Weight Watchers slammed for kids weight loss app. Mom says she created it for her son

Rasha Ali

Weight Watchers, now rebranded as WW, released a weight loss app for kids and teens and the internet isn't too happy about it, while the wellness company is defending it.

An online petition calling on WW to remove the app has gathered over 87,000 signatures since the app, called Kurbo, launched on Aug. 13. The petition states that it's "irresponsible" of WW to launch an app that could make children develop "life altering eating disorders that will eventually kill some of them."

But makers of the app say that it is a healthy, and scientifically-backed program to help overweight children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in five kids is considered obese in the United States. 

The app, which is advertised for those aged 8 to 17, was created by Joanna Strober as a solution for her son's "obesity."

Strober told USA TODAY that after a pediatrician advised her to manage her son's weight, she tried to enroll him in Stanford's Pediatric Weight Control Program, but it was expensive and her son didn't like the in-person visits.

So the mom took matters into her own hands. To make Stanford's program more accessible, she turned it into a mobile platform. She had an advisory board of kids give her feedback on the app, she said.

Weight Watchers launched an app called Kurbo which is geared towards kids and teens. The system is meant to help children track foods.

The stop light diet is proven to work

Kurbo uses a "traffic light system" developed by Stanford's program to encourage better eating habits and it also offers one-on-one coaching for a fee. 

The system classifies certain foods as red, yellow or green. Red means you should eat less, yellow indicates moderate consumption, and green means you can have as many as you want. 

The stop light diet does have significant scientific literature and decades of research behind it proving that it's an effective strategy for nutritional counseling when combined with group visits and individual counseling, said Sarah Armstrong, who spoke on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics' section on obesity.

But the Kurbo app is brand new, so it's effectiveness is still to be determined.

"Tracking is one of the key evidence-based strategies for adults and children for helping with weight management. The stoplight diet in app form, the Kurbo app itself, has never been tested as a standalone intervention. It’s more the approach behind it, in combination with the multi-component intervention, that’s been tested and found to be effective," said Armstrong.

'Potential harm' outweighs 'potential positive effects'

Still some worry the Kurbo app could steer kids and teens in the wrong direction.

The problem with tracking foods, as Kurbo has its users do, is that it can become an obsession and result in control-driven behaviors that can lead to eating disorders, said Sheri Kasper, registered dietitian at Fresh Communications, in an emailed statement to USA TODAY.

"Another concern is that the child will restrict certain foods in a way that might result in nutrient deficiency," she said. "For example, grains and lean protein offer key nutrients to support growth and they are a ‘yellow-light’ food. A child may restrict these foods and unknowingly do more harm than good."

While Kasper believes that overall awareness of foods' nutritional value is positive, there are still concerns. 

"If a child notices that they haven’t had many fruits or vegetables in a given day, thanks to their tracker, they may be more likely to make a healthy choice at their next meal," she said. "But in general, I think the potential harm outweighs the potential positive effects of the app."

Reactions on social media shared similar sentiments. One commented that she was "outraged" by the app for telling kids to go on diets. "As a survivor of severe #anorexia  - THIS IS GROSSLY NEGLIGENT," she tweeted.

More: As a child, I had an eating disorder. WW's dieting app for kids terrifies me for my child.

The AAP recommends healthy living habits over weight loss itself. 

"We do discourage dieting, or skipping meals, or using diet pills," Armstrong said. "We strongly encourage the implementation of healthy eating habits and physical activity that can be maintained."

WW defends app as healthy approach to weight loss

WW's chief science officer, Gary Foster, said that Kurbo is one of the better options for children struggling with weight. Rather than turning to social media and the internet where they're bombarded with "28 day detoxes, only eat during these specific hours, fast every other day" and saturated with images of "unrealistically thin ideals," they can turn to Kurbo for a healthier approach.

"It’s a simple way to teach kids a healthy pattern of eating," Foster told USA TODAY. "Everything that’s in the app is science based. It’s not about dieting. It’s not about calorie counting. It’s not about restrictions," he said. "This is not a diet that says get rid of red foods, only eat green foods."

When speaking to children about weight, Armstrong said that the conversation should be centered on healthy body image, positive eating and activity behaviors rather than the weight itself. 

"There is some evidence that talking about weight particularly even by family members in kids of any weight, shape, or size, not necessarily just in kids with obesity, can make kids really start over-focusing on it and can lead to restrictive eating...that is associated with more unhealthy outcomes," Armstrong said.


This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Weight Watcher's Kurbo app slammed for targeting kids. Makers defend it

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