Last week, most people flipped the f*ck out when WW (formerly Weight Watchers) announced it had purchased and was relaunching the app Kurbo, aimed for kids ages 8-17. While WW insisted the app was not a weight loss app, many people (us) felt like WW was not being completely transparent, and the app was just a thinly veiled weight loss app. Gary Foster, the chief scientific officer at WW International, called Kurbo “an app that teaches in a game-ified, fun, engaging way what are the basics of a healthy eating pattern.” But in an official statement, WW referred to Kurbo as a “scientifically-proven behavior change program designed to help kids and teens age 8-17 reach a healthier weight.” Hmm, so which is it? Are we teaching kids to lose weight or nah?
Kurbo uses a “traffic light system” to classify foods as red, yellow, and green. App users can play games to determine which category various common foods fall under, and there’s also a tracking component where they can record the foods they’ve eaten. As someone who did Weight Watchers as a “kid” (I was like, 15 or 16), I was initially torn when news about this app came out. On the one hand, the CDC claims childhood obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s, and nearly 1 in 5 kids aged 6-19 are obese. I would have probably done Kurbo in 10th grade when I went on Weight Watchers. On the other hand, kids already have body image issues, and appealing to that and encouraging weight loss for literal 8-year-0lds is pretty ridiculous and premature, and as many pointed out, it could promote or lead to disordered eating. So I decided to download the app to see for myself, and honestly? It’s worse than I thought.
I downloaded Kurbo, input my information (I pretended I was a 4’8″ kid who weighed 100 pounds, which is technically classified as overweight). Then I played a game called “Red Raisins”, where the app shows you pictures of various foods and then you have to determine which are red, yellow, and green through a variety of exercises. (Sometimes you’ll drag a fork to the “green” food, sometimes you’ll erase the “yellow food”—stuff like that.) Not going to lie, the game was actually pretty fun and may replace my desk habit of mindlessly scrolling through dating apps. However, I was seriously gobsmacked at some of Kurbo’s classifications. The green and red foods didn’t surprise me (carrots are green; fried chicken is red), but the yellow foods were another story.
From the Kurbo app, green foods mean “healthy foods—eat up!”, yellow means “watch portions”, and red means “eat 4 or fewer” (I guess per day, though it doesn’t specify). Seems like a pretty logical and intuitive system, until you get to what Kurbo considers foods you should watch your portions for.
Baked chicken breast?? Are you sure?? The same baked chicken breast annoying fitness bros swear by? Surely that baked chicken breast cannot be a food kids need to watch out for. And, to be clear, this is chicken without skin. Now, here’s the crazy part. I am on Weight Watchers (I’m Lifetime, which means I’m not losing anymore, I’m just maintaining), which works on a points system. Basically, depending on factors like your height, goal weight, age, whether or not you are pregnant, etc., you get a daily allowance of points per day. Each food (and beverage) has a certain points value, depending on things like calories, protein, sugar, carbs, etc. Guess how many points chicken breast is on the WW app. No, really. Guess.
Zero. Zero f*cking points. Don’t believe me? Here’s a screenshot from my app:
I don’t know what psychos are eating raw chicken breast, but the point is that adults can eat a serving of chicken breast and not have it count towards their daily points allowance. So why are we telling kids that this is not a “safe” food? If anything, you would think we would be more lenient towards kids, who are still growing and developing. But nope! Stay away from the chicken breast, children!
Check this out! Unsweetened applesauce is a yellow light food on Kurbo. Now, I kind of get that, because obviously no kid (or person) should be eating, like, 10 pounds of applesauce per day, sweetened or not. But, and you’re probably getting better at this game now, guess how many points WW assigns to 1/2 cup of unsweetened applesauce?
Correct! Zero points!
Even crazier? A baked chicken sandwich (which they depict as baked chicken with lettuce and tomato on a bun—no cheese) is a red food. That’s wild, considering that in my WW meetings, we always say that a grilled or baked chicken sandwich is a pretty safe option when you’re going out to eat. Crab is a yellow food, when lump crab meat is zero points on WW. It just doesn’t make sense.
To be fair to Kurbo, some of the games were helpful. I played one that had you guess what proper serving sizes are for foods, using things like the palm of your hand for reference. That’s useful, considering most people can’t properly eyeball 3 oz. of meat or 1/4 cup of nuts or whatever. But the food classifications were another story. You would think that an app owned and run by WW would be consistent for children and adults. You’d also think, again, that they would be more forgiving for children, because they’re growing and I’d venture that kids are generally more active than adults. But nope! You’d be wrong on both accounts. Instead of teaching children how to make healthy choices (a goal I kind of take issue with in the first place, since a lot of the time children don’t have much control over what they’re eating, and it’s up to the parents to provide healthy meals for them), we are teaching children to demonize the same foods that adults are permitted to eat freely! To borrow from Ramona Singer, wow. Wow, WW. Wow.
Images: Dan Gold / Unsplash; Kurbo (2); WW (2)
Weight loss programs and diets are nothing new, but there’s no question that social media and internet culture have pushed the world of weight loss to new places. These days, the name of the game is not weight loss, but wellness. Wellness is a global industry worth more than $4 trillion, and companies are desperate to stake their claim. While we’ve seen lots of new companies emerging in the wellness space, older companies have also been forced to adapt with the times. Enter the company formerly known as Weight Watchers, who created some major controversy this week when they announced Kurbo, a new app aimed at kids and teens.
Weight Watchers, which rebranded as WW International (Wellness Wins) last year in an aim to focus more on overall “wellness” than strictly weight loss, has been a major player in the weight loss space for more than 50 years. They acquired Kurbo in 2018, and then spent a year making changes before relaunching the app. Among the changes include adding what TIME called a “Snapchat-inspired interface,” which really seems like the aesthetic we should be going for with a weight loss app. Will there be dog ears?
But according to Gary Foster, the chief scientific officer at WW International, it’s not a weight loss app. He describes Kurbo as “an app that teaches in a game-ified, fun, engaging way what are the basics of a healthy eating pattern.” Okay, so there’s nothing wrong with encouraging kids to learn how to eat healthy, but the claim that it’s not a weight loss app don’t really hold up when you compare Gary Foster’s words with those that come directly from WW. In an official statement, they say that Kurbo is a “scientifically-proven behavior change program designed to help kids and teens age 8-17 reach a healthier weight.”
Either I need to go back to English class, or “reach a healthier weight” sounds like an extremely diplomatic way of saying “lose weight.” Look, I’ve needed to lose weight since I was approximately 10 years old, so I know what it sounds like when I hear it. The app uses a so-called “traffic light system,” in which foods are assigned red, yellow, and green lights. Obviously, things like candy fall in the red light category, while vegetables and fruits are safely in the green zone. I haven’t seen the specific guidelines for this system, and it seems logical enough, but it’s pretty comical to pretend that it wasn’t designed with weight loss in mind.
It seems like Gary Foster might have realized this, because he added that he sees that “there could be some misperception that somehow we’re saying, ‘All kids should lose weight, you’re not OK as you are,'” and then he says that the goal is to provide a “reasonable, sensible” method for “kids who are trying to achieve a healthier weight.” Soooooo it’s a weight loss program.
And predictably, people are f*cking pissed about this, pointing out that diets don’t work, kids are having body image issues as young as 3 years old (yes), and that overall, children should not feel pressured into looking a certain way.
I thought that I hated Weight Watchers. I have not hated them as much as I do right now.
Making weight loss trendy for children is making the development of eating disorders easier and trendier. I am not here for this.
— Anna Sweeney MS, CEDRD-S (@DietitianAnna) August 13, 2019
Hey @weightwatchers. Yes, you.
? Putting kids on diets is NEVER okay. ?
Even if you call it a lifestyle change. And give them a free app.
I have enough struggling clients. You don’t need to create more.
A Concerned Eating Disorder Dietitian
— Josée Sovinsky, RD ☕️ (@JoseeSovinskyRD) August 14, 2019
However, WW is sticking to its story that Kurbo is “a science-backed tool uniquely designed for kids and teens who want to improve their eating habits and get more active.”
We’re excited to introduce @KurboHealth, a science-backed tool uniquely designed for kids and teens who want to improve their eating habits and get more active. Find out more at https://t.co/1hvFKOWAGd! #WellnessThatWorks pic.twitter.com/a5SLVS5wtk
— WW (formerly Weight Watchers) (@ww_us) August 13, 2019
At the end of the day, we don’t know enough about Kurbo to say for sure whether the program is good or not, but it seems disingenuous for WW to try to distance themselves from the weight loss component of the app. Even if it’s also meant for kids who aren’t trying to lose weight, that doesn’t really seem like the main target audience here. Surely, there are young people who could benefit from weight loss (speaking from experience here), but should probably talk to your doctor before going on any kind of weight loss program, no matter what it might be disguised as.
The thing is, with wellness being such a gold mine, you know that the main motivation behind all of this is money. If WW didn’t think there was money to be made in developing an app for kids, they never would have done it. Even if the app itself is great, they’re not helping anyone by beating around the bush with their goals. I don’t have anything personal against WW and their programs, but being cagey about the intentions behind them isn’t the way to promote a healthy culture around wellness and our bodies.
Images: Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash