For any parent, the health and eating habits of their child are of great importance. Many parents have concerns their child isn’t eating the right types of food or the right amount. It can feel confusing, frustrating, and even scary. And as children get older, it can seem even harder to know what to do. Enter Kurbo.

Kurbo is a new weight loss app from WW (formerly Weight Watchers) targeted at children age 8-17 and is designed to help with the problem of childhood obesity according to its marketing materials. The app is based on a traffic-light system with foods categorized as either green, yellow, or red. WW promotes the app as a way for kids and families to get healthier, but it has the potential to do just the opposite.

As a pediatrician and dietitian who both work with kids and families to build healthier eating habits, we know the concerns parents have and the challenges families face. We also know the joy families feel when their preschooler eagerly chops bell peppers for the soup they are making or their previously hesitant eater happily chomps away at kale salad.

After spending time in the app exploring features and tracking meals, we have many concerns about how the app could impact the health and well-being of the children who use it. Thankfully, the choice isn’t between using Kurbo or doing nothing at all. There are seven real, practical ways that Kurbo misses the mark and what families can do instead.

1) It’s a diet, for kids!

WW promotes Kurbo as a way for kids and families to improve their health. In reality though, diets are associated with negative health effects and should absolutely not be promoted to children. As the American Academy of Pediatrics notes in their clinical report, dieting in children is associated with weight gain, binge eating, and the development of eating disorders. On top of that, the app is targeted at children during puberty, when they should be experiencing weight gain and other body changes as they grow and develop.

What to do instead: Stay away from diets. Instead, create a healthy environment and model healthy behaviors and attitudes around food, movement, and body image. If you have concerns about your child’s eating, weight, or health, talk with your child’s pediatrician and get a referral to a dietitian or other specialist as needed.

2) Discourages nutritious foods.

Red light foods (the ones children are told to limit in the app) include things like peanut butter, chia seeds, cashews, and hummus. Because the app is focused on weight loss rather than health promotion, it skews its categories to low-calorie and low-fat foods. This means nutritious foods like nut butters get pushed into the red category while diet sodas, which offer little nutritionally aside from some fluid, are classified as yellow. Does this mean they’re just demonizing the wrong foods? No. Demonizing any food isn’t a good idea and nutrition is just one factor when making our food choices. However, it’s especially concerning to see growing children discouraged from eating something like hummus, which has a lot of offer nutritionally and makes for an easy lunch box or snack-time option.

What to do instead: Instead of focusing on individual foods, nutrients or calories, think about a healthy dietary pattern. Eating a variety of foods that have a mixture of carbs, fat, protein, and fiber offers an array of nutrients, as well as flavors and textures. And yes, that includes things like cookies. Putting certain foods on a pedestal or making them forbidden only makes those foods more desirable and others less desirable. Use a neutral approach with food and think about the dietary pattern overall.

3) Puts the responsibility on children.

It’s not an 8 year-old’s job to decide what’s for dinner. Children are not in charge of the meal planning and grocery shopping in their homes. Parents and caregivers are the ones who are creating the food environment, including which foods are available, but also how families talk and think about food. Even when children are eating away from home, it’s the consistent modeling and structure from countless family meals that will help them as they start to make more and more food choices on their own.

What to do instead: Offer a variety of foods at home and prioritize family meals. Teach kids about food and cooking and involve them in the process of making meals. Plan and prepare meals that have a variety of options and then let children decide what and how much they would like to eat. Kids are attuned to their own hunger and fullness and eat the right amount for them when we offer meals that include a balance of options from different food groups. Make food and mealtimes fun and enjoyable.

4) Equates weight loss with health.

Admittedly we have a problem with childhood obesity. However in helping children to develop lifelong health habits, weight loss should not be the number one goal. Weight loss and health are not the same thing, although a user of this app may be led to believe so by the ways that weight loss is often praised and encouraged. What’s worse, when a child enters a BMI considered to be in a healthy range the app proceeds to show them how to lose weight instead of indicating that weight loss may not be necessary. While there are some mentions of other healthy behaviors, the focus often goes back to weight loss. This can be misleading for a young child who may not recognize some of the weight loss methods that can be unhealthy. Weight loss may be one of the consequences while improving one’s diet and overall health habits, but it should not be the main goal when it comes to children.

What to do instead: We have found focusing on how a child FEELS is even more motivating than how much a child weighs. Find out what kids enjoy doing and focus on how improving dietary habits may help them to feel better so they can enjoy those activities more. As they improve their overall habits, including eating a better diet, ask them if they have more energy, can concentrate more, are sleeping better and feel better about themselves. Celebrate other health habits like incorporating joyful movement, stress management, sleep, and human connection and help them understand how this can help them maintain a better overall self.

5) Encourages unhealthy ideas and behaviors.

The app encourages a number of unhealthy ideas and behaviors which are woven into its various features. Examples include prompts to “save” red foods for future events like a birthday party, graphics like a raisin running on a hamster wheel with a carrot dangling in front of its face, and the idea that we should track every bite of food that enters our mouth. These things, that might even sound healthy to some given our diet-obsessed culture, encourage restricting and binging, exercising as a punishment or payment for eating, and a preoccupation with food. With so many teens experiencing anxiety and intense social media-driven pressures, these misleading prompts can serve to fuel those existing feelings. And with screen time reaching an all time high, “gamifying” the process of eating, which is normally an experience that connects us with family and friends may isolate kids further.

What to do instead: Make mealtimes a time for connection. Give children praise for ways they are helpful, kind and considerate, not for how many green foods they ate. Extend that time of connection by asking them to cook with you and teach them that by learning to cook whole foods they are fueling their body for life, not just winning points for that day.

6) Tells kids that their value lies in their weight and appearance.

From an option to select “Make Parents Happy” as your weight loss motivation, to before and after pics of children touting their weight loss success, to articles about how a child and parent’s relationship has been improved thanks to Kurbo, the message is clear: You’re more valuable, more likeable, and more lovable if you lose weight. Kids are already exposed to this pressure by constant media messages, they don’t need a health app to fuel this further.

What to do instead: Find ways to talk about the connection between improving the quality of your family’s diet with benefits that do not involve appearance. Say things like, “I notice you can run faster and that you are concentrating better when you do your homework. I bet these new foods we are eating are helping us to feel better!”

7) Sets the stage for years of dieting, disordered eating, and body image issues.

Dieting can be harmful for people of any age, but especially so with young children who are more impressionable. This app plants seeds for ideas and behaviors around food, eating, and body image that can lead to years of weight cycling, disordered eating, a negative relationship with food, and so much more.

What to do instead: Teach children to view food as their friend, not their enemy. Show them that all foods should be enjoyed with balance and in the background teach how food can enhance and improve the function of their bodies at whatever size. Food is an essential part of our life’s journey and we can learn to increase the variety of foods, learn to eat new foods, and enjoy healthy food traditions as part of that journey.

While Kurbo may help some kids to lose weight in the short term it falls woefully short on the bigger picture. In finding solutions to pediatric obesity we need to recognize short term fixes don’t equate to long term health. We need to show parents how to prepare a variety of whole foods, encourage families to connect over meals, and educate parents on how to foster healthy relationships with food from a young age. Lastly, any attempts at improving physical health of children should also preserve their self esteem and mental health.

Sarah Moran, RDN & Nimali Fernando, MD, MPH
The Dr. Yum Project

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