Weight Watchers, one of the oldest and most successful dieting companies, has just entered the youth market. Its new app and program, Kurbo, is designed for kids from ages 8-19. And it’s causing controversy.
There’s no question childhood obesity is a huge problem. According to the site State of Obesity, “ the national childhood obesity rate is 18.5%. The rate varies among different age groups and rises as children get older: 13.9% of 2- to 5-year-olds, 18.4% of 6- to 11-year-olds and 20.6% of 12- to 19-year-olds have obesity.”
Obviously, the American diet needs to change, and at an early age. But, are apps and programs for kids the answer?
The Idea Behind Kurbo
Apparently, Kurbo started with one mom, Joanna Strober, who wanted her teen son to lose weight. She researched the issues, decided there weren’t enough tools for kids and teens to encourage healthy habits, and came up with the idea for the app.
Later, Strober partnered with Thea Runyon, a lead behavior coach at the Stanford Pediatric Weight Control Program, to create Kurbo. Then, diet heavyweight Weight Watchers entered the picture, and Kurbo was launched.
The concept was timely: create one-on-one help for kids using their phones. Kurbo follows a simple stoplight food category system. Greenlight food is generally a fruit or veg, yellow light foods are carbs like pasta and rice, and red light foods are sugar and calorie-laden treats.
Each Kurbo customer is teamed up with a “coach” who meets with them remotely on a weekly basis. Kurbo is supposed to teach awareness and accountability. On its face, these are positive things for kids. But the reality is — it’s a diet app.
Why Diets Are Bad for Kids
No one questions that fast food, soft drinks, and processed snacks lead to poorer health both in childhood and into adulthood. But diets, at least for kids, are proven to be a bad idea.
A 2018 longitudinal study in Pediatrics, called Intergenerational Transmission of Parent Encouragement to Diet From Adolescence Into Adulthood, examined the weight and disordered eating habits of over 600 study participants from early teens into later life. Many of the study subjects had parents who pushed dieting. The results were striking.
“Exposure to parent encouragement to diet as an adolescent had long-term harmful associations with weight-related and emotional health outcomes in parenthood and was transmitted to the next generation. It may be important for health care providers to educate parents about the potential harmful and long-lasting consequences of engaging in encouragement to diet with their children,” the study said.
It cited higher risks for eating disorders (like constant dieting and binge eating) and conditions like obesity. Another probability — passing diet pressure on to their own children, 15 years after being exposed to dieting and parental diet pressures themselves as children.
And it had a cautionary message.
“…it may be important to examine at a societal level what messages were or are being sent to parents that influence them to engage in encouragement to diet with their children. For example, advertisements, dieting products, and other messages at a societal level may need to be targeted to reduce parent encouragement to diet and the cycle of transmitting weight values to the next generation,” the study concluded.
While Kurbo tries to market itself as a healthy eating habit app, experts aren’t convinced.
“The second you say you’re going to do something to combat childhood obesity, people are just going to assume it’s a great thing,” Kory Stotesbury, a California child psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders, told Outside magazine. “But that’s patently false. If Kurbo has the reach it desires—millions of kids—then it will be the initiation of eating disorders for many, and people will die.”
Jackie Shapin, LMFT, is an eating disorder specialist. She sees myriad problems concerning Kurbo’s methods.
“Dieting and labeling food as good or bad can be extremely shaming and is not going to positively impact others like Kurbo thinks it will,” Shapin tells Parentology. “The traffic light metaphor is setting kids up to judge, label, and think more rigidly. It’s also setting kids up to use food and diet as a way to dictate how they feel mood-wise.”
Kurbo is Costly and Results-Based
Kurbo claims it simply encourages healthier choices. It touts an initial consultation with a “coach,” followed by weekly 15-minute virtual sessions. And its coaches, at least on the Kurbo website, are a teen dream: young, highly-educated and diverse.
But look at the testimonials and it becomes clear Kurbo’s goal is weight loss. Story after story is of kids, some as young as eight years old, featuring the number of pounds they lost or their percentage BMI reduced. On that level, it doesn’t look much different from the regular Weight Watchers site Jenny Craig or Nutrisystem. In the end, it’s all about the scale.
Plus, this comes at a monetary cost. Kurbo has a monthly fee of about $69, with slight price reductions for longer participation. Kurbo tries to counter this by having employers cover Kurbo on work health insurance programs.
In addition, Kurbo’s claim that it’s just like the Stanford Pediatric program is shaky at best. Stanford’s program is highly personalized, involves entire families who meet in small groups weekly for six months, and has constant screening. Stanford’s program is an entire lifestyle change program; on its website it lists as goals for whole families:
- Identify and avoid high-calorie, low-nutrient foods
- Develop better exercise habits
- Reduce sedentary behaviors (activities that require little or no physical activity)
- Follow a healthy, balanced diet, even in difficult situations like family gatherings, holidays and parties
- Maintain a healthy weight over the long-term
That’s a far cry from three colors of stoplights and a weekly video chat.
A Diet by Any Other Name Is Still a Diet
To be fair, not everyone thinks Kurbo is a bad concept. ABC News reported some parents, particularly in unhealthier states like Alabama, thought Kurbo was helpful in getting their kids to eat better.
“The foods you eat, the foods you offer them, and then what we do as adults, especially showing them what we do and how we do it. If you only offer them junk, they’re only going to want to eat junk. If you show them a healthy diet, a variety, and introduce them to different foods, they have a better chance when they’re on their own I think,” father Nick Berry told ABC news.
In the end, though, Kurbo is still Weight Watchers (rebranded as WW), and Weight Watchers promotes precisely what its name implies. Tracking, categorizing, and thinking about food can lead quite easily to obsessive behaviors. Once started in childhood, those behaviors are tough to break.
“As an eating disorder specialist, and as an adult female, I’m very against what Weight Watchers is doing,” Shapin says. “The idea of dieting is not helpful or beneficial for any child to hear. Before outside influence impacts a child, they’re born to naturally use their hunger cues to guide them.”
Shapin explains, “Kids naturally listen to their bodies. They stop when they’re full and know when they’re hungry. Dieting disturbs this natural occurrence and can confuse our idea of hunger and fullness. Unfortunately, we can’t avoid hearing about calories, a number on the scale, and judging of food and bodies, but why start this on purpose, and so young.”