CN: Discussion of food restriction, weight bias, and weight loss for children
WW, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers has introduced an app called Kurbo for weight loss for children and teens. The app says it’s designed to help kids and teens “develop good habits,” but the home page sends a different message. The headline says, “Reach a healthier weight with Kurbo,” and that’s exactly why it’s problematic. The app sends a dangerous message to young people, and encouraging young people to diet can have lifelong negative consequences.
How the App Works, and Why It’s a Problem
Kurbo uses a traffic-light system, which labels food according to traffic light categories: green, yellow and red. Green foods are “healthy” foods such as lean meats and fresh fruits and vegetables. Yellow foods are foods such as low-fat dairy products and bread. Red foods are fried foods, full-fat dairy products and most sweets.
The app encourages children to eat mostly green foods and limit red foods. This sets up a problematic idea: that foods are inherently “good” or “bad,” rather than all food choices being morally equal. After all, red means to stop. Thinking of food in moral terms can lead to guilt, shame and disordered eating.
The app also only requires parental consent for children under the age of 13, which means teens could use this on their own, with no parental involvement or help.
Why Focusing on Weight Loss for Children and Teens Is a Problem
Many parents have internalized society’s message that only certain weights are acceptable. Even health professionals encourage intentional weight loss for children and teens who don’t fit certain categories on BMI charts. This is misguided and potentially dangerous for several reasons:
BMI is a Flawed Measurement
BMI was invented in the 1830s, and it doesn’t reflect an understanding of the diversity of bodies. Bodies come in a variety of sizes, and bodies fluctuate in weight, especially during adolescence. Although a child or teen might seem “overweight” to parents or family members, putting a young person on a diet is unnecessary and potentially damaging.
Dieting Doesn’t Work
Multiple studies show that dieting doesn’t work for adults. According to registered dietician Christy Harrison, “Numerous studies have shown that among people who lose weight, more than 90% gain it back over the long run.” It dieting doesn’t work for adults, why would it work for kids?
Dieting also promotes cycles of weight loss and regain, which is also known as yo-yo dieting. Weight cycling increases the risk of high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, and mortality, regardless of a person’s weight.
Dieting Leads to Weight Bias
By putting this app in the hands of children and teens, it implies that there is something wrong with their bodies. That their bodies need to be smaller. It doesn’t take into account the lack of control many children and teens have over what they eat or other important factors such as economic status. By telling children and teens that they need to monitor their weight, the app is feeding into the weight bias that’s so prevalent in our society.
Weight stigma, also known as anti-fat bias or fatphobia, is the experience of being discriminated against or bullied due to weight. Bullying can lead to depression, anxiety, health issues, and lower levels of academic achievement.
Weight stigma can also lead to higher rates of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and mortality. In fact, many of the issues blamed on body size may be due to weight stigma. A 2017 study cited by Harrison found that weight stigma had a greater effect on health than what people ate, and as much of an effect as someone’s level of physical activity.
Dieting Can Lead to Eating Disorders
Children are aware of how people in larger bodies are treated at an early age. They are also aware of dieting. Dieting and preoccupation with food is one of the most common symptoms of an eating disorder. According to one study, more than 55% of high school girls and 30% of high school boys reported disordered eating symptoms such as fasting, using diet pills, purging, and binge eating.
Disordered eating can lead to an eating disorder, and eating disorders have serious health consequences. Eating disorders also can be overlooked if the child or teen is not weight suppressed.
What to Do Instead of Using an App
Given the stigma that exists in our society around having a larger body, it’s natural for parents to be concerned about a child that may have a larger body. Instead of worry about body size, though, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests other ways of interacting with children around food and exercise.
The first suggestion is to avoid and discourage dieting. Encourage eating a variety of foods and finding activities that are enjoyable. The AAP also suggests promoting positive body image. This starts with parents avoiding diet talk and criticism of their bodies.
The AAP’s third suggestion is to eat family meals, which provide time to bond and enjoy food. They also encourage families to avoid weight talk and to ask children about whether they’ve been teased or bullied about weight.
Their last suggestion is to monitor weight loss in adolescents who “need to lose weight.” A better approach is to note weight loss in teens and keep a close eye on the development of disordered behaviors. Shift the focus away from their weight and discourage dieting. Instead, focus on eating in a way that makes their bodies feel good and moving in ways that they enjoy.
Most of all, do not use an app to track food.