3 reasons for, 3 against Kurbo

weight loss apps for kids

Third-grade Paula, a student at W.E. Cherry Elementary School in Orange Park, Fla., was not a fan of the communal weigh-in. I don’t remember exactly how the process worked, but it was a public enough thing that your classmates knew your weight. Mine was far above average, the number was embarrassing and it was among the first of many times I felt self-conscious about my weight.

weight loss apps for kids
Third-grade Paula (they don’t show up well, but the patches on my pants were (if I remember correctly) candy wrapper logos. Fitting for this post!

Was my classmates’ behavior fat-shaming or was it just third-graders being candid? Whatever it was, it didn’t feel good.

Bill Maher says fat-shaming needs to make a comeback. James Corden disagrees.

I’ve seen multiple conversations recently about the acquisition of Kurbo Health by WW. Kurbo is a “mobile health company,” and “WW” is the new identity of Weight Watchers. Kurbo is an app directed to kids and teens that says it helps them manage their food, while also providing them access to coaches (for premium customers).

Clearly, the majority of my acquaintances find this move appalling (judging by what I’ve read on social media). It has touched on childhood fat-shaming pain and led to many triggers. The popular press seemed to be in the “con” column too. Here are a few examples:

New Weight Watchers diet app puts kids at risk for eating disorders and body shaming

Weight Watchers new app for kids is a very bad idea

I help people recover from disordered eating. Don’t give your kid this app (paywall)

The jury is still out for me, but here are three considerations on the “maybe it has some merit” side and three on the “maybe it is a bad idea” side:

On the merit side:

  1. Looking at the science objectively, Kurbo’s pre-WW incarnation demonstrated some results. A meeting abstract (authored by Kurbo creator Thea Runywan, to be clear) approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics said, “ The Kurbo program outcomes indicate that the program exceeds the minimum clinical criteria for pediatric weight loss efficacy. These outcomes are a strong indication that the Kurbo program is highly effective in helping kids lose weight sustainably and improve metabolic health.”
  2. One feature Kurbo touts is the relationship between the user and their “coach,” contending it is helpful to give a teenager an opportunity to interact regarding their relationship with food with a third party (instead of a parent). My disordered eating in my teen years was interwoven with the strange dynamics of some parental communication. I think a coach would have been a good thing.
  3. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that 45% of teens are online “almost constantly.” Perhaps meeting them where they are is something that ultimately helps them.

But on the other hand:

  1. Although the Corden/Maher conflict is about “fat-shaming,” there are so many nuances that contribute to how we feel about our bodies. How do you draw the line between helping a young person be healthy (necessary) and inferring that they are somehow inferior because of their size (absolutely unnecessary)? Every young person should be encouraged to embrace their body. If the app chips away at self-esteem, that’s a problem.
  2. Kurbo doesn’t come without spending cash. The “best value” is $294 for six months. Is $50 a month worth better health? Perhaps. But it’s something for each family to mull, and in my experience WW isn’t getting more flexible with time (for example, we used to pay weekly; now our payments are auto deducted monthly. I’ve been on the program for various stretches for 36 years. In my most recent period, I’ve been on since January 2018 and have dropped around 25 pounds, but I’m at a plateau (my fault) and have to make some decisions about what I’m doing with my $45 a month.
  3. No app can address the root causes that lead teenagers to reach unhealthy weights. Although there are also some physical causes that have to be dealt with, many times teenagers overeat for the same reason adults overeat: they are filling some other void that food can never fix.

In closing

James Corden said, “fat-shaming is just bullying,” and I feel that to my soul.

I don’t want a single child or teenager to be fat-shamed or to do what I did as a teenager — eat so little and lose so much weight that my hands turned orange from all the carrots, I wet my bed from all the Tab I had consumed and my periods disappeared for years.

I don’t want to be blind to the problems of an app like Kurbo; I have been loyal to WW and trusted its science for decades, but corporations can change and lose sight of the goal. (I also, as I said when I looked back at my Ration Challenge post, have a hard time reconciling the fact that I spend around $45 a month to work toward training my mind and body to eat LESS when that money could go toward people who truly don’t have access to enough food.)

At the end of his commentary, James Corden said this about/to Bill Maher: “While you’re encouraging people to think about goes into their mouths, just think a little bit harder about what comes out of yours.”

I don’t know how I feel about Kurbo. At this point, though, I’m not in the camp of dismissing it completely. We all reach our weight loss goals in different ways. For many of us, we have been fighting some type of weight battle all our lives.

Maybe the app should be given a chance for some kids/teens.

No matter what, we should all be more aware of helping the children and teens in our lives be more at home with the bodies they inhabit.

This post was originally published on Medium as “Should Kurbo be curbed?”

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