Recently WW, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers, introduced a “health coaching” app for kids called Kurbo. It’s obviously meant for weight loss, even though dieting isn’t appropriate for many kids, and can lead to disordered eating. Healthy approaches to managing kids’ weight should focus on building healthy eating and exercise habits, guidelines say, not dieting.
The company has faced a backlash as experts have argued that the app’s approach feeds into the habits and thinking patterns that underlie eating disorders in adolescents. So if you’ve been thinking about downloading this app (or if you suspect your child might be interested), here are some of the approaches you might want to consider instead.
Talk to your kid’s doctor
If you’re concerned about your kid’s weight or what they eat, talk to their doctor about the situation. A professional can help you figure out whether your child needs help to manage their weight, and what kind of help is most appropriate.
A good weight management program for kids, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, adapts to the child’s age and:
Involves a variety of care providers, including psychologists and dietitians (so you probably don’t want to begin and end with blanket advice from a pediatrician, though it can be a solid jumping-off point)
Evaluates a child’s weight, growth and health throughout the program
Helps the whole family build healthy eating and exercise habits to last even after the program is done
WW says that they’ve based their app on a successful program from Stanford University that uses a traffic-light system to help kids identify high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. But despite that similarity, there are some major differences between this app and an in-person program overseen by doctors.
As Brad Stulberg points out at Outside, Stanford’s program screens kids as they enter, has them meet regularly for education sessions, and involves the whole family. An app isn’t going to do that. Nor is it able to catch signs of disordered eating if you don’t pay the fee for health coaching, which is an optional add-on feature.
The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that dieting is a risk factor for both eating disorders and for obesity. This is even true when the child isn’t actually overweight to start with, which is why it’s especially important to start a conversation with your pediatrician.
Kurbo categorises foods according to the traffic light system mentioned above, with green for foods you can eat in unlimited quantities (mostly fruits and vegetables), yellow for foods that you may eat but need to track, and red for foods you shouldn’t have too many of.
As part of a Stanford-like program, that may well be a helpful approach. But categorising foods as “good” and “bad” is also characteristic of disordered eating. You can easily end up bingeing on “good” foods, or seeing the “bad” ones as forbidden fruit. So it’s easy to see how this app, or similarly restrictive programs, might encourage that behaviour and do more harm than good in helping kids learn healthy habits.
Eat family meals
Eating together helps kids to develop healthy eating habits, and kids who eat meals with their families are less likely to have disordered eating behaviours.
Family meals give you an opportunity to serve healthy foods and for kids to see that food on the table and being eaten (even if they don’t choose to eat a specific food themselves this time). Both adults and kids tend to eat better at structured meals than if we’re snacking throughout the day, as well. Plus, mealtimes are an opportunity to connect with each other socially. They’re a good idea whether you’re concerned about a kid’s eating habits or not.
Get them moving
Exercise can help kids to manage their weight, but it’s also a healthy thing to do no matter their size. Guidelines already say that kids should get at least an hour of activity every day. As part of that, they should be doing muscle-strengthening exercise three times a week, bone-strengthening exercise three times a week, and vigorous aerobic exercise three times a week.
That may sound like a lot, but it’s not hard to get in that amount of exercise in the name of fun. If your kid plays a sport, they may meet the requirements already. Younger kids can stay active by climbing around on playgrounds and playing running-around games like tag.
So if your child doesn’t get much exercise currently, there are plenty of ways to start. Importantly, you don’t need to — and probably shouldn’t — present exercise as a tool for losing weight or a way of earning food (even if our messed-up adult brains immediately go there). It can just be play, and fun, and an opportunity to get outside or to see what our bodies can do.
Avoid weight talk
When we talk about body weight in any kind of critical way, kids absorb more of the subtext than we realise. They hear us say negative things about our own bodies, too. The U.S. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends listening to what your kid has to say about their weight, but not adding any negative comments (and consulting a pediatrician or other professional about weight concerns).
We can eat healthy food and get plenty of exercise without putting down our bodies while we do it.
Even if your child’s size is what clued you in that they need help building healthy eating and exercise habits, focusing on weight isn’t necessarily the best way to do that — even in your own head.
Weight loss is rarely successful in the long term, but people of any size can learn better habits and become healthier, whether their weight changes or not. For example, the Health at Every Size principles recommend finding joy in moving your body, eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full, and learning to remove the emotional baggage that you may have attached to food. Diet programs, and apps like Kurbo, don’t do much to work toward those goals.