Kurbo: When Diet Culture Goes Too Far

We’ve all heard of Weight Watchers. In diet culture, it’s quite difficult to avoid WW’s points system, the side-by-side pictures of women standing in their old jeans; and the endless cookbooks. Sometimes, these things work for people and they see results. Bear in mind, most people who partake in Weight Watchers are adults who have made their own decision about changing their diet.  This is where I have a problem with ‘Kurbo’ – Weight Watcher’s new app, specifically targeted to 8-17-year olds. Oh, how I wish I were joking.

Despite being labelled as a ‘wellness resource’ by Weight Watchers, this app is far from supporting healthy habits for children. On the website, Kurbo aims to help children ‘eat healthier, move more and feel great!’. However, the food traffic light system staring back at me on the screen does little to ease my mind.

At the small age of 8, I often wonder how I would have felt labelling my food as ‘good’ or ‘bad. Aren’t our childhood years supposed to be carefree? Surely this is the best time in the world to eat whatever our little stomachs desire. Jared, age 9, supposedly felt ‘more confident, healthier and more comfortable in [his] skin’; but the question is, is there room in a fad-diet filled world for an app making children needlessly worried about the food that they are consuming?  These are all questions that have been up for debate since the app’s release in early August.

The initial response has been described as ‘dismay and disbelief’ by news outlets such as Refinery 29, with parents and dieticians leading the front on negative reactions. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ 2016 report presented the link between obesity prevention (like apps such as Kurbo) in adolescents and the development and increase of eating disorders, and this is exactly why such uproar has been made following the app’s release. It is safe to say that the app is mainly focused upon body image, weight loss and size and I believe this is where the app’s downfall lies.

In comparison, apps such as Change4Life focus on aiding families, including young children. Instead of creating an app specifically for the child, I think Change4Life has a healthier outlook on how to implement healthy habits into the family as a whole unit, instead of singling out children. With a single app for children and teenagers, it appears that the only aim is to target the child and their ‘weight loss journey’ which could cause a blame effect, instead of looking at external variables which could contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle.

It is important to remember, also, that at the ages of 8-17, our bodies change drastically. Throughout puberty, all of us shoot up and out at some point, gaining a bit of so-called “puppy fat” in the process. Is this the right time to push a dieting app onto adolescents when their bodies are in a state of change? It is important to note that puberty is a natural change to prepare for the adult body. This shouldn’t be something that children feel the need to change unless clinical obesity is involved.

Moreover, the traffic light system ingrains ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods into the mind of children which I think sends the wrong message. The fear of children avoiding all the ‘red’ foods is a valid one, where it should really be taught that moderation and good education in nutrition are what makes for a healthy lifestyle instead of marking foods as ‘red’ or ‘green’. Not only could children miss out on healthy fats and treats (which are completely fine in moderation!), but they may choose to avoid them completely which is a warning sign of disordered eating through fear of eating ‘bad’ food.

In an attempt to ease the minds of worried parents, doctors and dieticians, Joanna Strober, Kurbo’s co-founder, reinforces that Kurbo alerts families to signs of a developing eating disorder. For instance, families will be alerted if there is rapid weight loss on the child’s account. Sadly, at this point, it would be far too late if the habits have been ingrained and the message has been clearly conveyed to the child. So, how far is too far? I’ll let you decide for yourself.

Words by Molly Govus