Late this summer, the popular dieting company WW (previously known as Weight Watchers) released an app called Kurbo that they say “helps kids and teens build healthy habits, for life.” As a clinical dietitian, I strongly discourage the use of this app.
The Kurbo app is free and being targeted to kids ages 8 to 17 — children 13 or older can use the app without a parent’s permission, and those younger than 13 need parental approval. The main function of the app is a traffic-light based food rating system (red, yellow, green). Users track their daily food intake and the goal is to increase the intake of “green light” foods such as vegetables and limit their intake of “red light” foods such as French fries. While that doesn’t seem too alarming, focusing on “good foods” vs. “bad foods” is not developmentally appropriate for children and can create an unhealthy food relationship.
While the app does not use a points system like the adult version of WW, it does limit children to a specified number of “weekly reds” (red light foods) and suggests an allotted number of these foods per day. To set up the app, a child must first input their weight and height and they are then given a prescribed limit of “red light” foods based on their body mass index (BMI). Children can also set goals in the app, such as “Achieve a healthier weight,” “Boost my confidence” and “Feel better.”
The use of a phone app for children to track their daily food intake and limit or restrict specific (red light) foods goes directly against recommendations from many health experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. By intentionally manipulating a child or teen’s food intake, Kurbo essentially engages young people in dieting. In kids, dieting is not only an ineffective route to health, but it also has been shown to cause harm, including being a potential trigger for eating disorders. Focusing on weight loss for children is often not an appropriate approach, and many children of larger body sizes do not need to lose weight to experience health. These facts, however, are not reflected in the Kurbo app.
Along with the free food-tracking feature that comes with the Kurbo app, parents can also pay a monthly fee to have themselves or their 13 or older child paired with a health coach for weekly video chats. It’s important to note that these coaches are not registered dietitians or therapists, but have a variety of educational backgrounds that may be unrelated to the nutrition field.
Research shows that improving the health or weight status of a child should involve the entire family rather than targeting the child or teen alone. Parents are the gatekeepers when it comes to what foods enter the household. Parents can use their knowledge about healthy foods and moderation to choose what foods to offer their kids at meals and snacks rather than having children independently track their food intake, which can be isolating and harmful.
Furthermore, studies shows that focusing less on what children are eating, and rather where, when and with whom they enjoy their meals and snacks can have far greater impact on their health in the long run. Focusing on sit-down snacks at set times, family meals and distraction-free eating at a table are approaches families can take on together without getting caught up in “good” and “bad” food labeling. It has been shown that when given adequate structure and support from parents, children are intuitively able to decide how much food they need using their hunger and fullness cues.
Another great resource for parents is our Mission: Healthy Kids program, which is a partnership of Kohl’s Cares® and Children’s Wisconsin. These free, interactive education resources are focused on nutrition, physical activity and healthy minds. Families can watch videos, download recipes and try interactive activities to learn more about nutrition, health and wellness.
In order to start children on a positive foot with eating and health, it’s best to talk with their pediatrician or a pediatric registered dietitian. These experts can help set and support family-based goals and provide resources to help families and children achieve health regardless of their weight or body size.