On Nutrition

It’s nothing you haven’t seen before. A food and activity tracker that tells you which foods are OK to eat. Client testimonials come with “before” and “after” photos and declarations of pounds lost. You’ll find a “results not typical” disclaimer in the fine print. Only this time? Those before-and-after photos are of children as young as 10.

Last month, WW — the company formerly known as Weight Watchers — unveiled its Kurbo app for kids ages 8 to 17. This raised a number of red flags among dietitians, therapists and doctors. I’ll explore some of the claims WW is making about Kurbo, and how they stack up to concerns from the experts.

Claim: Kurbo is “scientifically proven”

WW’s claim that Kurbo is a “scientifically proven program” may be overstated. “They are cherry-picking data to make the app look harmless to concerned parents who desperately want to help their kids,” said Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN, author of “Body Kindness.” “For example, research was not conducted on their own app’s potential usefulness or harms, and they did not cite other studies on apps in their ‘scientific evidence.’”

Much of Kurbo is based on the Traffic Light Diet, which has been researched, but only in clinical settings. Because these programs have many components, it’s not clear if the Traffic Light Diet itself is actually helpful. Regardless, Scritchfield points out that in 2016 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) said children should not be placed on diets and the focus for kids’ health should not be on weight loss because of its documented association with eating disorders and weight gain.

The Kurbo FAQs include the claim that 85% of those who completed the program successfully lost weight and/or reduced their BMI, demonstrating a clear weight-loss focus at odds with the AAP. But there’s no mention of how much weight was lost or whether it was maintained.

“Not only are attempts at weight loss unsustainable for the majority of people, they come with a high risk of disordered eating, emotional and physical body trauma — weight cycling, body shaming, malnourishment, disconnection from one’s intuitive body signals,” said Haley Goodrich, RD, of INSPIRD Nutrition. “Children are still growing rapidly and to deprive them of adequate nourishment can have lifelong ramifications. Experiencing weight stigma — or anti-fat bias — has been linked to many of the same conditions that ‘obesity’ is traditionally blamed for — increases in risks of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and mortality, as well as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.”


Claim: Kurbo is not about dieting

WW claims Kurbo promotes wellness, not dieting, yet Kurbo’s marketing focuses on pounds lost as much as it does eating more vegetables. The testimonials on the app include one from a sixth grade girl whose main motivation was to look like her “teeny-tiny friends.” Another testimonial described a 14-year-old girl bonding with another Kurbo user over not being able to eat cheese. Kids choose from a list of goals that include “eat healthier” and “have more energy,” but also “lose weight” and “make parents happy.” The idea that a child needs to change their body to please their parents is alarming.

“Weight Watchers was my first diet at 12 years old and my last diet at 37. I struggled with 25 years of yo-yo dieting and disordered eating in between,” said Michelle May, MD, founder of AmIHungry.com. “Restriction promotes feelings of deprivation, cravings, obsession, bingeing, guilt, and weight cycling. Dieting in children starts this cycle even earlier.” She says she’s concerned that the fact the Kurbo app is free is WW’s attempt to hook the next generation of yo-yo dieters. “As a physician, I liken that to giving kids cigarettes and creating customers for life.”

The Kurbo app features games designed to train kids which foods are green (apples, broccoli, nonfat milk, water, black coffee), yellow (baked chicken breasts, seafood, unsweetened cereal, low-fat cheese) and red. While some red foods objectively are lower in nutrition — French fries, soda, chips, ice cream — it’s concerning that many nutritious foods such as raisins, peanut butter, almonds, avocados and chia seeds are also “red labeled,” and that an animated video teaches kids that while some red foods may seem healthy, they’re not.

“Tracking and counting every bite is not the most accurate sense of what your body needs, it’s disordered,” Goodrich said. “Giving foods a ‘red light’ isn’t mindful, it’s fearmongering. Sharing before and after photos of kids who have lost weight isn’t motivating, it’s shame inducing.”

Scritchfield also points out the concerning animation of a “fitness raisin” on a hamster wheel chasing a carrot. “I think the app is a training tool for disordered eating, body shame and anxiety about food.”

Claim: Kurbo promotes health

I could get behind Kurbo if it encouraged healthful habits like nutrition, enjoyable physical activity, sleep and stress-coping skills for all kids, regardless of weight. But as it stands, Kurbo encourages those things only for some kids, entangling them in a weight-loss focus and the very “good food, bad food” dichotomy that I help my adult clients untangle every day.

“Of course, WW denies that it is a diet, but logging red, yellow and green light foods is definitely a diet,” May said. “No matter how they try to disguise it, this is not about health. The link between dieting, disordered eating and eating disorders is clear, and we shouldn’t be risking children in this gigantic experiment.” She said giving kids a weight-loss app reinforces the cultural message that their bodies are flawed and that a diet will fix them. “We need to help children develop a healthy relationship with physical activity — otherwise known as play — and food that includes all foods without logging in a piece of birthday cake or being made to feel guilty for having ice cream with their friends.”