In case you missed it, last fall Weight Watchers rebranded itself as WW, pledging to focus more on wellness than on losing weight. And in one of its recent moves, WW launched Kurbo, a controversial app designed to help kids and teens ages 8 to 17 develop healthy eating habits and get active.
The app uses a traffic light color system to try and make it easier for kids to choose healthier foods, a system the company says has been shown to be a safe and effective strategy for weight loss. (For example, green foods can be eaten whenever, yellow foods should be portioned, and red foods should make you stop and consider.)
But since the app’s release, the reception has been mixed. While the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 5 children and adolescents in the U.S. are obese, putting those children at risk for poor health, it’s debatable whether programs like these help or hurt their target audience. (WW was also criticized last year when it announced it would offer its program for free to teenagers ages 13 to 17.)
Dr. Brooke Sweeney, an adolescent-weight-management specialist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City told TIME that it’s helpful to intervene at a young age since it’s “easier to maintain weight or slow down how fast they’re gaining weight versus losing weight.” But in the past, the American Academy of Pediatrics has also advised families to avoid talking about weight with children and instead to promote a healthy lifestyle.
While Kurbo helps you track your food for free, with a paid subscription, you can access weekly check-ins with a coach. A spokesperson for WW told HuffPost that the company doesn’t have a threshold for credentialing but that coaches go through a minimum of six to eight hours of initial training and three and a half hours of continuing education. Some of the coaches listed on the site have degrees in communications, economics, and tourism management.
According to TIME, these coaches are trained to detect signs of disordered eating or unhealthy weight loss, a concern that’s popped up among many who have learned about WW’s new app. Kurbo’s co-founder Joanna Strober similarly told Refinery29 that the free and paid versions of Kurbo both alert families if there are signs of developing eating disorders. Strober also told the site that Kurbo’s approach “has not been shown to increase the risk of eating disorders.”
However, people like Abby Langer, a registered dietitian since 1999, find the app extremely troubling. “My opinion is that you should not put kids on a diet, period,” she told ELLE.com, saying that she doesn’t believe you teach kids wellness by telling them to track their food. “What really struck me initially about this program is that it’s marketed to kids as young as eight years old.”
“We also know that most of the time diets actually don’t work,” Langer explained. “So I’m not sure what Weight Watchers is getting at. Actually I am sure what they’re getting at—they’re trying to establish brand loyalty for the rest of these children’s lives.”
When asked about better solutions to try and solve childhood obesity, Langer mentioned that it can be helpful for a parent to model healthy choices but also admits that obesity is complicated and doesn’t come with a one-step solution: “It’s multifactorial. It’s psycho-social. It’s socio-economic. People are generally not obese just because they love food. There’s so much behind it.”