I went to my first Weight Watchers meeting around the age of 10. Like many fat girls my age, it was my initial foray into the world of dieting. In my particular group, I was the only young person and was surrounded by a crowd of adult women, all crying over their inability to drop the pounds. My experience with Weight Watchers fundamentally shifted the way I viewed food, setting me up for an adolescence filled with diet pills, disordered eating, and a truly fucked up relationship with food.
Now, Weight Watchers is trying to bring this experience to an entire new generation of fat kids, with slick tech to match. This week, the company (which has since rebranded to WW) launched Kurbo by WW, a new app that’s intended to help kids as young as 8 lose weight. According to Time, Kurbo is Weight Watchers’s second attempt at luring in kids and teens — last year, the company announced that it would offer its traditional weight-loss program, originally geared toward adults, for free to teens aged 13 to 17. Not surprisingly, that move sparked outrage in everyone from parents to nutritionists, worried that their children and patients would develop disordered eating habits and body image issues.
Kurbo isn’t that unlike the original Weight Watchers system, which assigned a specific number of “points” to food — two “SmartPoints” for a slice of bread, six for two tablespoons of peanut butter — and issued dieters a finite number of points that they could “spend” on food each day. That system eventually evolved into WW Freestyle, which allows for more than 200 foods (mostly vegetables and fruits) to be “ZeroPoint,” or “free.”
But Kurbo eschews points in favor of a “red light, green light” system developed at Stanford University. The system allows teens and tweens to eat “green light” foods like vegetables freely and “yellow light” foods like pasta in moderation. “Red light” foods like soda and candy should make kids “think about how to budget them in.” As with the points system, kids on Kurbo are allotted a specific number of red light foods each day, based on their height, weight, and weight-loss goals. Looking more closely, though, it’s easy to see that this system is pretty much identical to assigning foods point values, if slightly less confusing.
As someone who’s used the Weight Watchers app more than once, I downloaded Kurbo to see just how different it was from its parent company’s weight-loss program. The Kurbo app asked for my height, weight, and age, which I input as a 9-year-old whose weight would fall in the “obese” range according to the body mass index chart. I was then asked to choose a cheery fruit-or-vegetable avatar (I went with a pineapple) and instructed to select a goal from a list of options like “lose weight,” “make parents happy,” and “boost confidence.”
After filling out the questionnaire and watching a weird video about how Kurbo’s system works, the app immediately thrust me into the world of food tracking. Using a searchable database, I could input pizza or pineapple or cookies, and that food’s corresponding colored light would appear directly beside its name. Another screen showed how to measure portion sizes by hand — a fistful of rice or pasta, a cupped hand of chips — while an interactive game called “Red Raisins” encourages kids to identify “red” or “green” foods by sight. I was granted four servings of “red” foods a day, and when I told the app I’d binged on cookies and peanut-butter sandwiches, it told me that I should try some green foods, and adjusted the number of “reds” I was allowed to eat for the rest of the week. The second time I used the app, I signed up as a 5-foot-5-inch 13-year-old who weighs 90 pounds, a height and weight that put my fake kid squarely in the “underweight” portion of the body mass index chart. Kurbo still allowed me to sign up and set a goal to lose weight.
Because kids are not stupid, it won’t take them long to develop issues around foods that have been categorized as “red lights.“ “For any kid who’s been on a diet before or has experienced calorie counting, which many of them are taught in school, they’re going to be able to recognize that a piece of cake is probably going to have more calories than an apple,” says Chevese Turner, chief policy and strategy officer for the National Eating Disorders Association. This strategy is also largely counterproductive, and it won’t help kids lose weight, at least not in the long term. Research indicates that associating guilt with certain foods, like chocolate cake or french fries, makes it much more difficult to resist overeating.
Food tracking, or logging every bite of food that goes into your mouth, can have significant implications for people struggling with eating disorders, which are already on the rise among young people. Kurbo touts that its app does not focus on, or even really allow for, calorie counting, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be misused by teens dealing with disordered eating patterns. “We worry about any dieting in a child,” Turner says. “We don’t have any evidence showing that there is a way to safely diet as a child, or an adult for that matter.”
In addition to categorizing “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods according to color, Kurbo also provides weekly video chats with its weight-loss coaches. Kurbo’s website provides brief bios on each of the nine coaches, many of whom have no formal education in nutrition. Some, like Brandon, have business degrees and a self-professed interest in HIIT (high-intensity interval training). Others hold unspecified certificates in “holistic nutrition,” Chinese medicine, and tourism management. The app claims that all coaches have been trained to recognize “signs of eating disorders and unhealthy weight loss,” but it’s unclear how exactly they’ll be able to do that.
This is not unlike my experience with many Weight Watchers meeting leaders, who often had extreme enthusiasm for weight loss and “health,” but weren’t necessarily qualified to give that advice. Weight Watchers hires leaders who aren’t nutritionists or experts in exercise, but have been “successful on our weight-loss plan.” Once they’re hired, these leaders are paid poorly and required to maintain their weight loss within two pounds for at least six weeks. And of course, if you gain the weight back, your job could be at risk — in 2002, Weight Watchers fired New Jersey meeting leader Abbe Favocci for gaining 20 pounds after she was diagnosed with colon cancer. “If it’s anything over 10 pounds, they terminate you,” Favocci told CBS News.
Perhaps the most depressing thing on Kurbo’s website is its success stories, which tout the weight loss of children as young as 8, complete with before-and-after photos of once-chubby kids who are now thin. Ten-year-old Robby, who allegedly lost 42 pounds on Kurbo, says that the plan helped him learn that healthy foods were more satiating. Juliana, a 12-year-old, shares that she was too nervous to talk to her coach at first. These success stories are, of course, couched with a warning that Juliana’s and Robby’s results are kind of a fluke. “Results not typical,” the tiny disclaimer reads at the bottom of the page. “Weight loss and/or BMI reduction will vary by age, weight, and height.”
Inside the app, the success stories are told much more in-depth, and it’s just as sad. In one, a girl named Emilie laments not being able to find “trendy clothes and skinny jeans” in her size before losing 25 pounds, and sets her goal so that she can wear a bikini at summer parties. “When the family ate meals at Red Robin, Emilie would eat all the fries on her plate,” the story reads. “Now, she eats one-fourth of them.” The awful combination of food moralizing and body shaming in Emilie’s story is exactly why young girls obsess about how many fries are okay to eat and how thin their bodies need to be in order to wear a bikini.
These “before-and-after” stories and photos make it abundantly clear to fat kids and teens that there is something wrong with their bodies, and that thinness is the ideal standard that Kurbo is designed to promote. In all of the photos on Kurbo’s website, the success story kids are thinner than they were before starting the program, and that’s really all Weight Watchers needs you to know. As much as they prattle on about wellness and health, this is a company that has made billions of dollars hawking the promise of thinness. Kurbo may offer activity tracking, but its primary focus is food intake. “Many diet companies are moving toward using ‘health and wellness’ as their keywords,” Turner says. “But at the end of the day, this is still a diet.”
Kurbo is yet another tool in the arsenal for parents who are desperately seeking weight-loss answers for their children, and it’s really hard to blame them. We know that fat kids are more likely to be bullied, have fewer friends, and face discrimination from medical providers. Parents want to protect their children from fatphobia by encouraging them to lose weight, but it’s more likely that they’ll end up in the vicious cycle of crash dieting. According to the Cleveland Clinic, girls who begin dieting at an early age are more likely to experience “eating disorders, alcohol problems, or obesity” later in life.
Before signing up for the $69/month coaching sessions, Kurbo requires parents to certify that their children do not “self induce vomiting, use diuretics or laxatives for weight loss, [or] have a diagnosed eating disorder,” but that cover-your-ass sentence doesn’t exactly stop parents who are hell-bent on their children losing weight from just checking the box. It certainly doesn’t help kids at higher weights, whose eating disorders are much more likely to go undetected. “You can have anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder and still be in a higher-weight body,” Turner says. “There are plenty of parents who may sign their child up for this app because they’re in a higher-weight body, when in fact they have an eating disorder.”
What may ultimately be the most effective in helping kids develop healthy eating habits is parents modeling positive behavior, not putting them on diets. “Parents have to do what they can to create a normal relationship with food, one that doesn’t come with all of this baggage of moralization and ‘good’ versus ‘bad,’” Turner says. “Everything’s about modeling, and if we can model what we want to see in our children, if we have the privilege to do that, then that’s probably the best way to go.”
It’s also impossible to not see the introduction of Kurbo as a cynical play for the future by a company that’s increasingly a relic. Weight Watchers has reported declining membership for the past year, and expects that trend to continue. Diets like keto and paleo, which don’t require a $40/month online membership or in-person meetings, are much more accessible and don’t carry the same stigma of a program like Weight Watchers or NutriSystem. But if Weight Watchers can introduce its specific brand of dieting to kids, who are exposed to a constant stream of fatphobia in media and everywhere else, then it’s got a whole new customer stream. More than that, as Turner notes, the company holds a massive database of the millions of adults that have used the Weight Watchers program to try to lose weight, and can use that database to market Kurbo to the children of chronic dieters.
Over the years, Weight Watchers has rebranded its plans countless times, and Kurbo is just the latest iteration. But the company’s message will always be clear: Stop being fat. That’s a really dangerous message to send to fat children, who are already so vulnerable. Even if Kurbo encourages kids to move their bodies more and develop a love for exercise, its primary focus is on restricting specific types of food and rewarding the consumption of others, which is little more than a way to set up kids for a life of dieting and disappointment. As a 31-year-old who still can’t look at steamed broccoli without gagging, I know the long-term consequences of this type of food moralizing intimately.