Last week, Weight Watchers released a weight loss app geared for kids ages 8-17 years old, called Kurbo. The app allows the child to track their food-all labeled through a color system-red, yellow and green, as well as track their activity. A child must be 13 or older to download the app without parental permission. And can choose from the goals of eating healthier, lose weight, make parents happy (this was a goal!!), get stronger and fitter, have more energy, boost my confidence and fit better in my clothes. From there, they then rate how important the goal is to them and how confident they are that they can attain that goal.
To say that I am horrified with this app, would be an understatement. I can’t tell you how many clients I have had sit in my office and tell me that the first diet that they ever went on was Weight Watchers and often with one of their parents. And it was between the exact age frame that Weight Watchers is targeting. Weight Watchers has tried to change their image by claiming that they are all about health and wellness. Which if you are aware of our culture, that is just the new diet fad that is currently existing. When it is wrapped up in wellness, then somehow it is not a diet, but that is not the truth of the matter. Kurbo is promoted to help the whole family become “healthier” but also, to help kids “reach a healthier weight.” If there is weight involved, it is a diet. If there is a color system with food telling you which foods are right, and which foods are wrong, it is a diet. There is not a shred of wellness in this approach!
Can we talk about for a minute about what is happening during this targeted time frame in an adolescent’s life? PUBERTY!!!!!!!!!! And the main occurrence in puberty is WEIGHT GAIN!!! It is not wrong!! It is a natural shift that is supposed to happen to the body. A weight gain of 20-40 pounds (plus or minus) is NORMAL. The obsession with weight in our society is out of control. The pressure on how your body must look has increased the incidences of eating disorders, poor body image, and dieting. Kids are dieting younger and younger. They are bombarded with messages about their body. That in some way that is wrong and must change. And now, Weight Watchers is looking to make millions with sending the message that if you are in a pubescent shift, and in a bigger body, your body is wrong and not supposed to go through this natural phase of life.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has taken a strong position that adolescents who are overweight may adopt disordered eating behaviors while attempting to lose weight. There have been numerous studies that have shown that adolescents that are overweight have a higher likelihood to engage in bulimic behaviors through vomiting and laxative use, than their normal-weight peers and can go on to develop full-blown eating disorders.
The awful part is that in the FAQ, there is an actual question asking if this puts children using this app at risk of eating disorders. They claim that they have consulted with medical professionals to ensure that Kurbo is safe. That the promotion of gradual changes over time decreases the risk of eating disorders. Really?! They obviously did not seek any medical professionals that work with eating disorders. I can tell you from all the social media posts and articles that I read last week from colleagues and other medical professionals that work with the eating disorder population, that they are as appalled as I am. They are calling out Weight Watchers for sinking so low that they are willing to risk our children’s well-being all for money! And if you didn’t know, Weight Watchers is NOT a health company. It is a publicly-traded TECH company!
We come in all shapes and sizes, and children develop at varying rates between the ages of 8-17 years old. Again, that is what is supposed to happen during this time. When an adolescent is told, their body is wrong because of its size; they will always believe that their body is not okay. It’s a profound message that leaves an imprint. One that will have them trumping their parent’s lifetime membership to the hell that is Weight Watchers.
One of the biggest setups with this program is the food color system. This color-coding promotes orthorexia, where everything you eat must be healthy. This creates a terrible relationship with food, seeping in morality with food choices. Outside of fruit and vegetables, the only green foods, everything else is yellow or red. Yellow light foods are described as lean proteins and pasta that are “also good-you’ll just have to watch your portions.” And red-light foods- “Like candy and soda? You don’t have to give them up. You just have to stop and think about how to budget them.”
As I entered in what my kids eat in a typical day, I could not believe what they consider red foods. Peanut butter, 2% milk, Cliff bars, cookies, chips, juice, waffles-anything “normal” in a kid’s day to day and certainly anything fun. So now teenagers should feel guilty for going out for milkshakes and French fries and being normal kids. They are supposed to go hang out and eat carrots and apple slices. This is reality?!
Now, I am not saying you throw nutrition education out the window. Many kids need information on food and why you need all three macronutrients and what each does for the body. Yes, I am saying that you need all three! Kids need to know what fruits and vegetables do for them as well as why they need a consistent source of calcium in their growing adolescent’s body. But here is where we get all wrong, and indeed where Weight Watchers has gotten it wrong. You are telling a child that they cannot listen to their body. They cannot trust that their body will tell them when it has had enough, with telling them they must watch their portions. AND you’ve taken away permission and have created rules with food. What does anyone do with rules-one of two things? Obsessively follow them and only eat what is “good” or feeding into the perfectionistic personality-what would be perfect-no yellow or red foods. Hello, eating disorder! Or you will break the rules. Many people will become rule-breakers, but with that comes guilt and shame with food and feeling as if they are a failure. Food will be hidden, snuck in, and binged on in secret.
I can tell you from years of working with adolescents and adults that have been told that their body is not okay and what foods they are allowed and not allowed to eat; it does not end well. They are in my office sitting on my couch, crying about how much they loathe their body, a message that sent very early on and how they feel like a prisoner to food. And this is being encouraged at the age of eight! Eight!!!
I hope that with all the articles, messaging, and posts that are out there, that more and more people will see how awful this app is and the company of Weight Watchers. If you know someone who is a loyal Weight Watchers member, ask them how old they were, when they heard that their body wasn’t okay. How that was for them? Did following a diet as an adolescent really help them feel better about their body? They have the chance not to have their child go down the same path. To end the body shaming and bashing and allow their child to honor and befriend their body and not enlist in a life-long membership of war.