I went to my first Weight Watchers meeting around the age of 10. Like many obese girls my age, it was my first entry into the world of dieting. In my special group, I was the only young person and was surrounded by a host of grown women who all cried for their inability to drop the pound. My experience with Weight Watchers fundamentally changed the way I looked at food, created me for a teenager full of dieting, undisturbed eating and a really fucked up relationship with food.
Now, Weight Watchers is trying to get this experience into a whole new generation of obese kids, with slick tech to match. This week, the company (which has since redirected to WW) launched Kurbo by WW, a new app designed to help children as young as eight lose weight. According to Time Kurbo Weight Watchers is another attempt to attract children and teens ̵
Curbo is not unlike the original Weight Watchers system, which allocated a specific number of "points" to food – two "SmartPoints" for one slice of bread, six for two tablespoons of peanut butter – and issued dieters a limited number of points that they could "spend" on food every day. That system eventually evolved into WW Freestyle, which allows more than 200 foods (mostly vegetables and fruits) to be "ZeroPoint" or "free."
But Kurbo eschews points for a "red light, green light" system developed at Stanford University. The system allows teens and tweens to eat "green light" food as vegetables free and "yellow light" food as pasta in size. "Red light" foods such as soft drinks and sweets should make kids "think about how to budget them in." As with the scoring system, children at Kurbo are assigned a specific number of red light foods each day, based on their height, weight, and weight loss goals. However, when you take a closer look at it, it is easy to see that this system is quite identical to assigning food values, if slightly less confusing.
As someone who has used the Weight Watchers app more than once, I downloaded Kurbo to see how different it was from the parent company's weight loss program. The Kurbo app asked for my height, weight and age, which I entered as a 9-year-old whose weight would fall within the "overweight" range according to the body mass index table. I was then asked to choose a happy fruit or vegetable avatar (I went with a pineapple) and was instructed to choose a target from a list of options such as "lose weight", "make parents happy" and "increase confidence."
After filling out the questionnaire and watching a strange video about how Kurbo's system works, the app threw me directly into the world of food tracking. With the help of a searchable database, I could enter pizza or pineapple or cookies, and the corresponding colored light of the food would appear directly next to its name. Another screen showed how to measure portion sizes by hand – a fist of rice or pasta, a cupped hand of chips – while an interactive game called "red raisins" encourages kids to identify "red" or "green" foods in sight. I got four servings of "red" foods a day, and when I told the app I had binged on cakes and peanut butter sandwiches, it told me I would try some green foods and adjusted the number of "reds" I had to eat for the rest of the week. The second time I used the app, I registered as a 13-year-old 5-foot-5-inch weighing 90 pounds, a height and weight that placed my fake child in the "underweight" part of the body mass index chart. Kurbo still allowed me to register and set a goal to lose weight.
Since children are not stupid, it will not take them long to develop problems around foods that have been categorized as "red lights." "For all children who have been on a diet or have experienced calorie counting, which many of them are taught in school, they will be able to realize that a piece of cake will probably have more calories than an apple," says Chevese Turner, chief policy and strategy manager for The National Eating Disorders Association is also largely counterproductive, and it does not help children lose weight, at least not in the long term. Research indicates that linking debt to certain foods, such as chocolate cake or french fries, makes it much more difficult to resist overeating.
Food tracking, or logging of every mouthful that goes into your mouth, can have significant consequences for people struggling with eating disorders, which is already increasing among young people. Kurbo suggests that the app does not focus on or even really allow calorie count, but that doesn't mean it can't be abused by teenagers who handle undisturbed eating patterns. "We're worried about "We have no evidence to show that there is a way to safely diet as a child or as an adult for that matter."
Except for categorizing "healthy" and "unhealthy" foods by color, Kurbo also offers weekly video chats with its weight loss buses. Kurbo's website contains short cinemas about each of the nine buses, many of which have no formal education in nutrition. Some, like Brandon, have business degrees and a self-reported interest in HIIT (high-intensity interval training). Others have unspecified certificates in "holistic nutrition", Chinese medicine and tourism management. The app claims that all buses have been trained to recognize "signs of eating disorders and unhealthy weight loss", but it is unclear how exactly they will be able to do so.
This is not unlike my experience of many weight watchers who meet leaders, who often had extreme enthusiasm for weight loss and "health", but could not necessarily advise. Weight Watchers hires leaders who are not nutritionists or training experts, but have been "successful with our weight loss plan." When employed, these leaders are paid poorly and are required to maintain their weight loss within two kilos for at least six weeks. And of course, if you regain weight, your job could be at risk – in 2002, Weight Watchers fired New Jersey meeting leader Abbe Favocci for having gained 20 pounds after being diagnosed with colon cancer. "If it's over 10 pounds, they'll tell you," Favocci told CBS News.
Perhaps the most depressing on Kurbo's website is its success stories, which tell the weight loss of children as young as eight, complete with before and after photos of once chubby children who are now thin. Ten-year-old Robby, who allegedly lost 42 kilos at Kurbo, says the plan helped him learn that healthy foods were more satiating. Juliana, a 12-year-old, shares that she was too nervous to talk to her coach at first. These success stories are, of course, couched with a warning that Juliana's and Robby's results are a kind of pleasure. "Results are not typical," reads the small disclaimer at the bottom of the page. "Weight loss and / or BMI reduction will vary depending on age, weight and height."
Inside the app, the success stories are told much more in-depth and it is equally sad. In one, a girl named Emilie regrets not being able to find "trendy clothes and skinny jeans" in size before dropping 25 pounds, and sets her goal so she can wear a bikini at summer parties. "When the family ate meals at Red Robin, Emilie would eat all the french fries on her plate," the story reads. "Now she eats a quarter of them." The awful combination of food morale and body shaming in Emily's story is exactly why young girls are obsessed with how many french fries are okay to eat and how thin their bodies have to be to wear a bikini.
These "before and after" stories and photos make it very clear to obese children and teens that there is something wrong with their bodies, and that thinness is the ideal standard that Kurbo is designed to promote. In all the pictures on Kurbo's website, the success story of children is thinner than they were before they started the program, and that's really all Weight Watchers needs to know. As much as they talk about well-being and health, this is a company that has made billions of dollars haking promise of thinness. Kurbo can offer activity tracking, but its main focus is food intake. "Many diet companies are moving towards using 'health and well-being' as their keywords," says Turner. "But at the end of the day, this is still a diet."
Kurbo is yet another tool in the arsenal of parents who are desperately seeking weight loss response for their children, and it is really hard to blame them. We know that obese children are more likely to be bullied, have fewer friends and face discrimination from medical providers. Parents want to protect their children from fat phobia by encouraging them to lose weight, but they are more likely to end up in the vicious cycle of dieting. According to the Cleveland Clinic, girls who start losing weight at an early age are more likely to experience "eating disorders, alcohol problems or obesity" later in life.
Before enrolling in $ 69 / month coaching sessions, Kurbo requires parents to certify that their child does not "self-induce vomiting, use diuretics or laxatives for weight loss," has a diagnosed eating disorder, "but it does cover – Your asshole does not exactly prevent parents who are hell bent on losing their children from just checking the box. It really does not help children of higher weight, whose eating disorders are much more likely to be detected. "You may have anorexia, bulimia or eating disorders and still be in a body of higher weight," Turner says. "There are many parents who can register their child on this app because they are in a body of higher weight, when they actually have an eating disorder."
What may ultimately be the most effective in helping children develop healthy eating habits are parents who model positive behavior, not put them on diets. "Parents need to do what they can to create a normal relationship with food, one that doesn't come with all this baggage of moralizing and" good "versus" bad, "says Turner." It's all about modeling, and whether we can model what we want to see in our children, if we have the privilege of doing so, then it is probably the best way to go. "
It is also impossible not to see the introduction of Kurbo as a cynical game for the future of a company that in Weight Watchers has been reporting declining membership over the past year and expects that trend to continue. Diets like keto and paleo, which do not require a $ 40 / month online membership or face-to-face meetings, are much more accessible and do not have the same stigma as a program like Weight Watchers or NutriSystem, but if Weight Watchers can introduce its specific brand for dieting for children, who are subjected to a constant stream of fat phobia in the media and everywhere, it has a whole new customer flow. More than that, as Turner notes, the company has a massive database of the millions of adults who have used the Weight Watchers program to try to lose weight, and can use that database to market Kurbo to children of chronic dieters.
Over the years, Weight Watchers has redesigned its plans countless times, and Kurbo is just the latest iteration. But the company's message will always be clear: Stop being bold. It is a really dangerous message to send to obese children, who are already so vulnerable. Although Kurbo encourages kids to move their bodies more and develop a love for exercise, the primary focus is on limiting specific types of food and rewarding others' consumption, which is little more than a way to set kids up for a life of dieting and disappointment. As a 31-year-old who still can't watch steamed broccoli without pushing, I know the long-term consequences of this type of food that are intimately moralized.