08/16/2019 11:10 EDT | Updated 08/16/2019 16:50 EDT

Weight Watchers Under Fire For Kurbo, Its Weight Loss App For Teens

Many critics have said Kurbo may encourage an unhealthy relationship with food.

The company formerly known as Weight Watchers has come under fire for the U.S. launch this week of its “healthy eating” app marketed to teenagers. 

Kurbo by WW is a nutrition and weight loss app designed for children between the ages of eight and 17. Its stated purpose is to fight childhood obesity and encourage healthy eating, but advocates worry that it won’t work — and, more importantly, that it will teach kids harmful ideas about weight and health.

The app has not launched in Canada, a WW rep told HuffPost Canada in an email. The company does “plan to expand globally in the future,” but there isn’t an immediate date set for a Canadian launch.

WW added that “studies show that behaviour-based weight management programs do not cause eating disorders. In fact, they provide kids with tools to make balanced food choices and manage their weight in a healthy way.”

There was a swift backlash to the app, with #WakeUpWeightWatchers trending on social media, an online campaign to shut the app down, and an outpouring of criticism from nutrition experts.

Lisa Rutledge, a registered dietitian who works in Montreal, said when she first heard about the app, her initial reaction was “horror.”

“I was flabbergasted that anybody would think we should put children on diets,” she told HuffPost Canada.

The app is meant to encourage health, but in her opinion “it’s going to do the exact opposite,” by getting kids to “hyper-focus” on what they eat, to label foods as good or bad, and to connect the concept of health directly to body weight.

“It shocked me that anybody thought this would be a good idea.”

How Kurbo works

The app doesn’t forbid any foods, but instead divides them into three different categories. Whereas nutrition apps for adults might include a food’s calories and its amount of protein, cabs and fats, Kurbo uses traffic lights as a guide. Green light foods “are great to eat anytime,” while yellow ones require portion control and red ones require users to “stop and think.” 

Screenshot / Kurbo by WW

The traffic light system “is one of the most effective and well-researched tools for helping kids and teens learn healthy eating habits,” WW told HuffPost Canada, adding that it’s based on research from Stanford’s Pediatric Weight Control Program. The app also offers the option for virtual coaching.

Why so many people are doubtful

Many experts disagree with the assessment that the traffic light system is a healthy way for kids to think about food. Eating disorder advocacy groups point out that dieting is often a precursor to disordered eating

A 2016 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that teens who diet won’t get healthier. Dieting is so ineffective that girls who dieted in grade nine were three times more likely to be overweight by grade 12 than girls who didn’t diet. Beyond that, girls who dieted at a “moderate” level were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder; girls who severely restricted their eating were 18 times more likely.

“Our body can’t be tricked into eating less,” Rutledge said, pointing to the fact that diets overwhelmingly fail. ”If we’re eating too few calories, that’s not sustainable and we will eventually end up gaining that weight back for so many psychological and physiological reasons.”

Canada’s National Eating Disorder Information Centre has also condemned the app, writing that “children deserve better than to be body-shamed by multinational organizations.”

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Studies show that dieting is often a precursor to eating disorders in teens.

Another, more basic problem with the app is that it’s not in line with the way many kids and young teens think, Rutledge said. “Children don’t think like adults do. They have black and white thinking,” she said. “If something is a yellow food, it’s very hard for children to understand what that means.”

What this will likely lead to, she explains, is that the kids using the app will begin to label food as “good” or “bad” depending largely on how many calories they contain. This isn’t a healthy way for anyone to approach food, she said — but especially kids who aren’t finished growing.

“Children have to gain weight to be healthy,” Rutledge said. “And when we encourage growing children to eat below their needs, we’re really encouraging stunted growth. We’re setting them up with a really unhealthy relationship with food, when their bodies are going to grow no matter what.”

It’s a problem that the idea of gaining way is seen as harmful even when it’s healthy, she added: “our society is so fatphobic that we’re even scared of growing children’s bodies.”

A healthier approach

What kids actually need in order to be healthy, Rutledge says, is to hone and maintain their intuitive eating skills. Everyone is born with a natural instinct to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full, and it’s external messages that make us doubt those instincts and stick to rigid, prescriptive ideas of “healthy” eating instead, she explained.

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Talking to kids about how food makes their body feel is a healthy way to encourage good habits, according to dietitian Lisa Rutledge.

According to her, a better approach is to talk to kids about how they feel when they eat certain foods.

“Talking to kids about where food is from, exploring different types of flavours, different types of textures, whether it grows in the ground or grows from a tree or comes from an animal” — these are all “neutral” ways for kids to think about food and make connections to health, she said.

‘Siding with a bully’

Of course all parents want their kids to be healthy, and no one wants a child to be bullied for their weight, Rutledge said. “But when we say, ‘We’ll control your weight, we’ll help you be hungry all the time, we’ll help stunt your weight so that you’re not bullied,’ we’re really siding with the bullies,” she said.

Healthy eating is important, but we should underscore that that’s not always directly correlated to someone’s weight, she added. “There are many factors we can’t control that determines our body size. What we eat is only one very, very small part of our size.”

She says unpacking the disordered eating that results from “diet culture” is a big part of her job. She’s used to adults coming in with these kinds of problems, but kids are a different story, she said.

“WW is being predatory against children, people who are uber-vulnerable, who are sponges, who will soak up all these diet culture messages that will be so harmful and hard to undo later on in order to find true health.”