WW faces backlash over weight loss app for kids: 'Dangerous, irresponsible and immoral’

WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers, is facing backlash after launching a weight loss app for children ages 8 to 17 years old.

Kurbo, which was acquired by Weight Watchers Reimagined in 2018, was officially launched by the company on Tuesday with the aim to help kids and teens “reach a healthier weight.” Immediately after its launch, however, people raised concerns about the concept — suggesting that the app may encourage eating disorders.

Now, parents, nutrition professionals and people across the country are speaking out online, using viral Twitter hashtags #kurbokills#wakeupweightwatchers and #lovenotdiets to express their disappointment with the product launch. Tens of thousands have also already signed a Change.org petition calling for the removal of the app that the petition’s creator, Holly Stallcup, says is “dangerous, irresponsible and immoral.”

Nicole Avena, MD, assistant professor of a Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and author of Why Diets Fail, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that teaching children healthy eating habits and nutritious food ideas can be a good idea. However, WW falls into dangerous territory when it comes to mentioning weight — especially in the context of the program’s “success stories” featuring then and now photos of children as young as 8.

Kurbo features transformation photos of children as young as 8 years of age, alongside a description of their progress. (Photo: Kurbo by WW)

“Telling kids that they need to ‘lose’ weight is the wrong message. Children are growing and their bodies are changing as that happens, and so will their weight,” Avena says. “The conversation should be about health, never weight. Focusing on weight loss as a goal will send the wrong message to kids, and can be a primer for disordered eating behaviors later on.”

Stallcup, the creator of the petition, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that she was made aware of the app when Time published a piece about the launch. Immediately, she says, she knew that it was harmful.

“As someone still in recovery from an eating disorder I fell ill with in high school, I immediately knew this app was incredibly dangerous,” she says. “Within a few minutes of research, every aspect of Kurbo threw up red flags. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised doctors and families to steer clear of weight talk, and instead focus on emphasizing healthy lifestyles, and yet on Kurbo children can set ‘their goal’ as ‘lose weight.’”

WW faces backlash after launching weight loss app for kids and teens called Kurbo. (Photo: Getty Images)

According to a WW press release, Kurbo uses a “Traffic Light System” backed by science to inspire healthier eating.

“Kids and teens are encouraged to eat more of the healthy ‘green light’ foods (such as fruits and veggies), be mindful of portions of ‘yellow light’ foods (such as lean protein, whole grains and dairy) and gradually reduce but still include consumption of ‘red-light’ foods (such as sugary drinks and treats).”

The app also aims to inspire healthy behaviors with content that helps kids engage in physical activity and mindfulness habits. For an extra cost, users can even have one-on-one video sessions with Kurbo coaches to discuss “personalized goals and strategies to help them achieve long-lasting results.”

However, Stallcup says these methods could easily backfire. “I have fought hard to learn that carbs and starches are not ‘bad food’ and now we have an app telling kids as young as eight that normal, healthy foods they need to be well-nourished are bad.”

Kurbo uses a "Traffic Light System" to help children learn "healthy eating habits." (Photo: Kurbo by WW)

The 31-year-old is now using her firsthand experience with an eating disorder, and her knowledge of eating disorders across the country to fuel her petition against WW and Kurbo.

“I created the petition because eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, every 62 minutes at least one person dies as a direct result from an eating disorder. This app will literally kill people,” Stallcup says. “These diseases wreck lives and once you enter into recovery you become a part of community that fights for each other. So many of us have been battling these deadly diseases for decades and we are committed to saving this next generation of beautiful children from this painful horrific road we have walked.”

People with similar experiences have taken to Twitter to share their own thoughts about the app, in addition to nutritionists and dietitians who are providing insight into just how unhealthy the program is.

New York-based dietician and nutritionist Marissa Meshulam, RD, echoes much of the same concerns Avena has about the app, telling Yahoo Lifestyle that there should be an emphasis on a child’s behavior in general, rather than specifically on their diet.

“We need to teach kids and young adults how to eat by example. Get them in the kitchen and make healthy meals together. Grow a garden and teach them about where their food comes from,” she explains. “Encourage them to find movement that feels good and is fun. At 12, you should be more concerned about playing tag than how many points your lunch had.”

WW hasn’t publicly addressed criticism to the app, nor did representatives immediately respond to Yahoo Lifestyle’s request for comment.

Stallcup says that the company has yet to get in touch with her as well, but she still has high hopes for the petition that she’s created and the growing conversation surrounding it.

“Our hope for the petition is simple, that WW will remove the Kurbo app and kill the program altogether,” she says. “Will WW lose a large sum of money killing a program they worked hard to develop? Yes. But there is no amount of money that is worth the death of even one child.”

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