Let me start with this: it saddens me to my core that I have to write this article. In a time of unmarked progress for so many marginalized groups, we have such a long way to go in the realm of accepting that healthy bodies have always, will always, and should always look different on different people. But hearing the news this week about a new program marketed to children from WW (formerly Weight Watchers), I just could not stay silent.
Kurbo is a weight loss program for kids and teens, which recently paired with WW. Kurbo uses a “stop light” system to let its users, who are between the ages of 8 and 17 years old, know which foods to eat more often. For “green light” foods, or fruits and vegetables, users have free reign. For “yellow light” foods, like grains and proteins, kids are encouraged to “watch [their] portions”. And “red light” foods, which Kurbo’s website exemplifies by naming soda and candy, are items to “stop and think how to budget them in”. The Kurbo app says that in order for their plan to be effective, kids must track all foods they eat, daily. Once you search for a food, the app lets you know whether it is a green, yellow, or red food. The user is then asked to gauge how many portions they ate, using the size of their hand as 1 portion. Your home screen tracks the number of “green” foods you’ve eaten, and your activity, while also “counting down” as you burn through your allotted number of “red” foods. In my exploration of this app, the amount you are encouraged to limit to does not change based on age or BMI; there were also no indicators to let you know if you had not eaten enough.
According to Kurbo’s video available on their website, their app has a social media function, where kids can compete in challenges. One example of these challenges is aiming to have “a red free day”. The video also names parents needing to be the “food police” as one of the challenges in combating “childhood obesity”. Apparently, Kurbo is helping kids internalize this “food police” voice via their app, so parents no longer need to fulfill this role.
I am a Registered Dietitian specializing in eating disorder treatment, and I can sum up my feelings about this program in one short sentence: I am appalled. In “the biz” we have an all encompassing term for following rules like limiting portions, food avoidance, and super-loading fruits and vegetables. We call them “eating disorder behaviors”. Kurbo breaks the number one rule of helping people develop a healthy relationship with food. Its entire premise is based on a “good food/bad food” mentality. Call it whatever you like, but calling these categories by different names does not change the impact it has on developing minds. WW is a company trying to change the way consumers see them as a weight-focused program by changing their name. But what hasn’t changed is WW’s continued focus on exactly what they’re known for — watching our weight. WW came under some fire from the anti-diet community, not only for their not-so-sneaky name change and rebrand, but for an earlier attempt to lure young potential dieters into its clutches when it announced last February that, come summer, it would offer its programs to teens for free. Now, following in the footsteps of Big Tobacco, WW has helped the diet industry begin marketing to children with its new partnership with Kurbo.
Kurbo started when its co-founder and CEO, Joanna Strober, feeling distrubed by her son’s weight, began researching weight loss for kids. Kurbo’s website states she “discovered that there were no safe, simple and effective tools to help”. Well, Joanna — the reason for that is that kids should never be put on a weight loss program. Let me say that again: there is no reason, ever, for a child to be placed on a diet. The reasons for this are so backed by evidence, it is bad practice to do anything else. Adolescents who diet are more likely to develop eating disorders than those who do not. And in case you haven’t heard, eating disorders are #1 on the list of mortality from psychiatric illness. In addition to increasing risk for eating disorders, dieting can have negative health implications, and despite what diets promise they’ll achieve, are better predictors of higher BMI and weight gain later in life. Furthermore, restriction of food intake is the greatest predictor of a binge. So efforts to control one’s eating are most likely to result in extreme swings in the opposite direction. This would be especially true in children, whose bodies are using very large amounts of energy on a daily basis to keep them functioning, growing, and developing.
Joanna will tell you that Kurbo is “not a diet”, but let’s debunk that, shall we? A diet is defined as “a special course of food to which one restricts oneself, either to lose weight or for medical reasons”. Already, debunked. To make matters worse, and severely more threatening to all childrens’ wellbeing, this app glorifies its participants who have restricted well enough to lose weight by calling them “success stories”. These adolescents’ faces and bodies are plastered all over the Kurbo website, and have also been circulating around social media as WW has begun marketing the new partnership.
Let me make one thing very clear: if a child is losing weight, it is a very big red flag that something may be wrong.
The reason our culture’s children feel more secure when they lose weight, is because they live in a dangerously fatphobic society. Thankfully, because of all the progress that has been made in recent decades due to the work of incredible brave voices, when our children come out as gay, we do not ask them to be “less gay” so as not to upset those who are homophobic. We would be deeply saddened to hear that a child of color lightened their skin to fit in with the rest of their class and avoid teasing. Let us not leave the children marginalized for the size of their bodies by the wayside as we progress forward as a culture.