Health

Can a Diet App for Children Ever Be Good?

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How WW (Weight Watchers) missed the mark with Kurbo

Christina Passarella
Photo: EMS-FORSTER-PRODUCTIONS/Getty Images

I’I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year reading about, thinking about, and, eventually, speaking out about diet culture. Decades of dieting and disordered eating, starting before I’d even hit puberty, have left me hostile toward diets and health fads, particularly those that promote themselves under the guise of “wellness.”

There’s been a real backlash against fad diets and fat-shaming over the last few years, driven in large part by my fellow millennials (I hope will add the “wellness” industry to the list of businesses we’ve destroyed). So, I cannot believe that I have to say what I’m about to say:

Please don’t give your eight-year-old a dieting app.

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Kurbo is an app-based diet program from WW, formerly Weight Watchers, that is targeted toward children between the ages of eight and 17. When I first learned about Kurbo when it launched in August 2019, I was a bit…concerned. And I wasn’t alone. In the weeks and months since its launch, WW and Kurbo have received a ton of backlash in the media, as well as criticism from parents, health care professionals, dietitians, and eating disorder experts. Currently, there’s a Change.org petition asking for the app’s removal, and as of now, more than 112,000 people have signed it.

WW began a rebranding campaign in 2018 in an attempt to change its decades-long exclusive focus on weight loss. Their program now claims to take a multifaceted and holistic approach to wellness. To that end, in a press release put out in 2018, WW announced their new name and added several features to their website and app. These changes include personalized coaching, behavior tracking and modification features, and in-app groups to foster the sense of community once found in the meetings that were a cornerstone of their program for decades. They also created partnerships with Aaptiv, an app that lets you take a variety of prerecorded fitness classes from your phone, and Headspace, an app for guided meditation.

All of this sounds pretty great, and I definitely dipped my toes back in when I first read about what the new program had to offer. After all, I had been very “successful” on Weight Watchers many times in the past, and I knew that their program worked for me — at least in terms of immediate weight loss. But ultimately, WW is still a diet program and, unfortunately, it seems Kurbo is as well.

Around the time Weight Watchers became WW, they also acquired Kurbo. According to its website, Kurbo was developed by a mother who was trying to help her son reach a healthy weight — in partnership with Thea Runyan, the lead behavior coach at Stanford’s Pediatric Weight Control Program.

The Stanford Pediatric Weight Control Program was established in 1999 and uses a red, yellow, and green light method to inform participants about healthy food choices. This educational aspect of the program takes place alongside regular appointments that a subject family makes to their team of doctors, dietitians, and behavioral therapists over a 25-visit, six-month program. It assumes (actually, it requires) family participation — at least one parent or guardian must actively participate with the child.

Additionally, there are strict qualifications for enrollment based on body mass index (BMI), which is not without its own well-deserved criticisms. A child must have a BMI above the 95th percentile (or above the 85th percentile with an obesity-related illness) to qualify for enrollment.

As you would imagine, the Stanford Pediatric Weight Control Program is intensive and not intended for most children. And at $3,500 for 25 sessions, this program is not accessible for the average family.

Kurbo’s pricing structure starts at $294 for a six-month plan. Like the Stanford program on which many of its methods are based, Kurbo uses a red, yellow, and green light system for evaluating foods. In Kurbo’s plan, green-light foods are those that you can eat plenty of, such as fruits and vegetables, while yellow-light foods are ones that you should have in moderation like meat and pasta, and red-light foods are ones you should try to eat sparingly, like candy and soda (and apparently dried figs). The system aims to teach kids about food quality and quantity without eliminating any specific foods from their diets.

A subscription to Kurbo includes personalized fitness and healthy-eating plans, shopping lists, and weekly check-ins with a personal coach. Additionally, the app and website host a blog filled with ideas for physical activity, tips for packing a healthy lunch, and suggestions for meal planning.

Despite my wariness, it’s important to note that there is a legitimate reason why an app like Kurbo would exist in the first place. As of 2016, 13.9% of two- to five-year-olds, 18.4% of six- to 11-year-olds, and 20.6% of 12- to 19-year-olds in the United States were classified as obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. This isn’t a problem of aesthetics — poor diet, with the myriad resulting illnesses, including obesity, is a major contributor to mortality in the United States.

Additionally, children who live in poverty are more likely to experience diet-related illnesses, food insecurity, or both at the same time. In general, poor children are more likely to live in food deserts where their families’ access to healthy foods is limited. And even when healthy foods do become more accessible, unless that accessibility is accompanied by education and support for behavior modification, it’s unlikely to change people’s shopping and eating habits.

Kurbo could be an excellent tool for parents to use to manage their children’s diets and health behaviors. The Kurbo app, while certainly not cheap, is significantly less expensive than the Stanford program and could potentially make an effective program available to more families. In this regard, Kurbo had real potential and could have been an important step in educating families about healthier lifestyles and food options and supporting their health goals.

It’s problematic to put the responsibility for weight management and behavior modification on a child.

The app has even reported some success. A 2018 article by Kurbo co-founder Thea Runyan tracked 80 participants over a three-month period in 2014, and found Kurbo to be a useful and effective pediatric weight loss tool. (Unfortunately, neither WW nor Kurbo has answered my numerous requests for additional data.)

But here’s the problem: Kurbo is focused on children, and not their parents. Children, particularly those on the younger end of Kurbo’s user age range, may enjoy planning meals, but they are probably unable to dictate their families’ shopping habits or budget. Ideally, the coaching feature would be for parents, but family involvement, while encouraged, doesn’t seem to factor heavily into the program itself.

It’s problematic to put the responsibility for weight management and behavior modification on a child, even a child on the older end of Kurbo’s user range. Certainly, children, especially teens, should be learning personal responsibility, but attitudes and behaviors around food choices are modeled for them from birth, often by parents who have their own struggles with food or who do not have the time or resources to dedicate to family diet and exercise routines.

Kurbo encourages kids to take control of their own health habits and behaviors when they actually have very little control over the related variables. Children in this age range are still growing — physically, emotionally, and intellectually. So when that lack of control results in a failure to lose weight or maintain weight during growth, children may be left with feelings of shame and guilt for not being successful.

I genuinely wish that someone would have noticed my attempts at dieting as a child. I wish that at some point someone would have taught me better habits that were divorced from any need or desire to lose weight. I had to come to this point on my own after so many years of living in service of thinness. I can’t begin to imagine how much harder that would have been if I had been actively encouraged to lose weight through gamified dieting and addictive smartphone apps.

I don’t want to see other kids grow up with the same destructive beliefs about their bodies that I had. And while I’m not a parent and generally shy away from offering advice to those who are, I think this is an exception that bears repeating: Please don’t give your eight-year-old a dieting app.

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