Weight Watcher's New Calorie Counting App for Children is Heinous
[Listen to an audio recording of this blog HERE.]
If you've tuned into the internet lately, you may have heard that Weight Watchers recently released Kurbo, a "weight management" app for youth ages 8-17. The eating disorder recovery community was understandably outraged-many of us (myself included) used calorie counting apps such as myfitnesspal to strictly count calories and/or restrict and/or scrutinize our weight/food/selves. Needless to say, apps like this don't help people who have or may be susceptible to having eating disorders. Additionally, there is a ton of conflicting research regarding whether apps like this work for anyone, short or long-term.
Weight Watchers claims the app is a health tool. On the surface, that sounds great, right? Nothing wrong with kids eating healthfully. The app is set up with a "green light, yellow light, red light" function that supposedly teaches kids which foods are healthy (green light), sort of healthy (yellow light) and unhealthy (red light). Despite the seemingly harmless nature of this app, there are a few fundamental problems with teaching kids to count calories and scrutinize food.
1. Children have an innate ability to follow their hunger cues. You'll notice it best in very young kids, and unfortunately, we teach kids to ignore their hunger cues early on by asking them to "clean their plates," "earn desert," or by serving them portions that are too big. The only reason Kurbo exists in the first place is because kids are taught to disregard their hunger cues, and diets fundamentally teach people not to trust their own bodies. Hundreds of adults have lost their hunger cues too, and regaining the ability to feel hunger and satiation is far more effective in terms of weight management than counting calories.
2. Weight Watchers is a diet company; there is no way around it. If it actually worked, it would no longer need to exist, which would be (full stop), bad for business. Nearly 95% of diets "fail" in that most dieters gain back the weight they lost. To make matters worse evidence suggests that repeatedly losing and gaining weight is linked to cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and altered immune function.
Earlier this year, Weight Watchers made a public announcement to increase revenue by 2 million dollars over the course of one year. Kurbo offers one-on-one coaching, but 1 month is $69. It's quite clear that Kurbo's primary function is to increase revenue. Covering capitalism beneath the guise of children's health is unilaterally gross, as are the "before and after" shots of children on Kurbo's website.
3. The "red, yellow, green" system of categorization not only vilifies certain foods, but ignores the complexity of energy intake and output. Calorie intake/expenditure is nearly impossible to accurately measure. Dr. Jason Fung, writes, " Yes, if Calories In is more than Calories Out, you will gain fat. But if you eat more calories, you will burn more calories. If you eat less calories, you will burn less, so there is no overall change in body fatness. The problem is that people now make the entirely unwarranted assumption that if calorie output remains stable, reducing calorie intake (food) automatically results in loss of body fat. As I’ve written about many times, this is utterly false; basal metabolism may increase or decrease up to 40%."
Basal metabolism is essentially the rate at which the body uses energy while at rest to maintain vital functions such as breathing and keeping warm. Low calorie diets suppress and lower basal metabolism. Our bodies can adjust to either an increase or decrease in energy intake. Our bodies are not cars, but complex mechanisms that do not respond neatly to a decrease or increase in energy intake or expenditure.
Because we live in a culture that associates skinniness with health/success/sexual desirability/value as a human, it is extremely difficult to believe that children who use Kurbo will only focus on health, and not focus heavily on appearance, thereby wrongly associating outward appearance with inward health. Do we really need an app to reiterate that fruits and vegetables are "good" and soda is "bad"? Do we really need an app that ignores cultural tradition and food preferences? Do we really need an app that caters to families privileged enough to afford the app, and who have access to fresh food? What about kids who live in poverty, who can't access the full app or who don't have a phone? It is enormously likely that health doesn't matter to WW, because good health isn't profitable.
So what if a child wants to lose weight healthfully? Maybe Kurbo will help them do so, but the deeper question parents and healthcare providers should be asking is WHY the child wants or needs to lose weight. As many psychologists have pointed out, people often eat for reasons other than hunger (loneliness, sadness, isolation, trauma, boredom, stress, nutrient deficiencies, etc). This isn't necessary a bad thing, but it is something that should probably be addressed. Ensuring the overall health and well-being of a child will never be accomplished by giving them an app, teaching them to diet, or implying that their bodies are in any way "bad" or "wrong."