What do you remember about being 8 years old? 10 years old?
Do you remember playing tag in your neighborhood, adrenaline running through your veins while you ran as fast as you could, trying to avoid becoming “It”? Jumping in the lake on a hot summer day and eating popsicles with your friends? Snuggling up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn while watching a Disney movie?
Thanks to Kurbo Health, a new app for kids and teens created Weight Watchers (now “WW”), some of today’s children as young as 8 years old will remember logging their meals and snacks day after day, receiving either praise or warnings regarding their choices. They will remember messaging with “health coaches” on the Internet about how to “budget” their “red foods” (aka foods to avoid as much as possible) for “special occasions.” The app tells children (whose brains aren’t close to being fully developed) that they can eat all the “green foods” (fruits and vegetables) they want!, but be careful with the “yellow foods” (examples include: chicken, eggs, 1% milk, whole wheat bread, rice, and beans). They will remember being encouraged to have fruit instead of butter with their eggs (and to be careful about how many servings of eggs they have in the first place).
Eight year olds.
They will remember taking a “before” and “after” photo documenting their pursuit of weight loss. The Kurbo Health website includes “Success Stories” of children ages 8-17 showcasing these before and after photographs. CHILDREN. I felt sick to my stomach looking at it.
Let me make a few things clear early on in this post: I am all for healthy eating (though my definition does not label foods as “good” or “bad”). I am all about encouraging children to move their bodies, and to eat what feels good to them, and I am all about promoting health. Preaching weight loss to children – yes, even children who are “overweight” or “obese” according to a BMI* chart – does not promote health. It focuses on a number which children, like it or not, learn to equate to their worth. It promotes dieting and obsessive thinking. Shaming someone for their weight or size does not “motivate” them to lose weight (they might initially, but 95% of the time they regain it); it leads to worsened self-esteem, disordered eating, and chronic stress – which has worse negative health outcomes than being a particular weight.
*BMI was invented by a mathematician, not a physician. Fortunately, the CDC website does state, “[BMI] is not diagnostic of the body fatness or health of an individual.” … If only everyone kept this in mind!
My favorite study is the Health at Every Size (HAES) study from the early 2000s. I would encourage anyone who finds themselves thinking, “But what if someone needs to lose weight? What about health?” to read up on it. The study took a group of women, all of whom were considered “obese” on a BMI chart, and all of whom endorsed desire for weight loss, and split them into two groups. One group met with a “top obesity expert,” and focused on dieting and exercise with the goal of weight loss, and the others practiced a HAES approach. The HAES approach was, essentially, a non-diet approach focused on self-acceptance, intuitive eating, and moving in ways that felt good. There was no focus on weight loss, but instead on self-compassion and health.
The findings were notable – the diet group, as predicted, did initially lose weight. That said, 41% dropped out of the study because dieting is restrictive, hard, not enjoyable, and not natural. But at two-year follow-up, those who remained – despite the initial weight loss – had regained all of the weight they had lost, and many had regained even more (if you’ve ever dieted, I’m sure this sounds familiar – that’s because this is the rule, not the exception). Their health markers were worse than they were when the study began, and their self-esteem had worsened, as well. The HAES group did not lose any weight, however, improved all of their health markers and self-esteem at two-year follow-up.
I realize that this is completely counter to what most people, myself included, have been taught most of their lives. It takes time to shift your thoughts and beliefs to align with this. But the evidence is there.
… Now let’s get back to this atrocious childhood dieting app.
As one might anticipate, childhood and adolescent exposure to dieting (e.g. in the household and socially), let alone actually engaging in dieting behavior, is a significant predictor in the development of disordered eating and eating disorders. An eating disorder is not something anyone is immune to, it is not simply “taking a diet too far.” It is like any other illness – while there is not one single factor that contributes to the onset, many are biologically predisposed due to their genetics. For example, having a family member who has experienced an eating disorder, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or substance abuse puts you at risk for an eating disorder. Environmental factors – such as weight stigma and early exposure to dieting, among other things – only increase your odds.
Many eating disorders begin with a diet; unfortunately, in many of these cases, the diet was recommended by a doctor. Early dieting predicts lifelong dieting (since diets generally don’t work long-term; see HAES study above), and Kurbo Health, of course, is hoping to lock kids in at a young age so they always seek guidance from the Weight Watchers (read: so WW can take their money). They want them to believe they have failed, and need the points and the diets and the apps to help them be more in control because they just have no will-power, when in reality, biologically, our bodies are not designed to diet. Our bodies believe they are in famine when they are restricted, which leads to slowed metabolism (often leading to weight gain, which is counter to the dieter’s original goal), increased thoughts about food, and often binge eating. This is not a lack of self-control, it is an evolutionary response trying to keep you alive, fueled, healthy, and safe.
Not only does a focus on weight increase the likelihood of developing an eating disorder, it reinforces the message that being above a certain weight is “bad” and below or at a certain weight is “good.” This leads to obsessive thinking, and poor self-esteem, which often leads to depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, early sexual behavior, and substance abuse disorders … to name a few.
Weight itself is not a health concern. Let’s say two people walk into a doctor’s office – one is in a thinner body, one in a larger body. Both recently had bloodwork indicating high cholesterol. The doctor will likely recommend to the thinner person to be mindful of their eating, encouraging them to choose lower cholesterol foods more often. This makes sense. They will likely not mention their weight at all.
What will the doctor likely prescribe to the larger bodied person? Weight loss. (Actually, even if the larger bodied person was not presenting with high cholesterol, or any health concern for that matter, the doctor would likely preach weight loss to them. I hear about it and read about it all the time. It is real, and it is harmful.)
If someone is presenting with a health concern that can be remedied by changes to their eating, doctors and family members can promote and give guidance regarding these concerns without ever mentioning weight. Because the weight is not the problem! Might this person lose weight as they begin eating lower cholesterol foods? Perhaps, and that’s fine! Being anti-diet does not mean I am anti-weight loss; it means I do not advocate for weight loss as a goal for the sole purpose of weight loss, or in the pursuit of “health.” What is important here is that it is possible that someone can improve their health markers without ever seeing the number on the scale decrease. Their body may not change, even as their health improves.
The first thing you’ll see on the Kurbo Health website is “Reach a healthier weight with Kurbo.” It is all about weight. I hope I have made it clear that you cannot tell whether someone is healthy based on their weight or shape alone, and we have got to stop trying to sell kids – or adults for that matter – this idea that weight loss will automatically improve their health.
Instead of entering all of your food – or having your child enter all of their food – into an app, cook and eat dinner as a family if this is possible given your life circumstances. Go for family walks and find what kinds of sports and exercise feel good to you, rather than the ones that burn the most calories. Do not label foods as “good” or “bad;” this will stick with kids more than you think – hasn’t it stuck with you? Be mindful of the language you use about your own body in front of your child, but also when you’re all alone because you matter too. Challenge yourself to adopt a new perspective by reading Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating (both also available as audiobooks!). Use the Intuitive Eating Workbook – there is a teen edition of this book, as well! Follow @feedinglittles for guidance on how to use positive language and incorporate all foods when raising babies and toddlers. Let yourself live and enjoy all foods and loosen the association between weight and worth, and weight and health.
And please, do not give Weight Watchers or Kurbo Health any of your money or time or energy. Your children (and you) are so much more than before and after photos. I promise you they are doing much more harm than good.
New York Times Parenting: https://parenting.nytimes.com/feeding/healthy-eating-habits
Nutrition Journal: https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-10-9