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Experts weigh in on dangers of Kurbo, the Weight Watchers app aimed at kids

Dieticians tell us why the controversial app is so damaging

Last week, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers – now styled as WW – introduced a new app aimed at helping children and teens aged 8-17 (those under the age of 13 are required to sign up with a parent) “reach a healthier weight.” The app, Kurbo, is based around a pediatric obesity program developed by Stanford University which tracks how much users eat, using a traffic light system to grade how ‘healthy’ (avocado is given the red light) the food and amount consumed is. 

“Alongside a distinguished group of leaders in pediatric health and nutrition, we've carefully developed this platform to be holistic, rewarding and inspirational so kids, teens and families get the tools and guidance they need to manage their environment and build and sustain healthy habits,” Gary Foster, PhD, chief scientific officer at WW said of the app. 

The launch very quickly sparked backlash on social media, with everyone from eating disorder researchers and former dieters to many, many dieticians speaking out about the damaging potential of the app to promote unhealthy relationships with food for young children. While, as of Thursday morning, over 86,000 people have signed a petition asking WW to remove the app. 

“The majority of eating disorder clients that I work with have had a history of dieting. For most, it started with Weight Watchers. Suggesting that @KurboHealth will promote health and not disease is missing EVERY MARK. #wakeupweightwatchers” tweeted registered dietitian Anna Sweeney.

“The new Weight Watchers app for children is an eating disorder breeding ground. WW isn’t concerned with healthy children who have healthy relationships to food. They’re concerned with dieting children who turn into dieting adults. This isn’t about health. It’s about business.” tweeted Julie Murphy author of the novel Dumplin’ which was adapted into a film by Netflix last year.

Despite this outpouring of criticism, WW dismissed the possibility that Kurbo could trigger any dangerous behaviours. “People are not categorising these foods as good or bad,” Gary Foster, WW’s chief science officer, told The Atlantic on Tuesday. “It’s not leading to any eating disorders or anything that approximates eating-disorder thinking.”

The science, however, does not appear to be on Mr Foster’s side. There have been strong links made between dieting and the development of eating disorders, and while WW has been positioning Kurbo as a healthy eating tool rather than one for weight loss, those in the field are not convinced. “Kurbo is a diet. Anything that labels or attempts to restrict food is,” says dietician Amanda Boyer MS, RDN, CD. “It boasts weight loss.” 

In a study published in the British Medical Journal in 1999, researchers at the University of Melbourne collected data on nearly 2,000 teenagers over three years and found that dieting is the most important predictor of new eating disorders. A 2003 study by researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University surveyed the eating habits of nearly 17,000 kids over three years. Those who reported dieting were up to 12 times more likely to have reported binge eating, compared to those who didn’t diet.

In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics conducted research into obesity and eating disorders in adolescents. From their findings, they advised that paediatricians “encourage families not to talk about weight,” “discourage dieting,” and make sure not to “encourage body dissatisfaction or focus on body dissatisfaction as a reason for dieting.” Kurbo asks users to select a goal from a list including ‘lose weight,’ ‘feel better in my clothes,’ and ‘make parents happy,’ alongside options such as ‘boost my confidence’ and ‘eat healthier.’  

“It’s a willful disregard of the research,” says Evelyn Tribole MS RDN CEDRD-S, a dietician who specialises in eating disorders, about WW. “I think it’s a form of institutional narcissism to disregard a whole body of research and the authoritative body saying that we shouldn’t be putting kids on diets or talking about weight.” Tribole also refutes the research the company is claiming backs up their program. “They are quoting research that is really flawed. Most weight loss studies don’t include unintended consequences like eating disorders and the absence of data does not mean absence of risk. We in the eating disorder community are absolutely outraged about this.” 

As an eating disorders specialist, Tribole says that many of the people she works with can track their eating disorders back to childhood and the first diet they went on, something many dieticians have found. “Kurbo is without a doubt a scary thing to those of us who are trained in nutrition and believe in science-based practices,” agrees Amanda Boyer who also works with people suffering from eating disorders. “A good portion of my clientele were sent to Weight Watchers meetings as a child, teen, or young adult.” 

Both Tribole and Boyer stress that children during the stage of the development that Kurbo is targeting (8-17) are supposed to be growing and weight gain is a normal part of that growth. “You could actually get permanent stunting of growth if you’re not getting enough to eat,” says Tribole. Boyer agrees. “Restricting their intake and striving for weight loss will only hinder them both physiologically and psychological development, ” she says. “It may not be all children but some will develop disordered relationships with food and body because of using Kurbo and that risk is enough for me to warn against it.”

Helen West, registered dietitian and co-author of Is Butter a Carb? agrees with this. “Dieting is a risk factor for both the development of eating disorders and for weight gain over time. The weight centric focus of Kurbo is unlikely to help children develop a healthy relationship with food or their bodies,” she says. “By telling children that their health (and worth) is tied to their size and weight, we are encouraging unrealistic body standards and appearance-based comparisons – which are both well-known ED triggers in susceptible people.”

“The research is there, eating disorders are deadly,” says Evelyn Tribole. “To totally disregard the data is unconscionable. Shame on you is what I say to Weight Watchers.” 

So instead of using Kurbo or other weight tracking programs, what can parents do to help their kids stay healthy and happy? West says health promotion for children should be done as a family with no emphasis on weight loss. “The focus should be on health behaviours (such as eating more veg or being involved with cooking) and fostering healthy body image,” she says. “If people have real concerns about their child's weight and health, they should be seeking the help of healthcare professionals that understand ED risk and who will assess this as part of the process.”