There’s no denying that childhood obesity is a significant problem. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that one in five children in the United States is obese. Obesity is associated with a wide range of diseases and disorders, including heart disease, cancer, and joint degradation. It is against this backdrop that Weight Watchers, recently rebranded as WW, launched Kurbo, an app that promises to help children lose weight by having them track what they eat and regularly check in with a health coach. On its face, Kurbo may seem like it could potentially be helpful. But dig a little deeper, and there’s plenty of reason to believe it’s actually quite dangerous.
“The second you say you’re going to do something to combat childhood obesity, people are just going to assume it’s a great thing,” says Kory Stotesbury, a California child psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders. “But that’s patently false,” he says. “If Kurbo has the reach it desires—millions of kids—then it will be the initiation of eating disorders for many, and people will die.”
Stotesbury isn’t just being dramatic: eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness. Studies show that between 5 and 18 percent of children and adolescents with eating disorders die as a result.
And because children’s brains are still developing, they are particularly susceptible to learned psychological disorders—ones that are largely influenced by one’s environment and behaviors—like anorexia and bulimia. Research suggests that childhood weight loss programs can create or exacerbate disordered eating and body image issues. A 2019 study found that over half of 18- to 25-year-olds who used what researchers called “healthy eating” and fitness apps reported negative feelings like guilt, isolation, and obsession. In a large study of 14- and 15-year-olds, dieting was the most important predictor of developing an eating disorder. Those who dieted moderately were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder, and those who practiced extreme restriction were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who did not diet. The National Eating Disorders Association says youth focusing on “clean eating” can be just as dangerous.
For this reason, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued guidelines in 2016 advising doctors and families not to discuss weight loss or dieting with children, and instead to focus on healthy lifestyles.
“I would never, ever, ever broach dieting with a child,” says Stotesbury, who has young kids himself. “Weight Watchers’ whole thing, which seems to be Kurbo’s approach, is ‘Eat whatever you want—but with rigorous tracking and math.’” he says. “And to me, this is eerily similar to dieting.”
Though Kurbo does not explicitly mention dieting on their website, the “success stories” tab shows pictures of children ages 8 to 17 with one of two stats: how much weight they lost or how much their BMI dropped.
Kurbo uses a traffic light system—green for fruits and vegetables, yellow for lean proteins and grains, and red for foods like candy and soda—for kids to track and score their food consumption. The company boasts that this system is “scientific” and founded upon a program developed and tested at Stanford Health Care. But that’s not entirely true. The traffic light system was first developed decades ago by Len Epstein, at the University of Buffalo. And while Stanford’s pediatric weight loss program uses the traffic light system, there are some crucial differences between the two approaches: the Stanford program has screening for entry, and is built around 25 in-person weekly meetings between groups of 12 families and healthcare professionals.
Kurbo has no screening or in-person meetings (where trained professionals can more easily spot psychological distress), and only uses “certified” health coaches, who, based on Kurbo’s website, have no standard medical certification. (I reached out to Kurbo to ask about this, and a representative told me that coaches come from diverse backgrounds but are all “passionate about health, must pass an extensive background check, and undergo training on the Kurbo approach to behavior change.”)
None of this is to say that we should accept rates of childhood obesity as they are. But a questionable band-aid solution won’t help, and could do more harm than good. It’s not surprising that Kurbo is already facing skepticism and a brewing backlash on the internet. Many similar apps have been born and proliferated in Silicon Valley, where Kurbo makes it home. And while the intentions of the digital start-up culture may be noble, when it comes to health, a common theme has emerged: captivating stories, lots of hype, little benefit, and great potential for harm. Kurbo seems to fit this bill.
“Addressing childhood obesity in a safe and effective way will require nothing short of an overhaul of culture and food policy change,” says Stotesbury. “Not a dieting app for kids.”
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and wellbeing and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is also bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance. Subscribe to his newsletter here.