Parents – I beg you not to put your kids on diets and delete any tracking apps you find on their phones.
Last week, Weight Watchers (well, now called WW) launched an app called Kurbo to “help” parents teach their kids about nutrition and reach a “healthy weight” through daily tracking of food and exercise. The app is targeted to 8 to 17-year-old children.
As a registered dietitian who has practiced for over 35 years and now specializes in treating and preventing eating disorders, I am outraged by this self-serving ploy to inculcate youngsters into our dangerous culture of diets and weight loss at the tender age of eight. WW is profiting at the expense of our kids’ long-term mental and physical health and well-being.
According to the National Eating Disorder Association, “Children at the ages targeted by the app are preparing to enter puberty and are supposed to be growing. Specifically, they are supposed to gain fat. Interrupting the growth process, especially at such a critical time of development, is irresponsible. Indeed, there is evidence it can cause irreparable harm.”
Problems with the Kurbo App by WW
1. The app itself is very poorly designed and does not teach children how to listen to and respect their bodies innate wisdom. Kids and/or parents log their food intake, and a rating of green (good to eat often), yellow (should be eaten less often), and red (should be gradually reduced) is assigned. By tracking food and categorizing them, we teach kids that some foods are “good,” and some are “bad.” Daily food tracking only leads to increased food and body weight preoccupation. Furthermore, kids and teens with restricted diets end up eating secretly and eat larger quantities of food than their body needs. Our bodies have mechanisms in place to tell us when we are hungry, when we are full, and when we feel satisfied if we can learn to listen to them. When we place external “rules” around the amounts of foods we need to eat, we do not learn to trust our own bodies.
2. This app and subsequent dieting behavior that will follow are incredibly dangerous. Given what we know about the increased risk of eating disorders and disordered eating following dieting behavior, WW is playing with fire. Most of the adult (and adolescent) clients I work with can remember feeling so much shame for their bodies, appetite, and weight, and began dieting when they were just small children. They remember starving themselves, battling against their bodies and, inevitably, yo-yo dieting or developing life-threatening eating disorders. I have had patients tell me their parents put them on WW when they were literally toddlers and weighed them often. A constant emphasis on looks and body weight, as well as the trauma of weekly food and exercise tracking and weighing, contributes to food and body weight preoccupation. Our bodies are not calculators, and our metabolisms are far more nuanced than just eating more and moving less to create weight loss.
3. A leading eating disorder organization has issued a warning about this app that validates my aforementioned points. According to National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA):
“As the nation’s leading organization serving people affected by eating disorders, NEDA is compelled to express our concerns about the new Kurbo by WW app. The app, designed to help children 8-17 reach a “healthier” weight, encourages young children and adolescents to track every bite they eat and invites them to set weight loss as a goal. 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.”
4. The Kurbo app does not actually teach our kids about nutrition. Heck, I just tracked my food intake from yesterday and, despite nutrition degrees from Cornell and NYU, I apparently don’t measure up to Kurbo’s demanding standards. I eat too many “red light” foods like English muffins made with white flour, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, hummus and crackers, and whole milk, plain yogurt and cottage cheese. I failed to recognize that chicken breasts, avocados and almonds are “yellow,” which means I must watch my intake of them. What? As a dietitian, I know that avocados and almonds are good for you. Dietary fat is essential for normal growth and development in children, particularly as they enter puberty!
It is so tough to parent these days (I know, I have raised two myself), and even harder to parent in the backdrop of diet culture, media exposure, and inevitable body comparisons these provide. Promoting dieting to anyone, let alone to children, is dangerous.
Kids come in all shapes and sizes, and we need to be embracing that and showing them that we love them unconditionally – not supporting programs that tell them they’re not right as they are in this moment. While parents are just trying to take care of their kids and keep them healthy, they must learn that diets are NOT the answer.
Why doesn’t WW know this?
Instead of resorting to gimmicks like the WW Kurbo app, here are 10 strategies for teaching children about healthful eating that focus on healthy habits. (And if you do not have any kids of your own, please share this with friends who do.)
- Focus on healthy habits such as recognizing hunger and fullness, rather than focusing on external numbers such as body weight.
- Lead by example and be a positive role model for healthy eating and exercising.
- Help your child to develop coping skills and healthy ways to express their emotions, particularly if you notice your child eating more often for reasons other than hunger.
- Prepare home-cooked meals and have family dinners as often as possible.
- Keep your pantry and refrigerator stocked with nutrient dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, and naturally lower-fat dairy products.
- Help your child learn how to eat a variety of foods without labeling any foods as “good or bad.”
- Explain to your child that people naturally come in all shapes and sizes.
- Teach honor and respect for our body by way of self-care.
- Fuel your body with nutrient-dense foods the majority of the time and less nutrient-dense foods some of the time.
- Consider discussing any food or weight-related concerns with your child’s doctor. It is important to avoid a hyper-focus on numbers, such as weight or BMI, in front of a child, as this can be interpreted as shaming.
My private practice, Erica Leon Nutrition LLC, has three dietitians available to teach you or your family about eating healthfully, without dieting. If you would like to speak with us, contact us by clicking this link.
Online Programs to Help You Make Peace with Your Body and Food
Intuitive Eating Essentials for Midlife, Menopause and Beyond: This is a self-paced program that explores your relationship with food, your dieting history, readiness to integrate intuitive eating into your life, and teaches you how to use your values to make peace with food. Click here for all the details!