On first impression, Weight Watchers’ Kurbo app, geared toward kids ages 8 to 17, looks friendly, cute, and simple. But then… wait, this is a weight loss app for kids! Suddenly, the same things that made it friendly, cute, and simple make it nauseating.
And I wasn’t the only person to think so.
Laypeople and health professionals on Twitter hashtagged #kurbokills and #wakeupweightwatchers to organize their outrage. A Change.org petition asking Weight Watchers (recently rebranded as WW) to remove the app now has nearly 110,000 signatories.
Even the National Eating Disorders Association issued a statement:
“Asking kids to closely monitor and self-report everything they eat through an app with no in-person monitoring by a medical professional presents grave risks, including eating disorders, disordered eating and a potential lifetime of weight cycling and poor body image.”
Studies (1, 2) and news reports (1, 2) have found that diet apps pose a risk of creating or worsening poor dietary habits, especially in relation to eating disorders. If this is the case for adults, how would an app affect kids?
This isn’t the first attempt by WW to try and put young people on a diet by way of an app. In February, as Time reported, the company offered Weight Watchers for free to teens. And in the face of that criticism, the site reported, Weight Watchers doubled down.
All of this made me curious, so I downloaded the app and dove in.
To sign up, I told the app that I was a 150-pound, 14-year-old girl named Ben Chapman. I picked a cute cartoon apple as my avatar and set goals for the teenage girl version of me.
Kurbo gave me a selection of goals, ranging from “Eat healthier,” and “Lose weight,” to “Make parents happy,” and “Feel better in my clothes.”
After I set my goal to “lose weight,” it was time to track what I ate that day. The rules were simple: It’s a traffic light system. Green circles mean good foods, yellow circles mean portions should be controlled, and red foods are limited to four a day.
The traffic light categorization of food is the underpinning of the app’s functionality — and it presents a serious flaw.
As registered dietitian Abby Langer told VICE, “Thinking of foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can lead to guilt and shame around eating, because we often associate our self-worth with what we eat. If we eat ‘bad’ food, we’re a bad person. A child on Kurbo is only allowed so many ‘red’ foods a week. What if they eat more? How is that likely to make them feel?”
Registered dietitian Beth Peralta, a spokesperson for the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, wrote in an email, “Children can be very black and white in their thinking. Categorizing food as ‘red,’ ‘yellow,’ and ‘green’ can lead to them seeking only ‘green’ foods in their day to be ‘good’, which would mean missing out on nutrients important for growth and development, including calcium, protein, and calories.”
But despite protests from professionals like Langer and Peralta, the Kurbo app is determined to get kids to memorize what their app considers “good foods” and “bad foods” — so much so that WW developed a game feature called “Red Raisins.”
The goal of the game is to match food types to their respective traffic light color. Try as I might, even with my four years of dietetics education, I simply could not grasp what metrics Kurbo uses to determine what’s good or bad.
To begin with, there were nearly no protein sources that were green lights. Tofu, tempeh, chicken, chickpeas, edamame, eggs, egg whites, turkey, all beans (besides green beans and string beans), lean ground beef, and fish were designated yellow or red. Even quinoa was yellow!
In many cases, prioritizing vegetables over protein is appropriate. Protein deficiency generally isn’t a problem for Americans. But in the case of growing children who are beginning to exercise while trying to lose weight, getting enough protein is crucial.
Kurbo also discourages eating fat. Avocados are sources of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, and fiber, making them, by almost every nutritional standard, a healthy food. Yet, for some reason, Kurbo rates them as a yellow light if you have less than half of a fruit, and a red light if you have over half.
Almonds, another food dense with healthy fats and nutrients, are rated yellow. And olive oil, one of the healthiest oils commonly used in America, is a red.
What’s odd is that the Kurbo app strays from WW’s food points for adults: For instance, WW for adults features a list of zero-point foods that people can eat unlimited portions of without having to worry. It includes beans, chicken breast, egg whites, fish, and many other foods that are yellow lights on Kurbo.
Dates and caviar, both zero-point foods on WW’s list, are red lights in the Kurbo app (though it’s unlikely that the number of children regularly consuming these foods is all that high.)
My best estimation of the metric Kurbo uses for its traffic light system is some variation of caloric density. The more calorie-dense a food is, the less healthy Kurbo thinks it is, which explains its consistent bias against foods with fats, oils, and protein.
In a press release, WW explained the metrics that determined the traffic light assignments:
“Kids and teens are encouraged to eat more of the healthy ‘green light’ foods (such as fruits and veggies), be mindful of portions of ‘yellow light’ foods (such as lean protein, whole grains and dairy) and gradually reduce but still include consumption of ‘red light’ foods (such as sugary drinks and treats).”
A WW spokesperson explained further: “Foods are grouped into different colors based on calorie density, nutritional value, and healthy eating patterns.”
But one of Kurbo’s biggest pushes is the coaching subscription — and that presents its own problems.
For $189 over three months, I could buy access to counsel from a telehealth coach.
I didn’t take part in the program because my thin investigative cover would be blown the second my coach saw the scruffy face of a 22-year-old man instead of a teenage girl. Also, I don’t have $189 to spare. (Also, to be filed under “other huge problems about the Kurbo app,” if any random 22-year-old man can create a profile and look at before-and-after photographs of kids, what’s to prevent, you know, creeps from doing the exact same thing?) But if I had, Kurbo promised I would get a personalized eating plan, an exercise routine, shopping lists, and weekly check-in calls with my health coach.
So who was this telehealth coach? And was she qualified to counsel an impressionable 14-year-old girl who may be prone to disordered eating?
While Kurbo claims its coaches are “dedicated experts,” with qualifications ranging from “health assessment specialist” to a chef with an economics degree, none appear to be registered dietitians, I learned after volleying emails back and forth with a company spokesperson.
The registered dietitian credential is the baseline that is expected of a dietary counselor in the medical world. It requires a bachelor’s degree, acceptance into and completion of a year-long internship program, then passing a test. Substantial continuing education is required for RDs to stay up to date on new research and advancements. Soon, the RD credential will require a master’s degree.
RDs are extensively trained in counseling techniques, nutritional and life sciences, and public health, among other things. They are required to follow a strict, comprehensive code of ethics that ensures the safety of their clients or patients.
The credential and the qualifications that come with it are important because people who seek the help of an RD are coming from a place of vulnerability.
In health care, because customers are often unable to verify the validity of what a provider is telling them, there is a level of blind trust necessary between a counselor and a patient. This effect is even more pronounced when the client is a child and they are being given counsel from an adult — a person of influence regardless of credentials. This means that, if a counselor isn’t equipped with adequate education and bound by a strict ethical code, a child could be seriously harmed by a counselor.
In an email, WW said its coach training process entails six to eight hours of basic education training on nutrition, health coaching, and such; three and a half hours of continuing education on mindfulness and sleep; and ongoing mentor sessions from supervisors.
While these 10-ish hours of required training may be helpful, they do not come close to rivaling the five (soon to be seven) years required to become a registered dietitian.
To promote the Kurbo Coach subscription, the app has “success stories” that tout the weight lost by previous participants. Success stories are nothing new to the world of weight loss marketing — what is new is that, for Kurbo, the “before and after” photos are of children.
There’s Robby, a 10-year-old who lost 42 pounds. Juliana, a 15-year-old who lost 40 pounds. And Emilie, an 11-year-old who lost 25 pounds in five months.
According to WW’s story about Emilie, her motivation to lose weight was largely her appearance. “Emilie wanted to go shopping at the mall with her friends and fit into ‘cute and fashionable clothes.’ And of course, she looked around at her friends who were all ‘sticks’ and felt uncomfortable about her appearance.”
WW also showcases 14-year-old Jordan, who “really cared about her appearance,” and lost 25 pounds over four months. They cite Jordan as saying, “I now see everything I eat in green, yellow, and red light colors.”
There is something distressing about seeing before and after pictures of 8-year-olds, or 14 year-olds. The preteen years are a horrifically early time to introduce children to the hazardous road of food tracking, fad dieting, and scale gazing.
In response to a request for comment, WW initially offered me an interview with a family to check in on how they were doing after progressing through the Kurbo treatment. I was excited for the chance to discuss the long-term effects of Kurbo, but I told WW I would only be interested if the interview was unmoderated by WW. I didn’t want to risk a source being intimidated by the presence of the people about which they were providing testimony.
That isn’t allowed. “Unfortunately we won’t be able to provide a parent/family for this interview. We haven’t given the media access to families, when we cannot participate in the interview.”
So much for that.
What should health for children look like?
Childhood obesity is an epidemic — and something has to be done. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a whopping 18.5 percent of kids ages 2 to 19 years old are clinically obese — a problem that affects about 13.7 million children and adolescents.
One of the most trusted voices in childhood nutrition is Ellyn Satter, a respected registered dietitian, family therapist, and author known for developing ideas like “Eating Competence” and the “Division of Responsibility in Feeding.”
Satter’s “Eating Competence” doesn’t focus directly on weight loss; rather, it emphasizes building a healthy relationship with food. She has an evidence-backed test that helps people determine how competent they are in their eating habits.
The test focuses on questions about how regular meals are, whether you feel satisfied after eating, and whether you feel it is OK to eat what you like — a stark contrast with Kurbo’s clumsy, impersonal traffic light system.
Carol Danaher, R.D., M.P.H, a board member at the Ellyn Satter Institute, noted that dieting is a known risk factor for obesity and disordered eating in children and that the institute does not recommend the Kurbo app. But Danaher isn’t just saying that the Kurbo app is dangerous because it could cause disordered eating: Kurbo’s methods are antithetical to long-term health and weight maintenance, she says.
Yes, we have an obesity epidemic, and yes, fighting it requires starting with children. But the Kurbo app creates far more problems than it solves.
Ben Chapman is a 2019 graduate of the University of Illinois Dietetics Program. He is not a registered dietitian. He works as a political organizer and a writer.