TIME: Weight Loss for Kids? Thanks to WW, There's An App for That
By Jamie Ducharme
Last February, Weight Watchers set off a firestorm when it announced it would offer its weight-loss program, for free, to teens ages 13 to 17. It angered many parents, as well as eating-disorders experts who felt it could give rise to obsessive and unhealthy behaviors in adolescents. WW—as the company rebranded itself last September—refused to shrink from the criticism, says CEO Mindy Grossman. “It actually strengthened our resolve and made us offensive.”
Now, WW is doubling down: On Aug. 13, the company rolled out Kurbo by WW, a free nutrition and weight-loss app for kids as young as 8, and up to 17. The app will inevitably draw praise—for giving a new tool to the millions of U.S. children struggling with their weight—and outrage—for potentially furthering unhealthy body standards and eating behaviors—in equal measure.
Kurbo ranks food choices using a Stanford University-developed “traffic-light” system: Green items are “go foods” that can be eaten freely; yellow foods should be consumed in moderate portions; and red foods should make kids “stop and think."
Obesity is associated with chronic conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and kids who have obesity are likely to continue struggling with their weight as they age, underscoring the need for interventions that start young. “The sooner the better,” says Dr. Brooke Sweeney, an adolescent-weight-management specialist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. “It’s so much easier to maintain weight or slow down how fast they’re gaining weight versus losing weight.”
Extensive research into Kurbo’s traffic-light approach shows it can promote healthy weight loss. One Massachusetts General Hospital study published in July (undertaken independently of Kurbo and WW) found that a traffic-light system lowered the average calorie counts of meals purchased by around 5,700 adults in a hospital cafeteria over two years. And an independent study presented at the Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference in July found that 84% of child users saw a reduction in their body mass index percentile after 21 weeks. Kurbo is effective because, instead of restricting unhealthy foods, it subtly reinforces healthy eating patterns, says WW’s chief scientific officer, Gary Foster, an adjunct professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. “You don’t want kids thinking about grams of this and ounces of that,” he says. “The goal is never to [say], ‘You’ll never have a cookie again.’ It’s progress, not perfection.”
Sweeney says that’s the right philosophy for anyone trying to get healthier, regardless of their age. In an ideal world, she says, a doctor would be involved in that effort too, especially where kids are concerned. But the U.S. obesity epidemic exists in the less-than-ideal real world, and it demands creative answers like Kurbo. “We have a public-health problem,” she says, “so we need public-health solutions.”
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Learn more about the Weight Management Program at Children's Mercy