Putting Kids on Diets Won’t Solve Anything

Weight Watchers has a new app for children as young as 8. It might be better for the company than it is for pediatric health.

A young girl looks at the produce aisle in a grocery store.
Nathan Mead / Getty

Getting smaller is big business in America. Last year, the country’s market for weight-loss products and services reached an all-time high of $72 billion. Analysts predict it will only grow in the years ahead, in large part because of the potential for apps and tech products like FitBit and MyFitnessPal to capture the attention of young consumers, who tend to like data and hate the in-person meetings that many diet companies have required of past generations.

In this context, “young consumers” almost always refers to people over the age of 18. America’s childhood-obesity numbers have been climbing for decades, but children and adolescents also need to gain weight in their formative years to become healthy, strong adults. That can make creating healthy relationships between kids and food a delicate process, which is why it has historically been the province of doctors and nutritionists. Marketing weight-loss services directly to kids has been a public-relations third rail.

Nevertheless, last week, America’s biggest diet company went for it. WW, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers before it rebranded in 2018, launched Kurbo by WW, an app intended to track food consumption, physical activity, and weight loss in kids as young as 8. At Kurbo’s launch, WW’s president and CEO, Mindy Grossman, said the company sees an opportunity “to change the health trajectory of the world” with its products.

Exactly how a food-tracking app could accomplish that lofty goal is far from clear. Researchers have yet to find a reliable way for the majority of adults to lose weight and keep it off, let alone children who are still growing. WW’s new app takes those daunting odds and reduces the task down to the personal responsibility of children mostly too young to drive or have money of their own.

Downloading Kurbo and using its basic tools is free, and its approach to food centers on research from Stanford University and a long-standing concept often referred to as the traffic-light system. This system filters foods into three broad categories: “Green” foods like fresh vegetables and lean protein should be actively included in a person’s diet. “Yellow” foods like low-fat dairy products and bread should be eaten in moderation. “Red” foods like french fries, full-fat dairy products, and most sweets should be limited and planned for.

The Kurbo app pre-categorizes hundreds of common foods according to traffic-light color, so that kids can search for what they eat and add it to their daily tallies. When I set up a Kurbo test account, the app immediately advised me to limit my “red” foods to six per day or fewer.

“It’s common sense,” says Gary Foster, WW’s chief science officer. Red foods “aren’t foods that should be encouraged in kids’ diets, but they also shouldn’t be vilified or demonized, and there has to be a system that’s simple and science-based that highlights that so everyone in the family can understand.” An emphasis on family participation is central to Kurbo’s sales pitch, and they claim that the app will facilitate family-level changes in diet and activity.

In its design, though, the app only tracks the actions and food consumption of an individual. Research suggests that the parents of overweight kids are already keenly aware of which foods are considered healthy or unhealthy for their children, without the aid of structured programs or apps to guide them.  And Kurbo only requires children under the age of 13 to sign up for Kurbo with a parent, which leaves teens who have their own phones free to use the app’s food- and weight-tracking tools without parental consent or involvement, even if they are in what the app considers a normal weight range to begin with.

Foster confirmed to me that warnings about a child losing weight too quickly or eating too little—behaviors that may indicate the onset of an eating disorder—are only available to those who sign up for the app’s optional one-on-one coaching service, which starts at $70 for a one-month plan. When pressed, Foster held firm in his assessment that building in more safety features for kids who can’t use WW’s coaching services was unnecessary, characterizing such warnings as a “bad user experience” for people who might, for example, only log their breakfast foods.

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.

These forces include food deserts, the relatively high cost of healthy foods, and marketing campaigns behind unhealthier foods that disproportionately target poorer populations. An app can tell you to eat your vegetables, but it can’t make those foods affordable, and it can’t stabilize a parent’s work schedule so they can pack lunch and cook a fresh dinner.

Although diet plans, apps, and programs remain enormously profitable in America, they frequently provide the people who use them with little new information. Girls in the U.S. are commonly aware of restrictive dieting behaviors as young as age 5. The average American has likely heard the basic message that fruits and vegetables are good for you, and that soda and chips should be consumed in moderation, even if he or she lacks the ability or desire to eat according to those guidelines. Weight loss is hard and almost never effective in the long term, and the tools of a healthy lifestyle are frequently out of reach. That people are willing to try a new app, or that they want to spare their child the grief of losing weight as an adult, doesn’t exactly beggar belief.

It does, however, make the diet industry a lucrative business for companies like WW. “You train these kids at young ages to think in these terms around weight loss and diet, and then of course, from a business perspective, that would be something you’d anticipate they would continue to do in the future,” Subica notes. “Children dieting when they’re 8 or 9 are probably going to diet when they’re 15 and 25 and 35 and then make their kids diet.”

Muth, too, pointed out that parental food behaviors are often reflected in children. Those who believe in programs like WW are likely to create the next generation of diet-app users, not the next generation of people with healthy relationships to food and their bodies. The same analysts who forecast the weight-loss industry’s bright future caution that the proliferation of positive body image could dampen diet companies’ prosperity. Whether or not WW’s products are good for kids, they’re probably very good for the company.