If you haven’t heard, there’s been a lot of talk in the media the past few weeks about an app called Kurbo. The application was created by Weight Watchers (or WW as they are now known) for kids ages 8-17. The app is marketed to parents as a way to help their kids develop “healthy eating and exercise habits”. Through the app, kids receive coaching and are required to track their food intake, which is then judged using a stoplight system of green (go), yellow (slow down) and red (stop and think). I have to say – as a mom and a dietitian, this makes me cringe big time.
To be fair, I’m sure WW recognized an opportunity! Case in point (and some sobering news): children’s diets are currently FILLED with ultra-processed foods.
- The average American child over the age of 1 gets almost 60 percent of calories from ultra-processed foods. That means more than half of their diet is filled with cookies, candy, hotdogs, soft drinks, chicken nuggets, pizza, fries, cake, and chips (study here).
- Canadians are the second-largest buyers of ultra-processed foods in the world. Studies show that kids between the ages of 2 and 9 get 51.9 percent of their daily calories from ultra-processed foods (evidence here).
When this is our reality, weight issues and increased risk of chronic disease are inevitable, which is not good. But, weight loss diets (and apps like Kurbo!) are NOT the answer and may make things worse. We need to do better than this! Here’s why:
Diet’s Don’t Work
Let’s cut to the chase and just call a spade a spade. Weight loss diets like fad diets, quick fixes, and the dreaded cleanse, don’t work long term (read here). Sure, you may see a sudden decrease in weight, usually attributed to a shift in water, or maybe it is legit weight (fat, or muscle mass loss), but nine times out of ten, it’s not sustainable. The best diet is quite honestly, not a diet at all–it’s a lifestyle that includes a variety of foods everyday, some favourite indulgences and some mindful eating practices. Eliminating favourite foods or avoiding whole foods (or food groups) is simply not the answer.
The only thing dieting does–especially in younger kids–is increase their chances of developing an eating disorder (study here). According to the American Academy of Pediatrics children should not be prescribed weight-focused care due to the potential for harm, but instead should be given the opportunity for more family-focused meals and activities. So, when possible enjoy mealtime as a family! It’s also important to remember that kids need to grow! Dieting during childhood can lead to a lifetime of chronic dieting or weight cycling. And weight cycling, or “yo-yo” dieting, likely increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (read here).
So, instead of reaching for a weight loss app try these three things:
1. Heal your relationship with food
Let’s get personal here for a second…
Do you have a healthy relationship with food? This is a loaded question, because eating and the food relationships are complicated. And this usually stems back to our childhood. Growing up, my mom was a Weight Watchers points counter (as many many moms back then were!), avoiding foods that were deemed too high in points and skipping meals (or seriously skimping on them) to save points for later. But when you take the “food” out of eating (aka taste, texture, experience, JOY), you’re left with numbers, guilt, shame and confusion. And even worse, with strict weight loss diets involving numbers, points and “good” and “bad” foods, you start to base your self-worth on how successful you are. And then the whole feeding relationship gets messed up!
If you were a kid who grew up thinking this type of thing is normal (hello fellow children of the 80’s and 90’s!), along with other standard feeding techniques such as “three more bites or no dessert” or “clean your plate before leaving the table”, your food relationship is likely a bit warped. Not your parents’ fault – that’s all they knew! But it’s time to heal your relationship with food so that you don’t pass these thoughts and habits on to your kids. This takes time and patience. Emotional eating, eating in the absence of hunger, and yo-yo dieting are realities for many of us, and they are hard habits to break. A good place to start is learning about how to be an Intuitive Eater.
2. Teach your child to be an intuitive eater
Kids are naturally intuitive eaters. From a young age they have the ability to listen to their own natural physical hunger cues. Intuitive eating is all about eating when you start to feel hungry and stopping when you’re becoming full. Easy right? Well, no. Because as kids grow, they are faced with a few hurdles from well-meaning parents and grandparents. You may have heard, or said yourself, just have “three more bites”, tried to coerce food into your toddlers open mouth, or said “no dessert until you finish your veggies”. These are all aspects of feeding that take away from your child’s natural ability to self-regulate. Pressuring kids to eat, labeling food as “good” or “bad”, or associating food with behaviour, are all no-no’s on the path to becoming an intuitive eater. So, here’s what you should do instead:
Call food by its name! Say “this is an orange and that is chocolate” versus “fruit is good for you, treats are bad”. Keeping foods on a level playing field takes away the pedestal. Because if you start putting food on a pedestal you immediately make it a sought-after food, which increases the chances of your child wanting (or sneaking) that food. Don’t label food “good” or “bad” and keep foods emotionally neutral. This means, don’t praise your child for eating “healthy” food or reward them with a “treat”. Kids will quickly figure out that the healthy food must be yucky if they are giving me a sough after “yummy” food for eating it.
Respect Their Appetite
Just like your appetite changes from day-to-day so does your child’s! Some days they may ask for seconds of their supper and some days they may only take a couple of bites. And that is okay. Maybe they aren’t feeling well, maybe they had a more fulfilling lunch. The point is, it’s up to them to decide. Forcing kids to eat when they are not hungry will perpetuate the thought that they are only good when they clear their plate. And some research suggests that being forced to clear your plate in adolescence may result in increased chances of weight gain and obesity later in life. The bottom line is that appetite fluctuates! Instead of forcing your child to consume food against their hungry, trust them and their appetite. Remind them that this is their opportunity to eat and that the next opportunity to eat will be either at snack or mealtime.
Have a Routine
All kids thrive on a routine. They wake up, go to school, go to bed, repeat. Meal and snack schedules are also important when teaching intuitive eating. Learning to self-regulate comes from knowing what to expect at meal and snack times. Allowing 2-3 hours (depending on the age of you kid) in between meals and snacks allows them to feel hungry, but not starving at the start of an eating opportunity. Kids who are allowed to graze throughout the day are unable to figure out their natural hunger and fullness cycles.
3. Practice Body Acceptance
A study conducted in 2016 asked 501 adult women between the ages of 20-35 to recall comments their parents had made growing up about their weight or eating habits. Not surprisingly, adults whose parents made weight-related comments were more dissatisfied with their bodies.
Fast forward to present day. You have a child and you’re worried about their weight. To help, you decide to download an app that tells them that the ½ an avocado they ate put them into “red light territory”, but if they had only eaten 1/5 of it, they would have had a yellow light. Seriously!? Kids do not understand grey areas as much as they understand black and white. If you received a graded paper covered in red marks wouldn’t your heart sink?
You are so much more than your weight, or the amount or types of food you eat. Kids are exposed to societal pressures the same as adults. Lunchroom conversation about food, the comparison of bodies, and the desire to simply “fit in” are all pressures kids face each day. As a parent you can’t completely protect your children from society’s view of weight and weight stigma, but you can control the conversation in your own household and of your own body. What we say about our own bodies can become our kids’ inner dialogue as well. So, instead of focusing on things you may not like about your body, focus on the amazing things that it can do! Your body is amazing, strong, and unique! Remind your child that their body is capable of amazing things too – like cartwheels in gymnastics or swimming underwater!
Our kids’ bodies will change, grow, and do amazing things! They deserve so much more than a weight loss app. Show your kids what being healthy means!
For more information about dangers of the WW Kurbo app please read the position statement from the National Eating Disorders Association here. Their position statement encourages parents and adolescents to consider the potential risks of using the app. They also include a helpline for those in need.
Written by: Lesley Langille, MS, RD, reviewed and edited by Sarah Remmer, RD