Last month, Weight Watchers, now called WW, doubled down on their campaign to promote weight loss in teenagers, announcing a new dietary tracking app for children ages 8 – 17 years old.
The new app — Kurbo — is based on Stanford University’s pediatric obesity program. The app uses what is called the “Traffic Light Approach” which, according to Allure, “categorizes foods as either red (processed, sugar-laden foods like candy and soda), yellow (lean protein and pasta), and green (veggies and fruits).” It’s also specifically for kids.
Last February, WW was heavily scrutinized over creating a free weight loss program specifically for teenagers, which many felt placed too much emphasis on dieting and weight loss for young teens.
The launch of Kurbo is reigniting a firestorm of criticism.
“We have a public health problem, and we need public health solutions. Our population is succumbing to chronic disease which is threatening the safety and vitality of our country.”Dr. Julie Foucher
How the app works
Children as young as eight-years-old can download the “fun to use” Kurbo app to their smartphone for free. Children thirteen and older do not need parental approval. When they sign up, they enter their name, height, weight and gender. Then they choose a goal and rank them by significance. Goal options listed on Kurbo are, “eat healthier, lose weight, make parents happy, get stronger and fitter, have more energy, boost my confidence or feel better in my clothes.”
The child’s profile page charts their body mass index (BMI), a formula based on their weight and height. Then, these adolescent members track their daily food intake in Kurbo’s free app based on the “traffic light system” of either green (good), red (bad), or yellow (in moderation).
For $69 a month, the child can get a digital coach to accompany the free app, which is strongly encouraged. The adolescent user can watch success stories like eleven-year-old Emilie, who “dropped 25 pounds in five months.”
America is facing an obesity crisis
Nearly everyone in health and wellness agrees that America is facing a large scale, systematic obesity epidemic.
“We have a public health problem, and we need public health solutions,” Dr. Julie Foucher told Morning Chalk Up. “Our population is succumbing to chronic disease which is threatening the safety and vitality of our country. Changing this trajectory is not going to happen one-on-one in doctor’s visits. We need to enact change at the population level, and at least on first glance, this app seems like a step in the right direction.”
But not everyone agrees that the Kurbo App will solve this issue.
Jennifer Anderson, MSP, RD, tried the Kurbo App herself and said that after just a few entries, as a grown adult, she felt guilty for eating food labelled red. “A veggie burger was a ‘yellow’ food – and had to be ‘careful’ of my portions. It’s all weight loss with no consideration of actual nutrition needs,” she wrote on Instagram. “Within 5 minutes of using the app and entering a day of food, I felt guilty for tracking a red light food.”
According to Kurbo, an apple is a green food but applesauce is a red food. Cheese is a red food, but Mac N’ Cheese is a yellow food. Peanut butter is red, so is sweetened almond milk. One fifth of an avocado is yellow, as are scrambled eggs.
“Within 5 minutes of using the app and entering a day of food, I felt guilty for tracking a red light food.”Jennifer Anderson, MSP, RD
The traffic light system is not new. Julie Upton, RD, wrote that the traffic light system is used in other countries, even on food packaging, and that it works. Keri Gans, a New York-based RDN, said the system has its merits, “The ‘Traffic Light System’ has been around for a very long time and is one of the most effective and well-researched tools for helping kids, teens, and families learn healthy eating habits,” she said.
Adee Cazayoux, CEO of Working Against Gravity, agrees. “I appreciate how the traffic light system is avoiding morality words like ‘good’ and ‘bad foods’ as well as the integration of mindfulness through breathing exercises. It seems that they are also trying to focus on reinforcing healthy patterns and progress over perfection – all things I stand behind.”
While the traffic light system seems like a great interface to teach children how to make informed health decisions, there are other factors that the children using this app will have to face. How will they feel, emotionally, if they eat too many red foods in one day? What if they do not meet their goal of having looser clothing or making their parents happy with their weight? And, how is a child supposed to feel logging a red food that their parents or grandparents are serving for dinner? What do they do if they’re at a sleepover?
“I completely agree that for kids and teens, parents or caregivers should be involved in facilitating and monitoring dietary changes, but unfortunately in many cases the parents are in the same boat as the kids. This app seems like a solution that could be used as an education tool for entire families,” Foucher told the Morning Chalk Up.
Emphasis on weight loss misses the point of health
But there are others that think the app is dangerous and destined to instill eating disorders into the kids that use it. In an article in Outside, Kory Stotesbury, a California child psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders, writes “The second you say you’re going to do something to combat childhood obesity, people are just going to assume it’s a great thing. But that’s patently false,” he says. “If Kurbo has the reach it desires — millions of kids — then it will be the initiation of eating disorders for many, and people will die.”
In a letter to her younger self, Games athlete Kenzie Riley opened up about how joining Weight Watchers at 15-years-old developed an unhealthy relationship with dieting which led to an eating disorder.
“When your mom joins Weight Watchers, you’ll do it with her. It will be fun at first. You’ll start losing weight, and you will love this feeling. But it’s going to become addictive, and you love the rush of controlling your weight, so you’ll start bingeing and purging.”
“I believe it is a parents job to model what healthy eating looks like, that’s lazy as parents to use an app to teach their kids.”Carleen Mathews
Eating disorders are the third most common chronic condition in adolescents, after obesity and asthma, according to a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The focus should be on a healthy lifestyle rather than on weight,” the study said, which also admitted that dieting was the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder.
The numbers are such that, in 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued guidelines advising doctors and families to avoid discussing weight loss or dieting at all with children, and instead to focus on healthy lifestyles.
Games athlete Carleen Mathews, who has vocalized her history with eating disorders before discovering CrossFit, told the Morning Chalk Up, “I believe it is a parents job to model what healthy eating looks like, that’s lazy as parents to use an app to teach their kids.”
The end cut is this. It will not be WW or an app that changes the rates of childhood obesity. It will not be any one doctor in the sea of doctors, or one nutritionist. It will not be any single thing. Instead, it will require an systematic overhaul of all the things.
“Addressing childhood obesity in a safe and effective way will require nothing short of an overhaul of culture and food policy change,” says Stotesbury. “Not a dieting app for kids.”