I’ll start by saying that when I first came to the UK over 10 years ago, I joined Weight Watchers out of sheer desperation. In a world where different sizes and bodies were still criticised heavily, I felt like I could not fit in with the extra pounds I carried.
I successfully staid on the program for 6 months, and then slowly and quite naturally forgot about it. Fast-forward eight years later, as I became a personal trainer and a health coach, it became apparent than Weight Watchers is not a community or a revolutionary diet. It’s a business exploiting the simple calories-in calories-out principle they teach you in PT school. However, this is a business that taps into some of the most delicate conversations you can have with people, the ones about their appearances.
Over the past four years, the way the public sees WW has changed massively, especially since Millennials have revolutionised the way they look and value their bodies.
The launch of the WW Kurbo app
Last week WW launched its new weight-loss and nutrition app known as Kurbo by WW and aimed at kids as young as eight.
On Tuesday, WW presented the app on Twitter, writing:
“We’re excited to introduce @KurboHealth, a science-backed tool uniquely designed for kids and teens who want to improve their eating habits and get more active.”
Since the news came out, the wellness world roared as the app sparked widespread controversy and criticism. In 2018, the rebrand marked a massive shift in the brands’ identity, including a new logo and tagline “Wellness That Works,” and a change to the brand’s overall purpose.
The choice of releasing a diet app for children sounds definitely against this new brand messaging.
Originally launched by founder Joanna Strober in 2014, Kurbo Health was conceived as a method of encouraging children to adopt healthier eating patterns by guiding them in the process of making better choices. The free app, which offers 1:1 coaching for a fee, also lets kids track their food and their behaviours around food. Further, it gives them access to recipe videos and healthy eating, as well as meditation.
However, users can now track measurements and set goals like ‘lose weight’, which has raised further debate.
For all of Kurbo by WW’s marketing around its “holistic” approach to health, many parents and advocates worry the only message kids will hear is that there is something about them that is wrong and that needs to change. The “success stories” on Kurbo’s landing page highlight how many pounds children lost, not, say, how many minutes a day they now meditate. WW’s decades-long legacy as a weight-loss company is hard to shake.
Since its release, the app has caused so much controversy that more than 84,000 people (at the time I am writing this article) have already signed a petition calling for it to be removed.
“The story that you are hearing over and over again is all of us who started struggling at the age that this app is targeted for saying it was already bad enough without an app,” said Holly Stallcup, the woman who started the Change.org petition and who says she is in recovery from an eating disorder. “If we had had this app in our hands to literally log every bite of food to eat, we know that some of us would have actually died from our diseases because it would have so enabled our unhealthy, mentally ill thinking.”
What the wellness experts had to say
“Teaching children to see different foods as good or bad, or even green, yellow, and red really will completely distort their relationship with food. When you make some foods yellow light or red light they’re something that needs to be avoided. And we all want what we’re not supposed to have don’t we! A huge oversight is that they’re not going to be able to make any connection with how they feel when they eat fruits and vegetables or whole grains or proteins, or how beneficial they are when consumed together.”
She finishes off with a pledge for parents:
“Parents, I’m pleading with you not to put your children on a diet from an App. Our children deserve to be loved & fully immersed in our world unencumbered by body shame and any thoughts of dieting. I really believe that the true cost of WW’s weight-loss app for children isn’t $69/month – it’s a lifetime battle with disordered eating and poor body image. Seek professionals to help.”
Putting your kid on a diet could set them up for disordered eating: in a study of 14- and 15-year-old girls, the National Eating Disorder Association found that “dieting was the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder.”
Representatives at Beat — a UK charity supporting those affected by eating disorders — pointed out that while many eating disorders develop during adolescence, it is aware of cases of anorexia in children as young as six.
At least 30 million people in the U.S., of all ages and genders, suffer from an eating disorder, according to statistics compiled by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), a non-profit organization that supports people with eating disorders.
Mental health aside dentist Vee from @veesfitnessfood points out how the physical development of these children is being massively overlooked:
It is imperative a child is not in a calorie deficit at this stage in their life. Everything is and will be affected by this. Physically, their bones are still fusing, muscles still growing, organs still developing. Their brains need energy, not a calorie deficit. There really are no words.
Some other professionals have highlighted how an app like this can encourage obsessive calorie counting from a young age. Jenna Hope from @jennahopenutrition writes: “Lacks proper education on micros, the importance of healthy fats and simply puts health down to numbers. Children’s relationships with food are developed from a young age with long-lasting effects and apps like this can tarnish these. When it comes to children we need to have an educational approach based on the complexity of nutrition rather than simplifying it down to calories and weight. It’s about feeling great, supporting hormone production, gut health, mental wellbeing, sleep health etc. Whilst weight is important, it is not something we should focus on in children!”
When influencers and bloggers unite
I can’t even begin to describe how utterly awful and damaging this is. That we are so willing to sacrifice mental health for profit is a disgrace. https://t.co/P01h5HfLgw
— Pixie Turner (@pixienutrition) August 14, 2019
I am incredibly proud to say, the online world united in calling out WW on their new product. #wakeupweightwatchers became a trending hashtag on Twitter in less than 24h. The really powerful words from mental health advocate Joy come loud and clear in her Instagram post on the matter:
I was 10 years old when I started believing I was fat.
That I would be a prettier, better person if I lost weight.
We seriously need to consider the language and messages we send children.
A child should NEVER be told to shrink themselves.
If not a “diet app”, what is the viable solution? Education comes first.
We also asked our community member Sarah from @thegrowingbutterfly, and she suggests parents should be involved more in what their children’s nutritional intake is like, and encourage them to be helping them to develop a balanced food intake and regular exercise. Also, there ought to be more emphasis on educating in the classroom, teaching them about the benefits of looking after their physical and mental wellbeing by maintaining a positive relationship not only with food and exercise but most importantly with themselves:
“The launch of the new app ‘Kurbo’ is targeted at young children/adolescents who have developing minds and bodies. To suggest that calorie and macro counting, is the most effective way of preventing this demographic from obesity and other health-related conditions are in my opinion absolutely absurd. These are amongst the most impressionable people that can be influenced and pressured into thinking, believing and behaving in ways that align with unrealistic and unobtainable ideals. All forms of modern media throw conflicting and pressurising messages about how we should look, eat and exercise, especially through social media. So as these younger generations continue to grow up in such a digitalised world, they are more susceptible to forming distorted views of what is in the best interests of their own physical and mental health.”
To close off this article I thought I’d borrow some of Megan @bodyposipanda words:
Educate ourselves on diet culture, intuitive eating and how to actually promote size-inclusive health for children. (…) Fiercely protect our kids – teach them that their bodies (and other people’s) are worthy of love and respect and nourishment at any size, that food doesn’t need to be feared, that movement should be for joy, not repentance, and that they are so much more valuable than anything the outside could ever show.