A Dietitian’s Perspective on WW’s New “Kurbo” Weight Loss Program for Kids and Teens

Yesterday “WW” (formerly known as Weight Watchers) announced the launching of their new weight loss program for kids and teens, otherwise known as “Kurbo,” despite more and more research that shows us that intentional pursuits of weight loss do not last long-term.1-2

In the program, kids are taught to choose foods based on a color-coded system found in an interactive app.³ Foods that kids and teens are encouraged to eat freely, aka fruits and vegetables, are labeled in green. Foods that kids and teens should “watch their portions” with, such as lean proteins and whole grains (are you serious?) are labeled yellow. And of course, the “bad” foods, (according to WW, soda, sweets, burgers, and french fries) are labeled red. These foods are to be limited according according to this program.

Interestingly enough, WW itself is labeling the Kurbo system “Myfitnesspal for kids.”  WW claims that Kurbo is “less harmful than my fitness pal because they emphasize BMI percentile, not pounds, and color coding / proper portioning, not calorie counting.” 4 

WW, you’re underestimating how smart kids really are. They know that the “emphasis on BMI percentile” is just another way of saying “you need to lose weight”. Research shows that nutrition and fitness tracking apps are related to eating disorder behaviors, even when those apps don’t emphasize calorie counting.5

Additionally, kids and teens enrolled in this program (as young as age 8!!!) have access to meetings with “expert” coaches via video chat to discuss fitness, nutrition, and mental health. None of these coaches are registered dietitians, licensed professional counselors, or certified personal trainers. I’m not sure where the “expert” part comes in?!

There is level A (rock-solid) evidence that shows weight loss following lifestyle intervention is maximal at 6-12 months, and regardless of the degree of initial weight loss, most weight is regained within a 2-year period, and by 5 years, the majority of people are at their pre-intervention body weight.6 

 My colleague Fiona Willer, AdvAPD and HAES dietitian made this quote and graphic: “How sure are we that weight re-gain after intentional weight loss happens *most* of the time? As sure as we are that smoking causes cancer.” 

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What’s most heartbreaking perhaps, is that the WW site displays “before and after pictures” of some of it’s participants w/their name and faces, spouting off statistics such as “Sally lost X number of lbs!” or “Sam decreased his percentile by 15%”. What happens if/when these kids gain the weight back? Are they still worthy of praise and celebration? Love and belonging? Absolutely, but that’s not the message WW is sending.

Chief Scientific Officer at WW, Gary Foster, PhD, believes that Kurbo will be “inspirational” to kids and teens everywhere…as a registered dietitian who works with individuals of all body sizes who suffer from disordered eating / eating disorders, I disagree.¹ Dieting is the number one predictor of the development of an eating disorder.7Anything that restricts certain food groups and elevates others is a diet. Make no mistake, Kurbo is a diet. 

I’m not the only one who does not support kid & teen dieting. In 2016, The American Pediatric Association outlined factors associated with eating disorders…the number one factor? Dieting. Research shows that teens who diet are more than 50% more likely to develop binge-eating disorder than teens who don’t diet.8Another showed that teens who severely restricted their intake were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than non-dieters; more moderate dieters were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder.8

My colleague Dr. Maria Paredes, LPCS, CEDS, wrote on her IG, “Teaching children to ‘track every bite’ & ‘count every food you put in your body’ is developmentally inappropriate, harmful, and places them at a higher risk for developing eating disorders.”

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Parents, protect your children from this…protect your children from weight watchers. Ask yourself this question: Are you concerned with your child’s health, or are you concerned with your child’s body size? There is a difference. Contrary to what you might have been told, children’s bodies are diverse in shape and size. One child can be *just as “healthy” in the 90th %ile as another would be in the 50th %ile. Start examining your own internalized weight stigma & fat phobia before you encourage your child to pursue dieting. 

Want to promote physical and mental health for your kid / teen? Offer a variety of foods (yes, that means sweets too!), consume family meals together, encourage joyful movement outside or with friends, promote body respect and positive self-talk, and model healthy eating behaviors and body image attitudes. If you’re really concerned about your child’s relationship with food and/or their body, set up an appointment to meet with a Health at Every Size registered dietitian and/or therapist. To find one in the area that you live, click here.

In closing, I want to say this: I can’t think of anything more shaming than telling a child his/her body is wrong. That type of message is traumatic for anyone who receives it, and promotes body distrust.

I am against WW (weight watchers), I am against Kurbo, and I am against the promotion of disordered eating in adolescents. 

References:

  1. https://people.com/health/ww-launching-kids-teens-weight-loss-program/
  2. Department of Health and Aging, National Health and Medical Research Council, Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Management of Overweight and Obesity in Adults, Adolescents, and Children in Australia, Melbourne 2013, p.161
  3. https://kurbo.com/how-it-works/
  4. https://kurbo.com/myfitnesspal-for-kids/
  5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1471015316303646
  6. Dansinger et al. 2007; Schmitz et al 2007; Cussler et al. 2008; Martin et al. 2008; Svetkey et al. 2008; Copper et al. 2010; Neve et al. 2010
  7. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders
  8. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/eating-mindfully/201609/no-more-diets-and-other-aap-recommendations?fbclid=IwAR2KAxIorw5tU2Fwws7X9I_bgc4CArrq5HddZm0_QNUlnEvPNKG7nHG5ioI

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