setting that promotes positive food and body relationships. I also really don’t think kids need one more thing to stare at on their phone screens, nor should such young kids be expected to take sole responsibility for their body shape or size.
Unfortunately though, all of these things require a lot more resources (time, money, effort) than simply plugging food into an app. In the absence of quality publicly funded programming that addresses all of these things, I’m not entirely sure what the solution is. One thing I do know though, is that Kurbo probably isn’t it.
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About the Author:
Stephanie Hnatiuk is a Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. She believes good health doesn’t need to be complicated, and that you don’t need to be afraid have your cake and eat it too.