The Mighty Logo

New Weight Watchers App Kurbo Marketing Weight Loss to Children Sparks Outrage

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741741.

On Wednesday, WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers) released its latest venture, this time skewing its demographic younger to kids ages 8 through 17. The company launched the healthy eating app Kurbo by WW  to promote life-long healthy habits, but it also raised concerns from critics about the messages it sends to kids about their bodies, dieting and disordered eating.

The long-standing weight loss company originally purchased Kurbo in 2018 and tinkered with the nutrition app to add kid-friendly features like a SnapChat-type design and a streak feature to encourage kids to use the app regularly. WW made the announcement of Kurbo’s relaunch on social media Wednesday by highlighting a success story — 12-year-old Julianna, who felt better after using Kurbo.

“When we would run at school, I couldn’t run. I was so tired and so sick. Maybe two or three months into Kurbo, my mile time, it dropped by like three to four minutes,” Julianna said in the promo video. “It’s just being more healthy and active and feeling good about yourself.”

“I really didn’t want to be the food police,” Julianna’s mom Zsuzanna added.

Kurbo’s food tracking system, which uses a red-yellow-green stoplight method, was developed by researchers at Stanford University. Green foods, like fruits and vegetables, are “go” foods, yellow foods should be eaten in moderation and red foods are “stop and think” foods, according to Time. The app starts with a seven-day free trial, but for kids to continue with their personalized coach, parents must pay a monthly subscription fee that starts at $69 a month.

Kurbo, like WW’s controversial decision to offer its weight loss tools to teens ages 13 to 17 briefly in 2018, is designed to encourage healthy habits among young people.

“When we launched our impact manifesto and declared a new purpose, to inspire healthy habits for real life, for people, for families, for communities, the world, for everyone,” WW International President/CEO Mindy Grossman said in a video. She added:

The idea of really helping and support families was not just something that we wanted to do, or was important for us to do, but it’s really a responsibility for us to help families and help change the trajectory of what’s happening in the world.

Grossman and Kurbo may aim to address rising obesity rates among young people in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 2016, approximately one in five children between the ages of 6 and 19 years old is obese. Obesity can lead to later health complications like diabetes, high blood pressure or cholesterol, and other chronic conditions.

However, many critics point out Kurbo has several issues, among them marketing dieting to children, marketing a dangerous message about weight loss and body image to young people, and perhaps questionable messages about food choices.

“Here’s just a few WTH screen shots from Kurbo the new WW app for kids as young as 8, before and after pics and food policing. This is so so wrong and harmful,” dietician Rebecca Scritchfield wrote on Facebook. “Link to eating disorders aside (which there IS a link between dieting and EDs in kids) why would we teach kids that “healthy lifestyle” is red lighting a burger, baked beans, and a bagel and yellow lighting milk and almonds.”

“Breeding obsession with weight and calories and food at the age of…8?” actress Jameela Jamil wrote on Twitter. “I was 11 when my obsession started, due to being put on a diet for being the heaviest girl in the class. I became afraid of food. It ruined my teens and twenties.”

The statistics about disordered eating support many of the claims raised on social media. In the United States, an estimated 30 million people live with an eating disorder, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), research on 14- and 15-year-old teenagers discovered dieting was the most significant predictor of developing an eating disorder. Young people who stuck to even a “moderate” diet were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder. Girls who diet were also 12 times more likely to binge compared to girls who did not diet.

On Kurbo’s website, a section dedicated to success stories includes before and after photos of children who used the program and how many pounds or BMI percentage points each child lost. The kids featured in this section range from 8 years old to 17 years old. Setting up before and after photos and disclosing specific weight loss numbers can not only trigger those who have an eating disorder, but it can perpetuate the body-shaming young people experience online.

One study found 95% of girls discover negative body image messages online, and many teens reported they feel pressured to curate their image online to look cooler. Another study, based on NEDA’s compiled data, found teenage girls who use social media were likely to closely monitor their body weight and express a desire to be thin. Studies found for young people, 30 minutes of social media is enough to change the way they view their body. Kurbo designed its interface specifically to mimic the popular social media platform SnapChat.

WW took to social media to wage a PR campaign against those who called out the app for the dangerous message it sends to kids. In response to one Twitter user’s criticism of the app, WW responded:

Studies show that programs like Kurbo, which focuses on behavior change for healthier eating & more activity, not dieting or calorie-counting, don’t cause eating disorders. Kurbo provides kids with tools to make balanced food choices & manage their weight in a healthy way.

However, as Twitter user Joey B. pointed out on Twitter, looking closer at the app seems to create a connection between weight loss and self-esteem anyway.

“What I’m seeing is that if you eat a “red light food” you have to exercise more, and they’re LITERALLY equating losing weight with confidence,” Joey B. tweeted. Do I need to say more?”

Kurbo’s desire to address obesity needs to take into account the risk kids may develop an eating disorder while using its app. Among mental illnesses, eating disorders cause the highest risk of death, from both the condition itself and a higher risk of suicide. The suicide risk is increased for anyone with an eating disorder. Among those with anorexia, the risk of dying by suicide is one in five. Those between the ages of 15 and 24 with anorexia have 10 times the risk of dying compared to their peers.

There are other unexpected costs of dieting and disordered eating. Girls who dieted more than once a week were almost four times more likely to smoke compared to girls who didn’t diet. People with eating disorders also have a higher risk of experiencing sexual violence — up to 48% of females and 68% of males with anorexia.

While the average onset of an eating disorder is in the teenage years, experts are seeing more and more cases of eating disorders in children as young as 7 years old, one year younger than Kurbo’s target demographic. The U.K.’s Anorexia & Bulimia Care highlighted it’s more difficult to detect disordered eating in kids. Because kids typically don’t really understand calories, they may eat sugary foods that an older person with an eating disorder might not, so their food restriction elsewhere might be missed.

Kids also don’t typically have the words to explain they’re afraid of gaining weight, and in many cases, children with an eating disorder won’t lose weight. Instead, they may fall behind in physical developmental milestones, like not growing. Eating disorders in children who are still growing and developing can lead to severe illness and later physical problems, making it essential to catch disordered eating early. However, it takes a trained professional to recognize eating disorders in children because it can look different than the profile doctors usually look for.

Kurbo does not appear to be adequately set up to detect eating disorders in children. Though the app’s development itself was supervised by licensed medical professionals, Kurbo’s listed coaches come from a variety of backgrounds, including business administration, communication, economics and tourism management. A couple of listed coaches have psychology or health-related training, but not one is listed as a licensed mental health professional, dietician, doctor or other health care professional.

The company does state all of its coaches pass a rigorous background check and undergo training in fitness, nutrition and mental health, a claim WW is repeating on social media. Kurbo also has built-in weight monitoring to flag any drastic weight changes. But if mental health professionals struggle to pick up on the signs of an eating disorder in young people, it’s unclear how effectively unlicensed coaches can determine if a child is exhibiting signs of disordered eating, especially through a 15-minute video call.

Maria Adele Paredes, PhD, LPCS, CEDS-S, a counselor and certified eating disorders specialist, told The Mighty via email why many professionals agree Kurbo is harmful, and offered suggestions of what families can do instead to promote a healthy lifestyle, healthy habits and a healthy body image. She said:

The new app is dangerous for kids because it teaches them the same eating disorder behaviors that we providers who specialize in treating eating disorders diagnose as indicative of poor physical and mental health: preoccupation with food, restriction of energy intake, fear of gaining weight, disturbance in the way they view their body weight and shape, and evaluating themselves based on their body weight or shape.

According to Dr. Paredes, “to really make the biggest positive impact on childhood nutrition and health, we should work toward doing the following”:

  1. Reduce food insecurity and food deserts
  2. Increase access to a variety of foods
  3. Increase access to safe places to play
  4. Eliminate weight stigma
  5. Affirm children’s bodies, as they are
  6. Stop putting children on restrictive diets
  7. Stop characterizing the issue as one of individual responsibility or failed parenting
  8. Reconceptualize it as a predictable function of social and economic inequality and one that is ALL of our collective moral responsibility.

The Mighty reached out to Kurbo for comment and has yet to hear back.

Header image via Kurbo by WW’s Facebook page

Originally published: August 14, 2019
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home