Weight Watchers Targeting Kids As Young As Eight With New Kurbo App
In the fall of 1994, when this photo was taken, I was a freshman at a suburban high-school located halfway between Cleveland and Akron. I played the flute in both marching and concert band. I worked backstage during our high school plays and musicals, desperately wishing for my chance to shine on stage. I had dreams and aspirations to be a best-selling writer. My group of friends was my rock.
I also was convinced I was fat.
Looking at that photo now, it’s baffling to me because I wasn’t fat. I don’t even know if I would classify myself as “chubby.” But society and family messages told me that I was. My mom, asking more than once if I needed that second helping of food. Or magazines and fashion brands promoting skinny models as the ideal. By high school, I had developed an undiagnosed eating disorder in the form of BED. I binged, but I didn’t purge.
I hid candy all over my room, shamefully eating it in secret. I’d keep empty wrappers stuffed into the drawers of my dresser, waiting for the right opportunity to dispose of them. This usually happened when I had the house to myself. I’d erase all evidence, shoving the bags and wrappers into a trash bag, which I would bury at the bottom of the trash can in the garage and hope it wasn’t discovered before trash day.
My family didn’t have a clue.
Unsurprisingly, I gained weight over the four years of high-school. In college, the restriction and dieting began.
The truth is, I didn’t get fat until I tried not being fat.
I’ve written before about my fifteen-year on-again-off-again commitment to Weight Watchers felt like an abusive relationship. Even now, three years after walking away from diet culture for good, I’m still continually unlearning everything that our fatphobic society has taught me. I’m in a much better place with my body now, but it’s taken a lot of mental and emotional work and, to be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever truly be done unlearning.
Earlier this week, Weight Watchers announced their new app Kurbo, which is aimed at kids and teens ages 8–17. With Kurbo and its videos and challenges, Weight Watchers has essentially gamified dieting. This announcement has lead to some considerable backlash, although as of right now Weight Watchers show no signs of removing the app.
Weight Watchers argues that Kurbo is not dieting because the kids aren’t counting calories or Weight Watcher points. Instead, the app classifies food based on a traffic light system: Green foods, which includes all fruits and veggies, are go foods and can be eaten anytime; Yellow foods, like lean proteins and pasta, are okay but users are encouraged to show caution with portion sizes; Red foods, such as candy and soda, are not forbidden, but users are encouraged to “stop and think” before eating.
To me, this reads like green foods are those lower in calories, and red foods are those higher in calories. You are allowed to eat low-calorie foods but should restrict high-calorie foods.
Know what that sounds like to me? Dieting.
Weight Watchers has been in the intentional weight loss business for over fifty years, and while they have rebranded themselves as more “wellness” focused, this app is the same fatphobic message they have always been peddling. The difference now is it’s aimed at children.
Traffic Light System is dieting in disguise
Investigating the app deeper, there are some factually incorrect statements that Weight Watchers is using as a talking point along with some concerns regarding food classification.
First, green foods do not include all fruits and veggies. White and sweet potatoes, avocados, squash, and corn, among others, are listed as yellow foods. That’s actually in step with Weight Watchers traditional treatment of fruits and veggies. But it’s disingenuous to proclaim all fruits and vegetables are essentially “free” foods if they aren’t.
Second, other foods included in the list of yellow foods are 1% milk, almonds (approximately 23 nuts), and eggs. Are eggs, 1% milk, and almonds really something children need to show caution about eating?
Third, while they make it seem as if only super sugary things like candy and soda are listed as red light foods, those are only the most obvious. Other foods classified as “red” are bread, cottage cheese, steak, butter, cheese, peanut butter, 2% milk, and nuts.
To summarize: unless it is a fruit or a leafy, green vegetable, you need to keep track of what you are eating carefully. Note, nuts are red foods unless it’s almonds. But almonds are only yellow food if it’s approximately 23 nuts.
How is being forced to count almonds considered a healthy behavior that kids should be adopting? More to the point, how is counting almonds not a diet behavior?
Weight Watchers is correct in stating that the kids aren’t counting calories or points. But let’s call a spade a spade: they may not be counting calories, but they are counting something. Within the framework of the Traffic Light System, they are allotted a certain number of red foods for the week and are encouraged to “budget” for situations where they may be exposed to more red foods than usual, such as weekends and parties.
I should also point out that quantity isn’t taken into account when classifying food. There are no half portions; it’s all or nothing. No matter how small a pat of butter they put on their toast in the morning, it is a strike against them.
So, you’re telling me that if a kid eats one potato chip, they have to count it as one of the three allotted red foods they are allowed for the entire day? A single potato chip?
You can rebrand yourself to a “wellness” company and you can put out whatever pretty graphics you want, but if you encourage children to actively track every single thing they eat and place morality on foods, whether it’s “good” vs. “bad” or “green” vs. “red”, it’s a diet. I don’t care what they want to call it; Weight Watchers is promoting dieting to eight-year-olds.
Dieting is an early predictor of eating disorders
In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that most adolescents who developed an eating disorder weren’t fat, “but, some teenagers, in an attempt to lose weight, may develop an [eating disorder].”
These eating disorders develop because adolescents misinterpret what “healthy eating” means. They begin to engage in unhealthy behaviors in an effort to “be healthier,” like fad diets or skipping meals.
We live in a fatphobic culture that conflates weight and health as if one is indicative of the other. Of course, they are going to resort to fad diets and starvation if they think it will make them “healthier” (aka, skinnier).
Most eating disorders appear in adolescent girls, but that same study noted eating disorders “increasingly are being recognized in children as young as 5 to 12 years” and that “in the United States from 1999 to 2006, hospitalizations for EDs increased 119% for children younger than 12 years.”
Meanwhile, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) ran a small study that found children as young as 3 showed signs of body image issues.
We already have children presenting with eating disorders when they are FIVE YEARS OLD, and that’s without the added benefit of a parent-approved app telling them what to eat. Speaking as someone whose parent would have loved having this app around when I was a kid, I can tell you that once kids figure out the traffic light system, there are going to be those who attempt to live on only green foods. Once you gamify something, participants will try to win. In this case, winning is going to come down to what they eat. Or don’t eat, as the case will be.
No gatekeeping mechanism to keep kids safe
I was a teen who had a history of disordered eating, and nobody knew. So I’m not entirely sure how Weight Watchers plans on keeping those kids out. It’s a free app, and kids older than 13 don’t need parental permission. I downloaded it today, and within minutes, I was able to start tracking food. No questions about my history or even my activity level, which seems concerning when you consider some of the teens signing up participate in sports and need more food.
The Kurbo coaches, discussed below, are allegedly in place to identify disordered eating behavior, but they aren’t accessible to everyone. They exist behind a pretty expensive pay well, and it’s not clear if people who only sign up for the free version will be monitored in the same way.
Weight loss and parent approval
After registering on the app, kids (or parents, if they are younger than 13) can select a goal to focus on. Despite Weight Watchers claiming this is not, in any way shape or form, a diet app, “lose weight” is the second option (the last option, “feel better in my clothes” is just coded language for losing weight).
Below that is, “make parents happy.”
My weight was a constant point of contention for my mom. Striving for weight loss through the lens of parental approval is dangerous and detrimental, both physically and mentally. If parents only show pride when their child loses weight, what happens if the child stalls or regains?
A 2013 study by JAMA Pediatrics found that teens whose parents engaged in conversations around weight were more likely to diet, engage in unhealthy eating behaviors, and binge eat. That tracks with my own experiences growing up.
Growing up in a household where I was always made to feel too big altered my perception of myself and caused me to struggle with self-esteem. Kids and teens should be encouraged to thrive in an environment free of weight talk and food shaming. They should be loved and cherished exactly as they are. They should not feel the need to restrict food to gain their parents’ approval.
The coaches lack credentials
The Kurbo app itself can be used for free, which is one of Weight Watchers’ main talking points, along with the coaches who will keep kids on track and identify any signs that indicate possible disordered eating.
But the coaches are only available if a parent upgrades the account for an additional $69 a month. That’s more than some families can afford to spend on groceries for the month. Are their kids just supposed to flounder on their own within the Kurbo ecosystem without guidance?
Of the nine coaches on the website, only two have any education in anything nutrition or healthcare-related. The rest all hold degrees in things like business, economics, and tourism management.
On social media, Weight Watchers told concerned individuals “our Kurbo coaches go through rigorous training on the Kurbo curriculum, behavior change, and health coaching, so they’re super prepared to guide kids and teens toward their wellness goals.” But despite multiple pressing for more information, they refused to address what that training looks like.
According to HuffPost, a Weight Watchers spokesperson told them that “coaches do go through a minimum of six to eight hours of initial training, as well as three and a half hours of continuing education.”
That’s 11 1/2 hours if we are generous and go the full eight hours of initial training. But I’m not feeling generous, so let’s round down and say that the parents pay $69 a month to access a coach that has less than 10 hours of training.
Cradle to grave converts kids into customers for life
Weight Watchers wants parents to believe that this is about making kids healthier. It’s not. If it were, they would provide suggestions that go beyond tracking and calorie restriction. There are plenty of ways to encourage healthy behaviors that don’t include body shaming and food guilt. Instead, like the diet company that it is, Weight Watchers is weaponizing food.
This isn’t about making kids healthier. This is about making kids thinner. This is about getting kids used to diet culture at disturbingly low ages. This is about perpetuating the belief that fat bodies are bad and thin bodies are good. This is about making sure kids grow up believing their bodies aren’t good enough.
This is about turning kids into lifelong Weight Watchers customers.
Kurbo is intended for children ages 8 through 17. Imagine a child or a teenager spent years tracking food through Kurbo. When they turn 18 and graduate out of Kurbo, are they going to suddenly start eating without app assistance? If they do, will they feel successful at it? Remember, this is all they know. The traffic light system and food tracking and overanalyzing everything they eat is second nature by now.
Chances are — and this is the part Weight Watchers is banking on — that now 18-year-old adult is going to seek out something familiar. Such as the WW app.
There is a reason I spent fifteen years continually going back to Weight Watchers, even though the process of dieting made me feel worse about my body and myself. I knew how it worked, and I knew what to expect. When my self-esteem was low, and I thought the only solution was to lose weight, Weight Watchers was there waiting, comfortable and familiar.
Weight Watchers wants to raise your child in an online environment that turns certain foods into the enemy. It wants to make them believe that there is something wrong with their body, and the only way to fix it is by using their product.
Weight Watchers wants to turn your child into a lifelong dieter.
Don’t let them.