WW’s New Weight-Loss Program for Teens Is Not Just Worrisome, It’s Dangerous

updated Aug 22, 2019
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Last week, WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers, launched an app targeted to kids and adolescents, ages 8 to 17 years old, called Kurbo. The program is marketed to help children “reach a healthier weight,” through one-on-one coaching and tracking daily food intake using a traffic light system (red, yellow, and green) that deems what foods are allowed in what portions.

According to Kurbo, you don’t have to give any foods up, but you do have to “figure out how to budget them in.” And although WW recently rebranded as a health and wellness program and no longer markets themselves as a diet (because diets are now considered taboo), WW’s main purpose is still to support the pursuit of intentional weight loss through micromanaging food choices. If that’s not a diet, I don’t know what is.

Since the announcement, registered dietitians, health professionals, and national organizations (including the National Eating Disorder Association) have spoken out, condemning the app for “presenting grave risks including eating disorders, disordered eating, and a potential lifetime of weight cycling and poor body image.” The concern is well-validated. Children are still growing between ages 8 and 17, and are supposed to gain fat during puberty to support development. Targeting growing kids at such a vulnerable time in their lives is irresponsible and can interrupt critical growth and development.

Plus, research shows that 20 to 25% of dieters progress to develop eating disorders; in fact one large study of 14- to 15-year-olds showed that dieting was the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder. Not only are dieters at risk for disordered eating, but studies have also linked diets to lower self-esteem, greater food preoccupation, and higher levels of depression and anxiety. 

Research also continues to demonstrate that dieting is ineffective long-term — up to 90% of those who intentionally lose weight through dieting gain the weight back, and up to two-thirds of those gain more weight than they started out at. This process of losing weight and regaining it is often referred to as yo-yo dieting or weight cycling, which research demonstrates to present a higher health risk than maintaining at a higher weight.

So with all of this research, why do we still have an app targeting children for weight loss? Because our society still conflates weight with health and perpetuates an unrealistic “thin ideal.” I can deeply empathize with any parent who is considering this app for their kids. Parents want to keep their kids happy and healthy, and if their kids are being teased at school for their weight or told they need to lose weight at the doctor’s office, of course they would want to find a solution.

Based on my own personal lived experience and my professional experience working with clients as a registered dietitian, this app (or any diet, for that matter) is not the answer. I had free access to Weight Watchers when I was a pre-teen, as my mom had enrolled in the program. I was teased at school for my weight and my pediatrician expressed concern about my weight to my parents as well, so I was primed for trying to micromanage my size. What started out as tracking my food intake and counting points turned into severe restriction and a full-blown eating disorder. Many of my clients who I work with share similar stories of starting Weight Watchers when they were in high school, leading to decades of yo-yo dieting and body dissatisfaction.

Call it tracking points, calorie counting, or a traffic light system — it all undermines our innate ability to self-regulate our food intake. Associating green, yellow, and red lights to food is essentially attaching morality to food, creating a dichotomous way of thinking of food as either good or bad (and by the way, Kurbo is red lighting nourishing foods I eat and recommend often: peanut butter, avocado, milk, and bread, to name a few).

Rather than putting kids on a diet, we need to be empowering children to be the experts of their own bodies, to learn what it feels like to be hungry and to be full, and to understand that there is a place for all foods, no traffic lights attached. Let’s teach kids that body diversity is real and that all bodies are good bodies to help challenge the societal narrative that they are only worthy if they are of a certain size. Let’s encourage children to grow, play, and learn — not to worry about their weight or their food choices. Developing a healthy relationship to food in childhood will support a peaceful relationship with food for life.

Kara Lydon, RD, LDN, RYT, is a nationally recognized and award-winning registered dietitian nutritionist, certified intuitive eating counselor, yoga teacher, and the owner of Kara Lydon Nutrition.