As the nation’s leading organization serving people affected by eating disorders, NEDA is compelled to express our concerns about the new Kurbo by WW app. The app, designed to help children 8-17 reach a “healthier” weight, encourages young children and adolescents to track every bite they eat and invites them to set weight loss as a goal. Asking kids to closely monitor and self-report everything they eat through an app with no in-person monitoring by a medical professional presents grave risks, including eating disorders, disordered eating and a potential lifetime of weight cycling and poor body image.
While WW has recently made a brand shift to de-emphasize words like “diet” and “dieting” and replace them with words affiliated with the “wellness” and “health” industries, its primary business purpose is to support the pursuit of weight loss. Marketing materials for the Kurbo app feature before and after photos of children, including the weight they’ve lost. Health is more than weight. An app-based program that emphasizes and celebrates weight loss is risky for this vulnerable population of children and adolescents at a time when their bodies are undergoing significant changes and are especially susceptible to harm.
NEDA has many concerns about the launch of the WW Kurbo app, including:
- The app treats higher weights in children as a straightforward diet and exercise issue rather than recognizing a natural diversity of sizes.
- Many factors in relation to weight are environmental and outside of a child’s control.
- There are children who do not have access to a wide variety of foods because of their economic status and geographic location.
- Teens who self-report dieting are twice as likely to become overweight as non-dieting teens, regardless of their beginning weight.
- Even if there were no concerns related to encouraging weight loss in children, there is no long-term evidence showing that weight loss can be maintained in the majority of those who lose weight.
- The app relies on self-reporting and there is no screening to determine whether a child is at risk for or suffering from an eating disorder (anorexia, atypical anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, and other eating disorders) before they are provided access to the meal tracking features of the app.
- Children at the ages targeted by the app are preparing to enter puberty and are supposed to be growing. Specifically, they are supposed to gain fat. Interrupting the growth process, especially at such a critical time of development, is irresponsible. Indeed, there is evidence it can cause irreparable harm.
- 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.
Eating disorders are too often wrongly relegated to the sidelines as a minor consideration in the “obesity prevention” conversation. Eating disorders are serious illnesses that have the second highest mortality rate of any mental health disorder. They affect people across the body size spectrum, including those who may be considered “overweight” or “obese.”
While we acknowledge the good intentions of researchers working to develop programs to keep children healthy, we must point out the serious risks associated with an app that requires kids to track everything they eat and self-report their weight and behaviors. We encourage parents who may be considering this app for their children – and adolescents thinking of using it themselves – to seriously consider the potential risks.