Earlier this month, Weight Watchers (stylized as WW) released a controversial app that promises to help children shed some pounds.
While the app, which is called Kurbo, aimed to help curb childhood obesity in the United States, it received intense backlash from social media, including dieticians and researchers of an eating disorder.
Immediately after its launch, a Change.org petition was created, urging Weight Watchers to pull the app. As of this writing, over 92,000 people have signed the petition.
Kurbo: A Weight Loss App For Kids
Kurbo is based on a pediatric obesity program developed by researchers from Stanford University. The app uses a traffic light system that assigns a color to grade whether a food is healthy and tracks how much calories are consumed by the child. WW said that the app also provides virtual coaching from specially-trained individuals to help users achieve long-lasting results.
Kurbo is targeted towards children and teenagers ages 8 to 17.
"Alongside a distinguished group of leaders in pediatric health and nutrition, we've carefully developed this platform to be holistic, rewarding and inspirational so kids, teens and families get the tools and guidance they need to manage their environment and build and sustain healthy habits," explained Gary Foster, chief scientific officer at Kurbo.
A Weight Loss App For Kids Is Not The Answer
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five children and adolescents is considered obese. This is a serious problem because obesity during childhood has been linked to type insulin resistance and 2 diabetes, breathing problems such as asthma and sleep apnea, fatty liver, gallstones, gastro-esophageal reflux, joint problems, and high blood pressure and high cholesterol — risk factors of cardiovascular disease. Children who are obese might also experience low self-esteem, bullying, and psychological problems such as anxiety and depression.
However, experts agree that Kurbo is not the answer to childhood obesity. They argue that the weight loss app might promote an unhealthy relationship between food and young people.
Sheri Kasper, a registered dietician at Fresh Communications, told USA Today that tracking food consumption can create an obsession and lead to development of control-driven behaviors that result to eating disorders. She is also concerned that some children might restrict certain foods, causing nutrient deficiency.
While she sees some good in using the app, Kasper concluded that the potential harms outweigh the benefits.
Evelyn Tribole, a dietician who specializes in eating disorders, said that WW is "quoting research that is flawed."
"Most weight loss studies don't include unintended consequences like eating disorders and the absence of data does not mean absence of risk," she told Dazed. "We in the eating disorder community are absolutely outraged about this."
Tribole and Amanda Boyer, also a dietician, that the age group that Kurbo is targeting is supposed to be growing. Gaining weight is part of that process. Children who do not eat enough might hinder physiological and psychological growth. Both experts warn against using Kurbo.