Weight Watchers' weight loss app for kids and teens draws criticism online

Kurbo by WW screenshots. Image via Kurbo.
Kurbo by WW screenshots. Image via Kurbo.

Weight-loss giant WW (formerly Weight Watchers) is making headlines for a new program for children as young as eight.

On Wednesday, WW announced the official launch of Kurbo by WW, a program designed specifically to help kids and teens ages 8-17 “reach a healthier weight.” The “scientifically-proven behaviour change program” utilizes a free mobile app to provide kids and teens with track their meals and physical activity.

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"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," Joanna Strober, co-founder of Kurbo said in a press release from WW. "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."

The free program utilizes the Traffic Light System to classify food into three different categories: foods to eat more of, like fruits and vegetables (green), foods that require portion control such as meat (yellow) and foods to limit or avoid like breads and sugars (red).

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For a fee that ranges from $69D US per month to $294 USD for six months, users can have access to weekly one-on-one coaching through video chat, targeted coaching for parents based on their child’s age and 24/7 customer support.

Image via Kurbo App.
Image via Kurbo App.

Although WW notes that the program was derived from Stanford University’s Pediatric Weight Control Program, it has drawn criticism for encouraging parents and children to use weight as the primary indicator of health and instilling the belief that foods can be either “good” or “bad.” In an interview with Refinery 29, Jenna Hollenstein, MS, RD, CDN noted that the Traffic Light System negatively impacts kids and teens by teaching them not to trust their intuitive “ability to self-regulate” their feelings towards food.

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“When you make some foods yellow light or red light, now they’re something that needs to be avoided. And we all want what we’re not supposed to have,” Hollenstein said. “What they’re not going to be able to do also, with the green light foods, is make their own connection with how they feel when they eat fruits and vegetables or whole grains or proteins.”

Image via Twitter.
Image via Twitter.

While WW notes that Kurbo by WW provides kids and users with the tools to “achieve long-lasting results” experts such as Dr. Linda Bacon, author of “Body Respect” and “Health at Every Size” notes that research says otherwise.

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“WW advertises that it’s scientifically proven but what they don’t mention is it’s scientifically proven to fail at reducing weight. And proven to increase stigma, discrimination and eating disorders,” Bacon said in a statement to Yahoo Canada. “WeightWatchers’ free app for kids is effective marketing, likely to stoke a lifelong struggle with food and weight and repeat paid business for WW through cycles of weight loss and regain. A weight loss app is not the way to support our kids in developing healthy habits.”

The plan has caused many organizations, including the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) to express “concerns” that the app could potentially cause users to develop an eating disorder. With dieting during adolescence considered the most important predictor of eating disorder development, there is plenty of research to fuel these fears. A 2003 study revealed that kids who dieted and restricted food were up to 12 times more likely to report binge eating, with researchers concluding that restriction and weight cycling in childhood and adolescence ultimately promoted weight gain. A separate 2019 report noted that 1 in 4 people who diet (regardless of age or gender) will develop an eating disorder.

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In a response to a concerned social media user who expressed her frustrations over the app potentially contributing to eating disorders, WW issued the following reply, “We understand your concern Stephanie. Kurbo Coaches are trained to pick up on and report any early warning signs of unhealthy eating patterns while the program software detects all weight changes and flags any unusual shifts.”

Several online petitions were created in the hours following the Kurbo by WW launch urging WW to remove the app and discontinue the program.

“We want Weight Watchers to cancel the app and recognize that dieting behaviours in young people should not be encouraged due to the risks associated with their mental and physical health,” one petition read. “Any changes to a child's lifestyle should be made with the supervision of a paediatrician, not an app.”

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