Weight Watchers Under Fire for Diet and Food Tracking App for Kids

The app called Kurbo is referred to as "rewarding and inspirational," but experts believe that it's irresponsible, if not flat-out dangerous.
kids eating carrots
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In her before picture, eight-year-old Sophie is slumping on a lounge chair, scrunching her face as she drinks from a styrofoam cup. But in her after photo, she's smiling brightly and standing tall, her hair casually tucked behind one of her ears. The difference, she says, is all the weight she's lost. "I don’t feel as tired at the end of the day," she says in her Success Story. "I can go outside and ride my bike. Also, I can focus so much better now!”


Carbs Are Not the Enemy

Sophie is one of nine kids who were selected to share their weight-loss triumphs or shrinking BMI numbers on the website for WW's—formerly Weight Watchers—newly launched Kurbo app. The successes range in age from 8-year-olds Sophie and Vanessa ("reduced BMI percentile 11 points") to 15-year-old Manny ("lost 46 pounds").

That Kurbo's website reduces nine children to sentence fragments about their still-developing bodies is only one of the criticisms that the app has faced in the days after its release. Although WW describes Kurbo as "a scientifically-proven behavior change program" for kids between the ages of 8 and 17, dietitians, nutritionists, and advocacy organizations have expressed concern that using the app could lead toward an unhealthy relationship with food, or even toward an eating disorder.

"According to recent reports from the World Health Organization, childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. This is a global public health crisis that needs to be addressed at scale," Kurbo co-founder Joanna Strober said in a statement. "As a mom whose son struggled with his weight at a young age, I can personally attest to the importance and significance of having a solution like Kurbo by WW, which is inherently designed to be simple, fun and effective."

Kurbo is based, in part, on the Pediatric Weight Control Program that was developed at Stanford University's Children's Health's Center for Healthy Weight. The app includes a way for its young users to track their food and activity, games focused around healthy eating, and a food categorization method called the "Traffic Light System," which separates foods into healthy "green" options, "yellow" foods like meat or dairy products that should be consumed more moderately, and "red" foods that should only be eaten occasionally. (Video coaching sessions are also available for $69 per month.)


But, no matter how many times that Kurbo refers to itself as "rewarding and inspirational," others believe that it's irresponsible, if not flat-out dangerous. "In my experience, with both kids and adults, food tracking can lead to obsessive behavior and restriction in susceptible people," registered dietitian and nutritional counselor Abby Langer told VICE. "Thinking of foods as 'good' or 'bad' can lead to guilt and shame around eating, because we often associate our self-worth with what we eat. If we eat 'bad' food, we're a bad person. A child on Kurbo is only allowed so many 'red' foods a week. What if they eat more? How is that likely to make them feel?"

Langer also said that one of her colleagues created a profile on Kurbo for a fictitious 14-year-old with a weight that would be considered low for a girl of her height. The fake Kurbo user's diet consisted only of mustard, celery, and water, and she also "logged" several hours of exercise on the treadmill. "The app told her how well she was doing in response," Langer said. "Yikes."

The National Eating Disorder Association detailed its many concerns about Kurbo in a lengthy statement that it released on Friday. "Asking kids to closely monitor and self-report everything they eat through an app with no in-person monitoring by a medical professional presents grave risks, including eating disorders, disordered eating and a potential lifetime of weight cycling and poor body image," the Association wrote. "Health is more than weight. An app-based program that emphasizes and celebrates weight loss is risky for this vulnerable population of children and adolescents at a time when their bodies are undergoing significant changes and are especially susceptible to harm."


According to Time, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) previously advised parents of several behaviors that were associated with both obesity and eating disorders in adolescents, a list that included being put on a diet and seemingly well-meaning remarks about losing weight. "Understanding that poor body image can lead to an [eating disorder], parents should avoid comments about body weight and discourage dieting efforts that may inadvertently result in EDs and body dissatisfaction," the AAP wrote.

And dietitian and nutrition counselor Abby Langer says that some of her clients' eating disorders were originally triggered by—you guessed it—being put on a diet as children. "An 8 year old tracking their food? Some adults can’t even handle the triggering and obsessive aspects of tracking everything they eat. Why subject a child to this sort of thing?," she wrote on her website. "In many people, tracking does lead to guilt and shame around eating. In vulnerable people, even kids, it can lead to disordered eating and eating disorders."

Despite some of the criticisms and concerns, we can all still hope that Kurbo's young "success stories" remain successful, months and years down the road. And we can also hope that other kids and teens will be able to find their own success—including accepting their own bodies—without using that app, period.