Some Nova Scotia dietitians are concerned that a new weight loss program for kids could put youngsters on a path toward obsessive diet tracking, unhealthy thoughts about body image, and in extreme cases, disordered eating.
Weight Watchers, now known as WW, launched ‘Kurbo’ on Aug. 13, with the goal of helping youth “reach a healthier weight.”
The program targets children between the ages of eight and 17, and uses a “science-proven” Traffic Light System that sorts foods into red, yellow or green categories in an effort to help them make healthy, portioned choices.
Its smartphone app offers video tutorials on achieving exercise and diet goals, and personalized coaches available to guide participants for fees beginning at $US 69 per month.
But Jennifer Grant Moore, a registered dietitian at the Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Eating Disorder Clinic, questioned how foods are categorized and what kind of certification the coaches have to be working with children on nutrition.
“Many nutritious foods are labelled as yellow or red,” she pointed out, citing hummus, blueberry yogurt, peanut butter, and one per cent milk as examples. “Some of the nutrients of concern in youth are calcium, vitamin D, iron, fibre and quality protein.”
When she downloaded the Kurbo app personally, she added, there was no screening process asking whether the user has previously experienced disordered eating or been diagnosed with an eating disorder.
“Labelling your food, you know, constantly, could lead to the obsessive thoughts of needing to control your food, control your exercise and recording everything that you’re doing,” she said.
WATCH: Better Business Bureau warns Canadians of weight loss grants
According to Canadian law, any child under the age of 13 must use the app with parental consent. Jennalle Butcher, the registered dietitian behind Appetite Nutrition, encouraged parents to consider the message their child could receive if signed up to participate in Kurbo.
“This app sets up a dynamic between parent and child of control, restriction, blame and shame about what we might choose to eat sometimes versus every day,” she told Global News.
“Any sort of symbol that the parent doesn’t accept that child for who they are and exactly as they are is going to lead to issues with self esteem and body image going forward.”
Both Butcher and Grant Moore recommended that any parent who is concerned about a child’s weight seek advice from a qualified dietitian or family physician.
A representative for WW provided a statement from Gary Foster, the company’s chief scientific officer.
“Kurbo is a family-based program, focused on behaviour change for healthier eating and more activity, not dieting or calorie-counting. Studies show that behaviour-based weight management programs do not cause eating disorders. In fact, they provide kids with tools to make balanced food choices and manage their weight in a healthy way,” the statement read.
WW says Kurbo has not yet launched in Canada with a Canadian website or Canadian pricing. However, Canadians can download the app for free and can sign-up for online coaching via the U.S. website.
— With files from Meaghan Wray