New Weight Watchers app for kids draws predictable criticism

Photo: master1305 (iStock)

WW, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers, introduced a new app Tuesday aimed at children as young as 8 years old. The app, Kurbo, is billed as a “scientifically-proven behavior change program designed to help kids and teens ages 8-17 reach a healthier weight, derived from Stanford University’s Pediatric Weight Control Program.”

Along with virtual coaching and mindfulness suggestions, the app’s core feature is a Traffic Light System in which foods are labeled green (fruits and vegetables), yellow (lean protein, whole grains, dairy) or red (sugary drinks and desserts). WW notes the company acquired the already existing Kurbo app in 2018, but made changes to “make the prior Kurbo program more holistic.”

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Despite those revisions, the app has drawn swift criticism. Some nutrition experts have called it “deeply disturbing,” “not developmentally appropriate,” and could cause “intense body dissatisfaction [that makes] the act of eating miserable.

Most experts applaud the app’s basic function: to help kids and teens maintain a healthy weight as part of an active and balanced lifestyle. But it’s specifically the Traffic Light System as well as before-and-after “transformation” photos promoted by the app that experts find troubling, saying they can lead to unrealistic expectations and reinforce the idea that some foods are morally good or bad. The hashtag #wakeupweightwatchers was trending on Twitter following the app’s announcement.

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The American Academy Of Pediatrics has not specifically commented on Kurbo, but in 2015, it issued guidance promoting a “whole diet approach” to childhood nutrition. In that guidance, it urged adults to promote “a broader approach to nutrition, considering children’s whole diet pattern–rather than the amount of sugar, fat or specific nutrients in individual foods.” The statement’s lead author, Dr. Robert Murray, stated: “No ingredient should be banned. A small amount of sugar or fat is ok if it means a child is more likely to eat foods that are highly nutritious.”

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WW has been responding to some of its critics on social media since the Kurbo announcements, saying the app is “an evidence-based weight management program based on research.”

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Kate Bernot

Kate Bernot is managing editor at The Takeout and a certified beer judge.