People are expressing their frustration with the app via the hashtag #WakeUpWeightWatchers.

By Allie Strickler
August 15, 2019
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Last year, Weight Watchers launched a huge rebranding effort to emphasize overall wellness, not just weight loss. WW (the brand's new moniker) now uses things like a WellnessWins program to reward members for building healthy habits and logging workouts, rather than just shedding pounds and restricting certain foods.

The rebrand drew mixed reactions from the public. But this week, WW is in hot water over its latest launch: Kurbo, a weight-loss app for kids.

Within a day of the app's launch, #WakeUpWeightWatchers started trending on Twitter with people calling out the brand for encouraging harmful eating behaviors in children. (Related: Do Fitness Apps Actually Help You Lose Weight?)

There's even a petition calling for WW to remove the app from its platform.

What Exactly Is Kurbo?

Kurbo is a "scientifically-proven" program designed to help kids and teens between 8 and 17 years old "reach a healthier weight," according to a press release from WW. The free app, derived from Stanford University's Pediatric Weight Control Program, asks kids and teens to track their eating behaviors via a "traffic light system." This means the app encourages kids to eat more "green light" foods (like fruits and veggies), stay mindful of portions of "yellow light" foods (like lean protein, dairy, and whole grains), and "gradually reduce but still include consumption of 'red light' foods" (like sugary foods and drinks), per the press release.

The free version of the app also includes recipe videos, games, and opportunities for kids and teens to learn about things like meditation and breathing techniques. Those who pay for the $69-per-month subscription can get access to weekly, one-on-one virtual video sessions with Kurbo coaches, who "come from a diverse range of professional backgrounds including counseling, fitness and nutrition-related fields," according to the press release. The free version doesn't appear to offer these coaching sessions at all.

When signing up for Kurbo, the app prompts you to identify yourself as either a parent/guardian or confirm that you're at least 13 years old to use the app without parental supervision (though there don't appear to be any stringent age-verification rules in place). Kurbo then asks for your height, weight, and gender, followed by questions on goals you're looking to set (options include "eat healthier", "lose weight", "make parents happy", "get stronger and fitter", "have more energy", "boost my confidence", and "feel better in my clothes") and how confident you feel about reaching those goals.  (Related: 10 Healthy Snacks to Help You Meet Every Nutrition Goal)

Why Are People So Upset About It?

In a statement for the press release, WW's chief scientific officer, Gary Foster, Ph.D., said Kurbo is meant to be "part of the solution to address the prevalent public health problem of childhood obesity." (Related: There Is a Serious Global Obesity Problem)

However, critics of the app argue that talking about weight with kids and teens isn't a productive way to address childhood obesity. "Telling a child to lose weight calls into question their very being," tweeted Nikki Estep, M.P.H., R.D., an eating disorder specialist. "Their weight becomes inextricably linked to their value and belonging."

"Children and teens need to hear 'I trust you to eat,' 'I trust your body to grow' (to whatever size)," Sarah Pannell, a licensed marriage and family therapist, said in her tweet. "This app teaches kids the opposite- 'listen to the app, you can't trust your appetite, or your body's natural growth.' Not okay, @ww_us #wakeupweightwatchers."

"I agree that childhood obesity is a problem. But what I DON'T agree with is this app," Sarah Sapora, a self-love mentor and wellness advocate, shared on Instagram. "I DON'T want weight loss to become gamified and for someone's understanding of how to have a 'healthful' relationship to food to be nurtured by an app."

Sapora then cited a 2016 report on obesity prevention from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advised doctors and families to focus on helping kids and teens develop healthier lifestyle behaviors, rather than engage in "weight talk."

There's plenty of science to back this up: Multiple studies show that weight-loss efforts geared toward kids and teens are linked to body image issues and disordered eating. In fact, one recent study showed that nearly half of about 100 participants reported feelings of guilt, fear, isolation, and/or obsession linked to using nutrition and fitness apps, especially those that focus on weight. (Related: The Best Workout Apps to Download Right Now)

However, Kurbo's co-founder, Joanna Strober, told Refinery29 that the app (both the free and paid versions) will alert families to signs of a developing eating disorder, like rapid weight loss. That said, the app is only as accurate as the information it's provided by the user. These stats can be concealed or distorted to avoid being flagged. Plus, secretive and misleading behaviors—like lying about eating and hiding uneaten food—are often associated with eating disorders, too.

Stober also said Kurbo's traffic light system is well-supported by research in promoting healthy weight loss (though most studies on this approach appear to involve adult participants, not children).

The Bottom Line

To Kurbo's credit, the app seems like it's trying to incorporate a holistic approach to kids' and teens' wellness with things like meditation tutorials and recipe videos. But experts reiterate that the focus on weight is present immediately, with the app's homepage reading: "Reach a healthier weight with Kurbo". Then there are the before-and-after pictures of teens and children depicting their weight loss. And as eating disorder specialist, Melanie Rogers, R.D. pointed out on Twitter, the app gives kids the option to choose "make parents happy" as one of their main goals. "Promoting the idea that parents' happiness/proudness is derived from accomplishments around weight is dangerous," said Rogers.

Childhood obesity is a problem. But as the American Academy of Pediatrics explained in its report on obesity prevention, addressing this public health issue is best accomplished by discouraging dieting and weight talk and encouraging healthy eating and lifestyle behaviors.

While Kurbo does make efforts to encourage such healthy habits, it also relies on an approach that inherently encourages young people to label their foods as "red", "green", or "yellow". Labeling foods in this way, or assigning them "good" or "bad" values can be a harmful way to think about nutrition, says Rebecca Scritchfield, R.D.N., author of Body Kindness.

"If we label our favorite foods as bad, when we do 'break down' and have a 'cheat meal,' it's usually followed by guilt that sends us into a shame spiral. It's not just that the food is bad, you often feel bad for eating it," Scritchfield told us in a previous interview. That shame spiral then "makes you less likely to engage in other healthy behaviors because you start losing respect for yourself," she explained.

Scritchfield's advice is to avoid policing foods—period. "When you start listening to your body and eating what you want in moderation, healthy foods taste even better and you stop feeling like a failure over enjoying the foods that bring you pleasure."

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