New Weight Watchers app for kids could cause ‘body dissatisfaction,’ expert says

Click to play video: 'WW app for kids faces backlash'
WW app for kids faces backlash
WATCH: Weight Watchers, now called WW, is promoting a new "behaviour change program" for kids aged eight to 17 – Aug 15, 2019

Following its overhaul in 2018, WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers) released a new weight-control program called Kurbo this week, targeting children and teenagers aged eight to 17.

The company added the app had a goal of helping youth “reach a healthier weight.”

WW’s chief scientific officer, Gary Foster, said that the program was designed to be “part of the solution to address the prevalent public health problem of childhood obesity,” according to a statement released earlier this year.

The program includes three features: an app called Kurbo, a Traffic Light System that sorts foods into red, yellow or green categories, and a personal coaching option.

Though the free Kurbo app is available on iOS and Android phones, it appears the actual program is not available in Canada at the moment. The programs through the app in the U.S. have a one-month, three-month and six-month subscription fee of US$69, $189 and $294.

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Global News reached out to WW for comment but did not hear back by publication.

While Foster claimed the methods used in the program are backed by science — citing the World Health Organization report that childhood obesity is one of “the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century” — not all experts agree.

‘Very complicated relationship with food’

In 2017, Kurbo shared before-and-after photos of a seven-year-old named Kacie, who “learned healthy habits and dropped eight BMI points” using the program.

Dr. Valerie Taylor, head of psychiatry at the University of Calgary, finds this type of marketing problematic.

“Weight loss prevention products and pathways haven’t seemed to work for those over 18, so it’s perplexing to me that it would work for those under 18,” she said.

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Her research focuses on the intersection of obesity and mental health. In doing so, Taylor’s work focuses on weight management with compassion by removing societal pressures to look a certain way.

“There’s significant shame involved for these kids. I hear stories from adults about being dragged to Weight Watchers meetings as a child … and how embarrassing that was,” she said.

“I understand that this is different, but it’s still shaming.”

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Much of this shame Taylor mentions comes from classifying foods as “good” or “bad” — the major component of the app’s Traffic Light System. She added that, in turn, food choice becomes linked to morality.

“It starts people on this very complicated relationship with food,” she said. “If you eat the bad food, you’re a bad person. That is the message. If you do eat them you have a problem, you have issues with willpower, with self-control, you’re weak. [Children] very much internalize this.”
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This binary way of viewing food can cause serious problems with disordered eating in the future, she said.

“It’s going to follow these kids long into adulthood, whether that’s going to be a manifestation of an eating disorder or intense body dissatisfaction,” she said. “[It makes] the act of eating miserable.”

Programs like these also sit at an intersection of privilege — eating healthy is more expensive, especially for those on a fixed income.

When looking at green light and red light foods on the Kurbo system, there is a huge discrepancy in price and volume. A Big Mac meal at McDonald’s, for example, costs $5.99 before taxes, while a nutritious meal of broccoli, rice and chicken purchased from a grocery store can cost double to make at home.

“Food insecurity and poverty is a big contributor and and the cost of eating healthy this way [is high]. This program is not free,” she said. “For people who are already struggling with trying to figure out how to eat healthy on a fixed income, this is not going to be accessible to many of them.”
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While Taylor says society does face an obesity problem, it’s not something that should be addressed at such a young age. Dieting, after all, has adverse consequences.

“If dieting worked, these individuals wouldn’t be having a such a problem with adverse health consequences of being overweight,” she said.

“It’s not about going on a diet; it’s about making behavioral changes, making healthy food affordable and changing the lived environment.”

BMI can have limitations

Much of the app’s focus is also on the body mass index (BMI) measurement system. It combines factors like weight and height to classify people as underweight, healthy weight, obese and morbidly obese. But for years, this known to be an inaccurate portrayal of overall health. 

In 2015, Dr. Frank Nuttall of the University of Minnesota wrote that BMI doesn’t take into account changing populations in terms of height, adding that it “was not originally developed for use specifically as an index of fatness.”

It also fails to measure body fat percentage versus muscle mass, rendering measurements inaccurate.

“BMI has serious limitations when used as an indicator of per cent of body fat mass. Indeed, it may be misleading in this regard, particularly in men,” he said.

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“The terminology currently used also is prejudicial. By definition, one-half or more adults in the recent past and currently are overweight (preobese) or obese in Western, industrialized nations.”

When signing up for Kurbo, parents can pinpoint their child’s BMI and, knowing so, can choose a goal for their child. This could mean losing weight, feeling better in clothes or even making parents happy.

Setting examples as parents

Heather Jones, a Toronto-based writer, remembers how her five-year-old son reacted to a weight-loss commercial during family TV time.

“He immediately said he was done eating his lunch and it horrified me,” the 39-year-old said. “Each time the commercial came on after that, he noticed. He used the commercial to tell me I needed to lose weight.”

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Her life, she says, has been a constant flux of dieting and over-eating — but she’s determined to stop that trend in her household.

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For Catherine Aldona, a Toronto-based reflexology student, it’s always been a priority that her teenage sons grow up with healthy self-image.

“I always tried to put more emphasis on the importance of accepting yourself in all ways,” she said. “There seems to be a certain almost unattainable standard of appearance within the media that doesn’t take into account genetics and body type.”

Aldona, 51, has noticed her youngest son trying to emulate what he sees in regards to having a perfect physique.

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“If [use of the app] is completely voluntary and the child feels empowered by their choice to use it, [it could be positive]” she said. “Or it could make a child feel they aren’t accepted at the weight they are at, as if there is something wrong with them as they are.”

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