Another day, another controversy in the world of nutrition. The newest? Kurbo.
The app/service created by Weight Watchers to help kids and teens ages 8-17 reach a healthy weight.
Let's untangle this.
1. First off, let's look at the intent: combating childhood obesity. It is an app that can be used on a smart phone, and which kid doesn't have a smart phone these days?
2. Second, let's look at the methods: users first enter their height, weight, age, health goals, and so on and are then paired with a health coach (not a qualified dietitian *ahem*) for weekly check ins. Food is tracked daily and evaluated with a traffic light system based on their choices. Different foods are marked as green (foods to eat more of, such as fruits and vegetables), yellow (foods to eat while being mindful, such as dairy and lean proteins), and red (foods to reduce, such as sugary drinks).
3. Now let's look at potential downstream effects: several reviews of the product mention children losing weight. But the method of weight loss or efforts to achieve health are what matters.
The American Academy of Pediatrics consistently discourage parents from discussing the number on the scale and encourage parents to discuss and model healthy behaviors instead. If you ask a good dietitian, they would encourage this as well and discourage focus on numbers of any kind. What seems most problematic about the app is that it targets the age range that puberty and weight gain predominantly occur. Growth is crucial at this time. We want to make sure children are eating enough to meet their nutrient needs for physical and cognitive development.
There is a disturbingly high number of students who diet, skip meals or partake in other unhealthy habits including putting down their bodies in order to control their weight. This profoundly shows that the way our society discusses weight and health with children is not working. There is a need to shift this discussion to a healthy place and actually set these kids up for success. (The same thing goes for adults.) As a dietitian who works in the school setting, discussing nutrition with kids is something that is a responsibility of mine to communicate effectively. What I determine as "effective" is a positive impact. It does not matter what my intentions are, the results are what matter. I can't tell you how many times I've overheard people on Weight Watchers discussing food in such a misinformed way. "Tofu is free protein! Barely any calories or carbs!" "Cottage cheese is only x points!" This is so unfortunate because food has been simplified down in a way that doesn't take the whole picture into account, and quite honestly just makes no sense. For example, tofu is not just "protein." There is more to it, such as being made from soybean and containing antioxidant properties. Food and nutrition are not a matter of "points"! In terms of the impact on education, this method is totally failing and causing more harm than good in the long run regardless of what the intention was.
How do we approach this? There needs to be a greater understanding and awareness of the link between our dietary choices and psychology. What do you think will be more beneficial for the human brain: constantly being sent messages to be a certain weight, track calories, look a certain way, focus on "points?" Or actually be exposed to strategies for healthy habits. Kind of a no brainer. Important exposures include access to healthy foods and water, promoting mealtimes with families, investing in time for enjoyable physical activity, images of balanced plates with all food groups, reducing harmful advertisements and products targeting children, discussing the importance of body satisfaction and appreciation, and adults modeling healthy behaviors. The difference between this approach and an app? They are effective, culturally centered, community-based prevention efforts. They focus on making the environment of the child more positive and health friendly- not just physically, but emotionally, mentally, and socially. And this targets so much more than just chronic disease prevention, but prevention from social isolation of children, low self esteem, depression, eating disorders and more.
So what can you do at home? Tips that have been shown to be effective:
1. Avoid labeling foods "good" or "bad." Simply have healthy choices available for your kids to have access to the majority of the time. This also normalizes healthy foods instead of perpetuating this ridiculous myth that healthy foods taste bad or "aren't cool."
2. Get your nutrition information and counseling from registered dietitians. Please stop turning to celebrities, unqualified influencers, companies like Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig, or diet books. ESPECIALLY when it comes to your kids! We take so much more into account when working with you.
3. Get kids involved. It can be as simple as having them pick out fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, or more complex by cooking with them. Kids love to get their hands dirty, take turns stirring, and more. This is a perfect time to teach them a skill that helps with balanced eating in the long run, while communicating healthy messages regarding the ingredients you are using. I also highly advocate getting them involved in packing their lunches for school. Not only does this take pressure off parents, but it gives children an opportunity to gain experience building balanced meals for themselves.
4. Promote nourishment, not punishment. Children are sponges and will internalize comments when you put down your body, glamorize a body in the media, or demonize food groups like carbs, fat, etc. Avoid making these comments in front of your children, and really at all! They aren't healthy for adults either.
5. Discuss body diversity. We live in a world of fad diets, eating disorders, and body shaming. You may be one person, but you can change the world for your child by letting them know it is OK to look and BE different than others at school. Create a judgement free zone. The health of our children includes more than their weight. Whole and balanced health includes all aspects of wellness. Not only this, we want our kids to live their lives focused on growing into their full potential, not shrinking.