People Are Calling Out Weight Watchers for Encouraging Children to Start Dieting

On Tuesday, WW International (formerly known as Weight Watchers International), announced the launch of Kurbo by WW, an app designed to help children as young as eight years old "reach a healthier weight," according to a press release from WW.

The product has received mixed reviews, to say the least (the hashtag "#wakeupweightwatchers" is trending on Twitter). And while it’s true that healthy eating choices can have a positive impact on anyone's life—children included—some say the app may do more harm than good, arguing that it could encourage children to develop disordered eating habits.

Health spoke to experts to get the lowdown on the app—including any potential benefits, as well as the reason for all the backlash against it.

So, how does Kurbo work?

Kurbo uses a "Traffic Light System," according to the press release, which puts foods into three groups: green light, yellow light, and red light.

The premise is pretty straightforward: Green-light foods include fruits and vegetables, which children are encouraged to eat more of; whole grains and dairy are among the yellow-light foods, which the program says children should "be mindful of;" and red-light foods are sugary drinks and treats, which children are told to "gradually reduce but still include consumption of."

Kurbo also features an in-app messaging service, meditation exercises, and counseling sessions with a "coach." The app is free, but the consultations cost $69 a month. If a family opts for this option, Kurbo pairs the child with a coach who video chats with them for 15 minutes a week.

These coaches come from a variety of backgrounds and aren’t food coaches, Gary Foster, PhD, chief scientific officer at WW International, tells Health. “It is not a food coach. [It’s a] personal coach. They talk body positivity, how to deal with stress [and] stigma, [and] more mechanical things,” such as how to have a balanced diet, Foster says. FYI: Cynthia Sass, RD, a contributing editor at Health and nutritionist who has experience counseling obese children, warns against these "personal coaches": “It’s important to note that the health coaches aren’t registered dietitians or therapists,” Sass says.

Okay, but does Kurbo work?

 Kurbo's "Traffic Light System" is backed by "30 years of evidence-based scientific research," accordig to the program's press release. Kurbo's website also says the app was developed at Stanford University, and links to Stanford Children's Health's Pediatric Weight Control Program, "family-based, group behavioral and educational program, which teaches lifelong healthy eating and exercise habits for overweight children, adolescents and their families," per the program's website.

Julie Upton, RD, a San Francisco-based nutritionist, says "Traffic Light System" is used in other countries—and that it does work. “We [in the United States] don’t have something as simple as the 'Traffic Light System' on food packaging," she says. "It’s been shown to be effective.”

Keri Gans, a New York-based RDN, also says the "Traffic Light 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 says.

Kurbo's website also touts success stories from children who have done the program, featuring before-and-after photos. There are nine success stories currently on the site, all of which feature kids' first names, ages, photos, and weight loss stories. Sami, a 10-year-old girl featured on the site who lost 11 pounds, is quoted as saying, "Kurbo is made for kids…tailored for me." Another child, Robby, also 10, who lost 42 pounds, said, "my mom and I have gotten closer through eating healthier.”

Well, is Kurbo safe—and are there any longterm implications?

Again, the reviews are mixed here. Upton and Gans both say they applaud WW's efforts to help children maintain a healthy lifestyle. But not everyone agrees that this program, and especially assigning value to foods in this way, is safe. “Teaching children about ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ foods is not developmentally appropriate and can harm their relationship with food,” says Josée Sovinsky, RD, an Ottawa-based Health at Every Size dietitian. She tells Health that, instead, children should be encouraged to explore varied food groups and cooking skills.

Abby Langer, RD, a Toronto-based nutritionist, agrees and says Kurbo (and this "Traffic Light System" in general) may actually be harmful to their development and mental health. By making children follow the course of this program “you’re not giving kids the opportunity to establish a good relationship with food and their bodies," she says. Sovinsky adds that the system can perpetuate the idea that their own bodies can't tell them what and how much to eat—when it's something that they intuitively already know. "Children can intuitively determine how much food they need to eat through their hunger and fullness cues," Sovinsky says.

Another alarming aspect of the Kurbo program, according to nutritionists? The before-and-after photos of children who have tried it. Sass says these "transformation" photos present children witht he false conception that everyone will look like an "after" version of themselves by sticking to the program. “I cringe at the ‘success stories’ on the Kurbo website. Every one of them has an * that indicates ‘results are not typical.’ That’s a red light for me, no pun intended," she says. 

All of these factors, in the future, can lead to children forming an unhealthy relationhsip with food and their bodies, says Sass. "This can involve cycles of restriction followed by bouts of binge eating, in addition to a lot of guilt, struggle, and shame,” she says. 

The bottom line? While Kurbo may in fact lead to weight loss, according to some experts, others believe it may miss the mark when it comes to children's emotional wellbeing and their overall relationships with food.

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