Unless you’ve been living under a rock or avoiding the news in the past week, I’m sure you’ve heard that WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers) has recently released a weight-loss app targeting kids ages 8-17. This app uses a traffic-light system to categorize foods into red, yellow, and green foods. Kids are encouraged to track every bite they eat and each food has an assigned traffic light colour. Kids can includes as many green foods as they want, while red foods are limited. Each day, there is a allotted amount of red foods. They can either eat them today, or save them and have even more tomorrow. The app also displays before and after weight loss photos of kids as young as 8 years old.
At first glance, this might seem like a reasonable idea. However, many clinicians, eating disorder organizations, and people with lived experience have expressed their concerns regarding this app. I connected with some of my Canadian colleagues to bring you some reasons why this app can do harm.
It discourages body trust and intuition
With the exception of kids with rare medical conditions, children are born with an innate ability to determine how much to eat. Just think of a feeding infant. They generally cry when they are hungry and refuse the breast or bottle when they are full. This intuition is still relevant for toddlers, children, and teens. However, this app can easily disrupt children’s body trust. As Julia Besner, RD explains, “It is difficult to care for one’s body when that trust or sense of taking care of your own body is taken away. Controlling food intake and portions with an app only leads to unhealthy behaviours around eating”.
Cristel Moubarak, RD adds, “By training children to start dieting at a young age, we're taking away from them any intuitive cues they might still inherently have, and their confidence in how they carry themselves”. Dieting teaches kids they cannot trust their intuition.
“Childhood isn't about tracking and recording. Children were born with innate hunger and fullness cues. This app dismantles the trust a child has in their innate wisdom about eating. Science has demonstrated that micromanaging children's eating only contributes to disruption between their relationship with food and their body. This app promotes disordered eating to one of the most vulnerable segments of our population.”, explains Suzanne Dietrich, RD.
It promotes unhelpful food rules
Having rigid food rules can be extremely harmful. It can increase feelings of guilt and shame and can fuel restriction and binging. Kids are especially vulnerable to the impact of food rules.
“This app is instilling harmful food rules by using a traffic light system, and kids take these things quite literally. How can you expect a child to grow up with a healthy relationship with food and body when they are told that birthday cake is something to be avoided because it is a ‘red light food’ and that the lower-calorie option is ‘healthier’?, says Courtenay Vickers, RD.
It puts kids at risk of eating disorders
Dieting is a widely recognized risk factor for the development of eating disorders. During this period of growth and puberty, kids are especially vulnerable. Moubarak explains, “Even if this is supposedly done in the name of health, we know that children are 975 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than diabetes. We know that at least 40% of 12 year olds think they should be on a diet, regardless of their body size. That insecurity is what leads to a lifetime of struggles and is a slippery slope into eating disorders.”
Miranda Burgess, RD MPH adds, “Eating disorders are on the rise because of this crap, by crap I mean diet culture... this needs to stop! We need to promote developing a healthy relationship with food and this app does not do it.”
While not all children and teens will develop an eating disorder after using this app, there is no way of determining which one will and which one won’t. Mun Cho, RD says, “Get this app for your child if you want him or her to develop lifelong insecurities around food and weight. Your child may develop a serious eating disorder as a side effect.“
It’s a marketing tool, not a health tool
Lisa Melo, RD reminds us, “Weight watchers is a corporation worried about making money, not about our kids' health.” WW is not a healthcare organization. “This app isn't a public health tool. It's an algorithm to get vulnerable kids hooked into paying for Weight Watchers diet programs from a young age.”, explains Angela Birnie, RD, RCC. WW is essentially grooming children to become lifelong customer by feeding into weight stigma and fatphobia.
It promotes weight stigma and fatphobia
An app for children that focuses on weight and features before and after weight loss pictures of kids is sending a very, very harmful message.
Melo shares, “Telling kids they need to shrink their bodies isn't helpful or healthy, it's harmful. What they hear is ‘My body is wrong, I'm not enough’“.
Vincci Tsui, RD adds, “As body positivity and the anti-diet movement gain traction, WW is clearly desperate to stay relevant in our current environment. Make no mistake - Kurbo is designed to groom the next generation of lifelong customers. The "science" to support Kurbo is laughable - even if no children develop an eating disorder as a result of this app, it continues to perpetuate fatphobia and weight stigma, which we know has negative health consequences.”
What to do instead
Of course, it’s normal to care and worry about children’s health and nutrition. However, this app is not the solution. Kristy Yee, RD explains, “We want to teach our children how to love and respect themselves, their bodies, and their health. This starts with building positive relationships with food - this app does the opposite.” Andrea Kirkham, RD and PhD Student adds, “Weight Watchers / diet culture sinks to new and despicable lows. Let's defy diet culture and instead let our children appreciate and value their growing, changing bodies and find joy in eating.”
So what can we do to support the health and wellbeing of kids? We can help lift kids out of poverty and food security. We can teach food and cooking skills. We can offer gardening programs. We can increase the number of free breakfast and lunch programs in schools. We can bring kids to the farmer’s market so they can learn where their food comes from.
If we are concerned about a child’s nutrition, perhaps a healthcare provider can help.
“Those kids that do need health advice need professionals taking their individual circumstances into account. No general messages under the guise of "health" are going to help; they're probably going to hurt”, says Birnie.
Kirkham reminds us of two quotes by Ellyn Satter, RD:
"When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers"
"Provide; don't deprive".
The dietitians in this article (including myself) are speaking out from the perspective of clinicians. Many of us hold many layers of privilege and this shapes our view on the topic. We highly suggest you also seek out articles and social media posts written by people with lived experience, especially those who are marginalized. This article by Your Fat Friend is a great place to start. These voices are crucial in this discussion!