WW are at it again.
WW (formerly Weight Watchers) recently launched their app Kurbo, a weight loss aid for children aged 8-17. Yes, you read that correctly, age EIGHT.
The app asks the child (or parent) to log the child's food intake every day and there is a messenger-type facility where the child is put in contact with a health coach.
Foods are divided into red, yellow or green, like the traffic light system on food packaging.
Green= "light foods", such as fruit and vegetables.
Yellow= lean proteins and pasta, which "are also good- you'll just watch your portions".
Red= candy and soda, "you don't have to give them up- just stop and think how to budget them in".
Your "health coach" (who is not a registered dietitican/nutritionist) can provide feedback on your diet and advice moving forward...I saw this screenshot online and had to share it- smooshed fruit instead of butter?? WTF?
Also, encouraging children to "budget" reds is essentially encouraging binge-eating behaviour. Save your treats and eat them all in one sitting/day- not healthy advice.
The app also asks children to answer questions about their "health goals" (bc 8 year olds have health goals...). One question asks, "which one is most important to you? Eat healthier, lose weight, make parents happy, get stronger and fitter, have more energy, boost my confidence, feel better in my clothes."
This is quite problematic in and of itself. Children shouldn't be dieting to make their parents happy or boost their confidence or feel better in their clothes. This question is not appropriate for children at all!
If a child is dieting to make their parents happy we have a huge issue. If the child is being forced into the programme by a parent, they aren't going to be into it and they may feel like they can't talk to anyone about their true feelings/experiences of it.
Also, I am unclear as to how this food tracking app could help one become stronger and fitter? It seems like another message saying "weight loss solves everything" (it definitely doesn't FYI).
Kurbo claims that "numerous scientific studies published in top journals have shown it is safe and effective for weight loss". Let's see...
Stice et al. (2017) studied 1272 adolescents and found that thin ideal internalization, body dissatisfaction and dieting/weight control behaviours increased risk of binge and purge-type eating disorders.
Patton et al. (1999) reported that dieting was the most important predictor of new eating disorders (based on 2000 participants).
Field et al. (2003) studied 8203 girls and 6796 boys aged 9-14 and found in their research that "for many adolescents dieting to control weight is not only ineffective, it may promote weight gain".
Rivera et al. (2016) reviewed 393 mobile apps which aim to support weight loss. They reported that " comercial mobile apps for weight loss lack important evidence-based features, do not involve healthcare experts in their development process and have not undergone rigorous scientific testing. This calls into question the validity off app's claims regarding effectiveness and safety".
Schoeppe et al. (2017) reviewed 25 apps aimed improving diet or increasing physical activity in children and adolescents. They noted that while functionality and aesthetics were good, engagement and information quality were both low.
Overall, I don't think the evidence is as pro-app as Kurbo/WW would like parents to believe!
For me, there are a few important issues with the app and its approach to "health":
Teaching children from age 8 that weight is the most important factor in being healthy is unhelpful and potentially damaging. Weight is not an accurate measure of health, and an app which focuses on weight for improving health does not portray this! We need to be teaching children that health is more complex than the number on a scale- teach them about food and movement and mental health!
Focusing on lowering body weight during puberty is not helpful. Adolescence is associated with so many changes, weight gain being a very common (and normal!!) occurrence. Weight loss is generally not recommended during childhood or adolescence, as these periods of life are for growth and development. Significantly cutting calories or reducing nutrition could lead to poorer health outcomes.
Adolescence is also typically a time when we start to become self-conscious and care what other people think of us and our bodies. Should we be telling teenagers, with all the changes already happening to their bodies and in their lives, that they need to go on a diet? It can be very damaging to mental health, particularly to self-esteem and body satisfaction.
Another big problem with this approach is it is not providing true health or nutrition education. Teaching young people to follow traffic light rules is not education! Diets have been using rules to keep people in the dieting cycle for decades. You stick to the rules for a while, can't keep to them long-term so gain weight, and then of course go back to the rules to lose weight again because you haven't been educated on nutrition/exercise outside of their rules. The rules perpetuate a binge/restrict cycle and a cycle of weight fluctuations, neither of which are conducive to health.
This app (and many others), require tracking of food intakes. This constant focus on food consumed does lead to preoccupation with food and diet, which can develop into disordered eating, and into a full eating disorder in around 1 in 4.
We know that dieting at a young age is a risk factor for the development of an eating disorder. It is estimated that over HALF of girls aged 9-10 are dieting already, and unfortunately over 40% of newly diagnosed anorexia cases are in girls aged 15-19. There must be concern that dieting apps such as Kurbo will exacerbate these figures.
What this issue comes down to is this: are we so concerned about having fat children that we are willing to risk their long-term physical and mental health?
This app is not going to solve childhood obesity- but it could leave your child obsessed with food and feeling worse about themselves.
We can and must do better for our children- Kurbo is not the one!
Lots of love,
Little O x