Ottawa

Weight-loss app for kids is irresponsible, experts say

A coalition of Canadian eating-disorder clinicians, dietitians and health-care professionals are calling a new weight-loss app for children dangerous. 

Food-tracking program is a recipe for disaster, health care professionals say 

WW launched a weight-tracking app for children this week. Health-care providers say the app will do more harm than good for children who are vulnerable to eating disorders. (Ash Abraham/CBC)

A coalition of Canadian eating-disorder clinicians, dietitians and health-care professionals are calling a new weight-loss app for children dangerous. 

"Our clients are going through so much at these vulnerable ages — puberty and body changes. And gamifying habits that reward food restriction is harmful," said Ary Maharaj, who is an educational coordinator with the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, or NEDIC. 

WW, formally known as Weight Watchers, rolled out Kurbo for kids, targeting kids as young as eight-years-old. The program features success stories with weight loss before-and-after photos of children. 

The Kurbo app features before-and-after photos of children who have reduced their body mass index. (WW Kurbo application )

"It hurts the kids who are already vulnerable to eating disorders," said Josée Sovinsky, a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist who specializes in eating disorders.

Sovinsky says many of her clients developed eating disorders as children, and struggle through adulthood to maintain a healthy relationship with food and fitness. 

The app tracks users' weight and asks children to set goals for weight loss. (WW Kurbo Application )

About the App

Kurbo is based on the Stanford University-developed  Traffic Light System which sorts foods into red, yellow or green categories. Green foods indicate healthy options like fruits and vegetables, yellow is for foods that should that be eaten sparingly like bread and red foods are assigned to sugary and fatty options. 

The free app can be downloaded in Canada, and the support of the Kurbo coaches are available through the U.S. website with U.S. pricing: one-month, three-month and six-month subscription fees of US$69, $189 and $294.

Josée Sovinsky, a registered dietitian and nutrition therapist who specializes in eating disorders. She is worried the app will cause children who are already struggling with body image to develop eating disorders. (Ash Abraham/CBC )

In a statement released Tuesday, WW chief scientific officer Gary Foster said, "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." 

Kurbo creators say their approach is rooted in science and cite the World Health Organization report that childhood obesity is one of "the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century" — but health care professionals don't agree.

"The stop-go method teaches kids to think in black and white: good food, bad food. It can make kids obsessive and fearful about eating," Sovinsky said.

The app also focuses on body mass index measurements with activities that reward weight loss.
 

Diet for kids

This isn't the first time the health-care community has been critical of WW. Last year NEDIC spoke out against them for marketing their weight-loss programs to adolescents. 

"First it was exercise programs, and this year it is apps.They are a for-profit company and have a financial incentive to create lifelong customers. They are trying to rebrand dieting as wellness, but health is more than weight," Maharaj said. 

For parents who are concerned about their children's weight, she suggests speaking to a professional health-care provider.

"There's so much context that goes into weight-gain, and an app isn't going to help in the long-run," Maharaj said.