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Weight Watchers new app could have unintended consequences for young children

children & eating disorders

New App Could Encourage Eating Disorder Behaviors in Children 

WW, formerly Weight Watchers, has recently introduced a “healthy eating app” for children that is causing quite a controversy.  While it is important to teach kids balanced eating habits while they are young, how far can you take that initiative before you are creating an unhealthy relationship between the child and the food that they may want?  Essentially, Kurbo is a dieting app, and research has proven that dieting can lead to an eating disorder. During adolescence, weight and body image are very sensitive areas. It is important for parents and trained professionals to stress the importance of teaching children that all foods fit using variety, moderation, and balance. What this means is choosing a variety of foods from all food groups, enjoy all foods, and balancing foods to ensure important nutrients are received.

What is Kurbo?

WW recently made the news for creating a new diet app for children named Kurbo. The app could come from good intentions, but there are potentially dangerous lessons that this app could be teaching our youth.  While a child’s health and nutrition should remain a priority, some children are at risk for developing an eating disorder if they restrict through dieting. Our responsibility at Toledo Center for Eating Disorders, is to point out these pitfalls that many children could fall victim to and bring to them to the forefront of the conversation.

Kurbo’s basic functionality is to track a child’s eating habits throughout the day.  Using a stoplight system, healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables are labeled green, perceived unhealthy foods are labeled red, and mildly healthy/unhealthy choices get labeled yellow.  As the meals and snacks eaten throughout the day, the app tracks the eating choices and encourages the child to make healthier choices moving forward.

What is the danger of Kurbo?

The decision to directly target children without the guidance of a trained professional working together with the parent is a risky move. It seems innocent enough to want your child to eat healthy food. However, several health professionals think Kurbo has taken the health trend too far. The app also requires the child to enter and track their weight.  You can see the inherent danger of teaching young, impressionable children the importance of tracking their weight.  Historically, there were no apps 20 years ago that were encouraging children to track their weight.  Yet, we still have millions of people suffering from eating disorders throughout the world today.  Furthermore, young children require different levels and varieties of nutrition since they are still in the process of growing.  Kurbo could potentially be teaching children that they need to curb their eating habits and lose weight, ultimately hampering the child’s overall health.

The developers of Kurbo have also come forward to say that the free version of the app is not monitored.  This means that a child could be using the app, restricting their food intake and not gaining the nourishment that they need to properly grow, and Kurbo would not tell them to change anything. There is a paid version of Kurbo that offers coaching for making healthy eating choices.  However, Kurbo has since admitted that the coaches on the paid version are not trained nutritionists.

Okay, so we have an app that could potentially give children a complex about their weight.  What are the long-term implications for the kids who are potentially impacted by this? Over-focusing on food and calorie intake can lead children to feel guilt or shame about eating and could cause them to develop an eating disorder, such as anorexia.

One of the main symptoms of anorexia is restricting calories.  It’s easy to see how an app like Kurbo could be unintentionally planting these types of habits in a child’s mind. According the National Eating Disorder Association, between 0.3-0.4% of young women and 0.1% of young men will suffer from anorexia nervosa at any given point. With societies new obsession for healthy eating and fitness, this number could begin to rise over the next few decades.

Other symptoms of anorexia further enforce the idea that an unhealthy obsession with weight can have serious consequences:

  • Preoccupation with weight, body, food, calories, fat grams, exercise, and/or dieting
  • Weight loss (significant or sudden)
  • Refusal to eat certain foods or food group
  • Complaints of constipation, abdominal pain, cold intolerance, lethargy, and/or excess energy
  • Distorted self-image
  • Expressed anxiety about gaining weight or being “fat”
  • Denial of hunger
  • Development of food rituals (e.g. eating foods in certain orders, excessive chewing, rearranging food on a plate)
  • Avoidance of meals as well as other situations involving food
  • Participation in an excessive, rigid exercise regimen
  • Concerned about eating in public
  • Limited insight into and/or denial of the above mentioned unhealthy behavioral or cognitive patterns

Another unintended consequence of obsessing over one’s diet is orthorexia.  Orthorexia is defined by the National Eating Disorder Association as being obsessed with proper or ‘healthful’ eating.  While this may seem innocent and even be considered a ‘healthy’ choice, people with orthorexia become so fixated on only eating healthy that they can do damage to their overall health.

Here are some of the warning signs and habits that someone with orthorexia may exhibit:

  • An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’
  • Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
  • Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events
  • Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available
  • An obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ blogs on social media
  • Body image concerns may or may not be present

Due to their restrictive nature, these habits can have health consequences that are very closely related to anorexia.  People who suffer from orthorexia could end up with the following health issues:

  • Slow heart rate and low blood pressure; the risk for heart failure increases, as heart rate and blood pressure decrease
  • Reduction of bone density (dry, brittle bones); the risk for osteoporosis/osteopenia increases as bone density decreases
  • Muscle loss and weakness
  • Dehydration (which can result in kidney failure)
  • Fainting, fatigue, and overall weakness
  • Dry hair and skin, hair loss
  • Growth of a downy layer of hair (lanugo) all over the body, including the face, to keep the body warm

To prevent these types of concerns, parents should play an active role in their child’s eating habits and body image.  Most of the children that Kurbo is targeting are not old enough to make a trip to the local grocery store to buy food. It is up to parents to stock the shelves with a healthy variety of options that will set children up for proper growth and overall health.

How can I help my child if they have an eating disorder?

At Toledo Center, we have trained professionals ready to help assess and guide parents and their kids safely. In our adolescent residential program, we provide a structured, safe environment for male and female adolescents (ages 10-17) who are suffering from an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Utilizing evidence-based therapeutic interventions, we help our clients process the underlying issues related to their eating disorder. At Toledo Center, we also understand the importance of continuing education while in treatment. For this reason, we provide individually tailored educational plans. Our Education Coordinator works with the client, their family, and the school to coordinate assignments and tests so they can continue their studies with limited interruption.

If Toledo Center is not the solution needed, we will work our trusted clinical partners who may be able to help. If you would like more information on our programs, please call our admissions team or complete our contact form.  Toledo Center is here to help your child find freedom from their eating disorder.

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