Kids don't need diet apps - trust me, I was a kids weight loss dietitian
Weight Watchers have made a diet app for kids ...and it's not okay. Here's what I learned from working with kids and families, and what you could do instead.
weight watchers, kurbo
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Kids don’t need diet apps – trust me, I was a kids weight management dietitian

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Kids don’t need diet apps – trust me, I was a kids weight management dietitian

They don’t work for most adults… so why would we want to put our kids through it?

What is this all about?

A dieting app aimed kids and teens (the age range of their ‘success stories’ is listed as between 8-15 years old) recently launched by the company formerly known as Weight Watchers: WW.  It’s based on the ‘Traffic Light Diet’ developed at the University of Buffalo in America.

What’s involved? 

Just like their own WW app, Kurbo encourages kids to track their dietary intake – recording each mouthful eaten, each activity they’ve done; and analyses it. They use a traffic light system to rate foods as ‘eat freely’, ‘ eat in moderation’ and eat ‘less often’. 

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Photo by Khamkhor on Unsplash

As spotted by a few reviewers in the states – if you eat too much of the ‘red’ points foods in one day, it cuts out your allowance for these through the rest of the week.

I can’t download the app here in the UK; so I’m not able to see which, if any, nutrient-dense foods might be classed as ‘red’ – or whether they factor all of these nuanced points about nutrition in growing humans into all of this.

ie, girls are at particular risk for low iodine, calcium and iron intake in their teens – probably as they gain some autonomy and start to become aware of different ways of eating. This risk might be heightened again by those who choose to go vegetarian or vegan without adequately replacing these nutrients in their diet.

Why all of the fuss?

Kids don’t need to diet – no Public Health initiative merely encourages weight loss a a standard therapy in growing children. They’re expected to gain weight as they age – because THEY ARE GROWING. They’re literally laying down body mass.  

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Diets and apps like these present food as a moral issue; one that’s good / okay / or bad… that fits on a traffic light. If you think that kids didn’t already know which foods have more calories in them, or that sugar has been touted as ‘bad’ by this age… I think you might be surprised. 

These diets and app’s also leave kids out of touch with their own innate hunger and fullness cues; they don’t know when the kid has had a full-on day at school, hasn’t slept great or is going through a growth spurt and feeling pretty hungry. This restriction may also lead to binge-eating, guilt and shame later on.

My experience with working with families

Head’s-up – some of you might not know this, but in in my last role I was a weight management specialist dietitian. I worked in Public Health – with children, schools and families. We identified children and families who may want support with making some diet and lifestyle changes following assessment via the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP). This is a programme in the UK which measure height and weights of schoolchildren at ages 4-5 and 10-11 years old. I’m not going to go into detail about the NCMP here – it deserves its own post!  

Despite what people would think (lots thought we were just some sort of brutal ‘fat club’ – their words), we followed an evidence-based approach in terms of improving health overall behaviours – things like increasing fruit and veg consumption, increasing exposure to different meals and fruit / veg, removing barriers to cooking posed by time, and accessibility to these over different income brackets. Plus helping families to find some joy in getting moving – try stuff out and find things that they enjoy doing. We worked with the family and carers as a whole wherever possible because modelling behaviours is incredibly important.

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image: World Obesity Federation

Whilst I loved working with families and I worked with some incredible people – in my job I saw a few different approaches in some settings that didn’t sit quite right with me. With no shred of consideration for any external factors in these families’ lives, some health professionals openly blamed the kids and the parents; blamed them for not liking certain foods, or sport – or any exercise. This blame was offered up rather than exploring any of the options; finding out what people actually liked, what they were likely to actually want to keep doing – to at least give a realistic chance for lasting behaviour changes. There was so much blame and shaming… which, ya know – does not work in helping to improve anyone’s health. 

Time and time again I was also shocked to see kids who were encouraged to diet by incredibly well-meaning parents – who had expressed surprise that ‘they didn’t lose any weight’ – even when they had gained 2cm in height that month (?!). You can see how they’d be confused – the dieting world is full on conflicting information designed to get you signed up and onboard.

That job was the reason that I began question everything about ‘weight management’ – to look closer at the statistics and research and be truly shocked by what was there. It broke my heart when a kid looked devastated when the scale didn’t move in a way they wanted or expected it to. They not only felt like they’d let themselves down – that they were now at some terrifying risk of being unhealthy (even though they’d made so many positive changes – eating more fruit / veg, fibre, getting active regularly.. and enjoying it!) but that they’d let their parents and families down too. When you can see how clearly they attached this number to their self-worth… what do you even say to that? 

In terms of health, our early years and teens are not a time for dieting, they are a time for learning, for growing – laying down bone and tissue, for enjoying foods, for finding activities we enjoy that we might carry on doing for the rest of our lives. They’re not about being shamed into boot camps – being made to eat foods we don’t like or shamed for eating certain foods more than was ‘allowed’ that week. 

This isn’t about health

This app isn’t about ensuring the health of our families, this is a company trying to pitch a potentially harmful product to our kids.

The app offers a nutrition coaching package where kids will check in weekly with coaches –  who don’t need any professional nutrition or health qualifications, who may not be able to / trained to able to recognise the nuances of disordered eating, deficiencies or other behaviours and act accordingly.

These kids are still growing – they need essential nutrients, not a calorie deficit.

The qualifications of coaches on their team pages include: ‘Tourism Management’, “Political Economy’ and ‘Business’ amongst others. If you were looking for help with anything else to do with your health and wellbeing – would you go to a Tourism Management specialist?

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image: World Obesity Federation

They’re also able to act in their own self-interest, to promote activities or ways of eating that aren’t checked, they’re not regulated by any professional bodies; like AfN and HCPC.

Show Kurbo the red light

Although the basis of this system may sound at first, long term results from studies looking into the effectiveness of the diet are lacking and there is no data about the long lasting effect of this diet on children’s relationships with food as they age. Long story short: it’s an untested diet app, aimed at kids – that’s designed to keep you coming back, like all diet apps.

This app just adds to an ever growing voice of diet culture and fat phobia that we’re constantly exposed to; teaching kids that there’s something wrong with their bodies, that they can only be happy, healthy and successful when they look a certain way.

Is this the bright, modern,  future we want for our kids – an obsession with the scale, to feel as bad as we did when our weight fluctuated? How is this progress?

There’s an argument to be made for dieting being the biggest predictor of weight gain. Not only this – but it also may be the biggest predictor for developing eating disorders , alongside poor perception of body image and maternal dieting habits.

The weight loss companies don’t care about this – if they did, they’d do themselves out of a job. WW and companies like it literally make their living on getting people back in time and time again.

Kids can feeling like failures if they don’t complete whatever diet they’re on. When they’re really hungry one day and they ‘give in’ and binge on that forbidden food.

Losing weight is not only hard for adults; these kids are still growing. They will gain weight. Yet they’re taught – weight loss is GOOD weight gain is BAD. I repeat: THEY ARE STILL GROWING. it’s not about health, self-care or anything else.

We need to be taught that people are different sizes, that health looks different on every body – that being thin does not automatically mean being healthy.

Poodle Science – I will always love this vid for explaining it in an accessible way:

Teenage years are an INTENSE phase of growing for (all of us) we will gain weight. And we need to be told that that’s normal, that it’s okay.

mum and son exercising in park private Brighton HOve dietitian nutritionist health wellbeing IBS intolerances fodmaps
image: World Obesity Federation

What can you do instead?

Show them that this isn’t the case. Try to model positive eating behaviours for your children, think about how you talk about your body in front of them, try out different activities as a family if you can. They will eventually be exposed to all of this in the wider world – but you can set them up with a secure foundation. It’s not always easy, it’s not always simple – but it’s 100% better than a weight loss app where children can be made to feel worthless.

Is the dining table becoming a battle ground? Have a look at the Child Feeding Guide website to get some tips or this book by Ellyn Satter (affiliate link) might help you to figure out what you can do to help.

If you have real concerns about your child’s health and weight – reach out to a health professional who’ll talk through your concerns with you, help you to find a way to make any changes that fits with your family and be able to assess for any potential signs of eating disorders.

 Helpful links:

Activities: If you’re Brighton-based, kids get free swimming passes until they’re 16. You can find out more about the options here, plus there’s a list of free / low price activities for the year under the Active For Life download.
Nationally – you can check out your local council site to find out more.

Cooking – affordable recipe inspo: check out Jack Monroe’s blog for tasty, affordable ideas for even the most novice cook. The BBC Good Food site also has a whole host of free recipes with bonus reviews – which can be incredibly helpful!

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  • Jess English
    Posted at 12:13h, 11 September Reply

    Thanks Miranda, it’s a very emotive subject!

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