Today, WW (formerly Weight Watchers) announced the launch of a new program called Kurbo by WW, aimed at children and teenagers. (The company changed its name during a rebranding in fall 2018.) According to a press release, Kurbo by WW is “a scientifically-proven behavior change program designed to help kids and teens ages 8-17 reach a healthier weight, derived from Stanford University's Pediatric Weight Control Program.”
In the press release, WW’s Chief Scientific Officer, Gary Foster, PhD, said that the program is designed to be “part of the solution to address the prevalent public health problem of childhood obesity.” However, some nutritionists that this program puts its young users at risk of developing eating disorders.
“Promoting dieting behaviors in children can lead to those same children developing eating disorders, poor self-esteem, and many other mental and physical health issues,” Sami Main, a life coach who focuses on wellness and nutrition, tells Refinery29. “It's dangerous to promote dieting behavior in children; an app like this can easily lead to kids fearing food and fearing weight gain for years to come.”
Main points to American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2016 report on the link between obesity prevention efforts and the development of eating disorders in adolescents. The report found that encouraging dieting and weight loss was linked to the development of eating disorders, and recommended that parents focus on promoting a healthy lifestyle — including eating meals together as a family, making fruits and vegetables easily accessible, limiting screen time, and encouraging physical activity — rather than focusing on weight loss and body size.
WW's Kurbo uses the Traffic Light System to classify food. This system marks different foods as green (foods to eat more of, such as fruits and vegetables), yellow (foods to eat while being mindful of portion size, such as dairy and lean proteins), and red (foods to reduce, such as sugary drinks). Those who subscribe to the paid version of Kurbo for $69 per month can access one-on-one, 15-minute virtual video sessions with Kurbo coaches.
Teaching kids to see different foods as good or bad — or even green, yellow, and red — “distorts their natural ability to self-regulate,” says Jenna Hollenstein, MS, RD, CDN. “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. 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.”
Andrea Paul, RDN, LD, points out, “It’s normal for kids to have periods of time where they gain weight more quickly, particularly in the years before they hit puberty, which is right around the age range the app is geared towards. As a registered dietician who practices through a weight-inclusive lens, it’s disturbing to me that this program is insinuating that there is only one type of ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’ body, which is simply false.”
In an interview with Refinery29, Kurbo co-founder Joanna Strober said that both the free and paid version of the Kurbo will alert families to signs of a developing eating disorders, such as rapid weight loss, and that the family-based approach Kurbo uses has not been shown to increase the risk of eating disorders. She referenced a 2019 study by World Obesity Federation that found that "professionally run obesity treatment leads to a reduction in the prevalence of ED, ED risk, and ED‐related symptoms for most participants."
Strober said that pediatricians who are members of the American Academy of Pediatrics helped developed the Kurbo program and are on Kurbo's advisory board, though a representative from WW said WW wasn't able to share their identities without their permission. Strober also pointed to the history of the Traffic Light food system, which has been in use since the '70s. "There are other products marketed to kids that I don't think are safe and effective, but I am confident that this one is," she said.