Foster dismisses the possibility that Kurbo could trigger any dangerous behaviors. “People are not categorizing these foods as good or bad,” he says. “It’s not leading to any eating disorders or anything that approximates eating-disorder thinking.” As evidence, he cites an analysis published recently that found no increased prevalence of eating disorders among overweight and obese minors in monitored weight-loss programs.
It’s unclear how relevant that study is to Kurbo, however. The analysis specifically excludes existing internet-based weight-loss methods (such as apps) and programs that include minors who aren’t clinically overweight. Kurbo isn’t professionally monitored unless a parent pays for the coaching service, and its coaches are not required to have outside training in nutrition or dietetics.
When I later asked Foster about these discrepancies, he told me in an email that no studies that look specifically at apps exist, so WW is “leveraging data that analyzes the approach rather than the channel.” He added that WW will “continue to test the efficacy of Kurbo by WW to ensure we are making a positive impact on and [meeting] the needs of families.”
Natalie Muth, a pediatrician and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, is more wary of the potential for a tool like Kurbo to turn dangerous in the hands of kids. “Children are not ‘little adults’ and the approaches that may ‘work’ for adults, such as weight-loss goals, are not appropriate for children most of the time,” she says. “Interventions that focus on weight as the main target can trigger disordered eating patterns, low confidence and self-esteem when goals are not met, and an unhealthy preoccupation with looking a certain way.”
Kurbo lets kids choose goals like “boost my confidence” and “have more energy” instead of the explicit goal of weight loss at sign-up, but all of the goals require children to track their weight and food.
Overweight kids are more likely than their smaller peers to experience anxiety and depression, and there is significant evidence that these problems stem from how poorly fat people are treated in America. According to Andrew Subica, a professor of public health at UC Riverside, interventions that place an emphasis on individual weight loss rather than on broader policy initiatives around the availability of fresh food and safe opportunities for physical activity have the potential to exacerbate that stigma against those who don’t or can’t lose weight. “That’s really not a message we want to be sending to anyone, but especially vulnerable children who are still trying to learn how to make friends and how to avoid being ostracized and bullied,” he says.
Subica points out that although kids are now heavier on average than they were a generation ago, they haven’t gained weight evenly across demographics. Instead, black and Hispanic kids, kids who come from working-class and poor families, and kids who live in underserved neighborhoods are far more likely to gain weight. “My concern with anything like [Kurbo], but especially something that’s targeting young children, is that it puts the blame on the child when really it’s a lot of the cultural forces around the child that lead to obesity,” he says.