Kurbo capitalizes on diet culture

In February 2018, Weight Watchers announced they'd be offering their weight loss program to teens aged 13 to 17, free of charge. Unsurprisingly, the move was met with overwhelming criticism for how the company was promoting "dieting" in children and endorsing obsessive and unhealthy behaviours. Instead of backtracking on that decision, Weight Watchers doubled down and released the weight-loss app Kurbo by WW in August of this year.

While Weight Watchers may have rebranded themselves as WW, in an effort to appear less focused on weight, and more focused on wellness, the Kurbo app for children ages 8-17 focuses on weight as a measure of success, just like the adult program still does.

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The Kurbo app is designed to be used by children to track their intake. In the app, foods are assigned a traffic light colour, symbolizing how they should be approached: "eat lots" of green foods, "watch the portions" of yellow foods, and "stop and think" with red foods. Green foods include all fruits and vegetables (except potatoes), yellow foods include lean proteins and pasta and red foods include desserts and sugary drinks (among countless other foods), according to the Kurbo website.

However, it's difficult to determine the criteria for each colour category when looking at the options. For example, almond butter and full fat yogurt are red foods; is it because they're higher in calories or fat? Then why are plain rice cakes and diet pop yellow foods? Also, why is black coffee a green food? In fact, why is black coffee even an option for an eight-year-old? What is this teaching a child? - that they should be afraid of calories?

If an eight-year-old child were attending a birthday party, it's likely the majority of the foods at that party would be categorized as "red" foods. Does that mean it's better for that child to eat nothing, than have a piece of cake? Or should they carry a handheld food scale, to weigh and track everything they eat?

The Kurbo app contains quizzes designed to "teach" a child to identify which foods are green, yellow or red, effectively training a child's eye to see foods as good and bad. Educational" videos are also encompassed in the app. One video entitled "Label Whisperer" encourages children to "read a label, the Kurbo way" and sift through ingredient labels to determine which ingredients are green, yellow and red, and to treat them as such. This app does not promote an increased knowledge of food but instead villainies it, as something that should be approached with caution.

Users of the app receive push notifications to "upgrade" for personalized coaching. This is another example of a company using "coaches" or "counsellors" to push a product and give the consumer the impression that this "coach" is not only qualified to give them advice, but cares for their wellbeing. The Kurbo "Health Coaching Professionals" have degrees in business, economics and tourism management, among other non-nutrition related fields, with several possessing health coaching certificates.

Holding a health coaching certificate does not qualify an individual to give clinical nutrition advice to children and their parents, or to even understand the short and long-term impacts this diet would have on a child.

The Kurbo app program is licenced from the Stanford Packard Pediatric Weight Control Program, which is based on Dr. Leonard Epstein's Traffic Light Diet, developed in the 1970s. The Stanford Program is quoted a number of times by proponents of the app, as well as by Kurbo themselves, to help give the app validity.

What isn't mentioned by WW is the fact that there are quite a few differences between the Kurbo app and the Traffic Light Diet, so using research on the Traffic Light Diet to support the perceived efficacy of the Kurbo app doesn't even make sense.

While there is evidence to show that children have lost weight on the Traffic Light Diet, that does not mean that it's appropriate or ethical. It is extremely important to consider the effects that weight-loss diets and related-talk can have on a child's ability to eat intuitively, have a healthy relationship with food and avoid developing disordered eating behaviours.

The Kurbo app seems more like a gateway tool for creating lifelong WW customers, than the educational app it's promoted as.

-- Kelsey Leckovic is a registered dietitian with Northern Health working in chronic disease management.

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