Once upon a time, I worked at Weight Watchers as a meeting leader.  I facilitated weekly meetings and taught people how to count their points, choose these foods over those, and watch the weight fall off with diet and lifestyle changes.  I truly did believe in the program, and my personal experience with them was positive – as far as weight loss programs go, it remains one of the few that I feel to be evidence based and not fear mongering.  But make no mistake, it is a WEIGHT LOSS program, not a weight management program, not a behaviour change program, and not an intuitive eating/HAES program like Oprah and it’s name change to remove the word “weight” would have you believe.

Editor’s note – I made a few edits to this post a couple of days later as more information about the app and it’s functions became more clear. Some of these updates are italicized below.  My outrage has only grown since the original publication of this post.
I quit my position at Weight Watchers around the time that they rolled out their latest installment of the program in fall/winter of last year.  Partly due to the fact that with a hospital job, private practice and a kid, I was no longer able to provide them with much availability, but mostly because I was having a bit of an existential crisis.  Weight Watchers (or WW, whatever…) holds an annual Innovation staff meeting, where they announce new products or program changes, provide training, etc.  So last year, I sat in the big fancy conference hearing about the new products and new program changes, and plans to roll out a new program promoting weight loss for CHILDREN, and saw my colleagues getting all excited about how WW was going to revolutionize people’s relationships with food. ‘Oh good, we’re going to HELP so many people, and families, and the children of the future won’t ever struggle with overweight or obesity again thanks to us!’  I mentioned to one of my closer friends that I had been hearing a lot of backlash on this from the healthcare and dietitian communities (a press release had been done just prior to this conference), which was met with the biggest eyeroll in history and declaration that (paraphrasing) “they just don’t see our vision”.  The presentation guided us through some of the lingo changes for the updated program – we are no longer leaders and receptionists in a meeting, we are “guides” and “coaches” facilitating “workshops“!  We ate our catered lunch and I overheard the colleagues all calculating their points, deciding which foods were Simply Filling, negotiating how many activity points they’d have to earn so they could try a piece of the (delicious) dessert, stating that they were “so bad” for eating these things or that weigh in day would be “so scary” next week because of it.
At this point the realization that I no longer fit here smacked me in the face.  Weight Watchers was changing.  Or maybe I was.  I saw a room full of goodhearted people, many living with orthorexia and not even realizing it.  I saw the dawn of new disordered eating for children and youth.  I saw WW trying to rebrand itself to be hip and cool to bring in a new generation of paying members, and as an actual registered health professional in the crowd, I was PISSED that they were trying to make their (marginally trained, mostly educated through WW’s own program and from personal anecdotes) “coaches” sound super legit.  I saw all these eager employees who truly in their hearts want to help people and guide them to a healthy lifestyle, but who were so blinded by their loyalty to the company that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees.  I was once one of them, but I knew this was the end of my relationship with WW.
When I read this week about the launch of the Kurbo by WW app aimed directly at kids and teens (aged EIGHT to 17) I was intrigued.  Originally, the talks had been about introducing “healthy lifestyle guidelines” to teens over 13, which already made me a bit cringey.  The rollout of Kurbo just made me outraged.  Kurbo essentially follows a “traffic light” system, where green foods are those that can be eaten freely like fruits and veggies, yellow are those that you might take more caution with, and red foods are those that you should think about more carefully before choosing.  From what I can tell from the articles available, there isn’t any points counting involved, but kids still track their food, and are taught about portion sizes.  Edits: with further investigation, it appears that kids are allowed only three red-light foods per day.  Apparently more than 2 servings of yellow foods turns into a red.  And what is included in each of these “lights” you ask?  Here’s a snapshot:
  • Green: fruits and veggies
  • Yellow: lean proteins including  skinless chicken breast, whole grains, beans, eggs, milk and dairy products
  • Red: 2% milk, peanut butter, avocado, nuts, bread, and everything else. 

IN WHAT WORLD DOES “SKINLESS CHICKEN BREAST” AND “BEANS” COUNT AS A FOOD THAT KIDS NEED TO “TAKE CAUTION WITH”?!  The really strange thing about this is that many of these “yellow” foods are actually zero point foods on the legacy WW program (skinless chicken breast, eggs, beans were all zero points at the time that I left)

WW says that instead of restricting unhealthy foods, Kurbo reinforces healthy eating patterns.  Gary Foster, (WW’s chief scientific officer and an adjunct professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania) says that “You don’t want kids thinking about grams of this and ounces of that… The goal is never to [say], ‘You’ll never have a cookie again.’ It’s progress, not perfection.”

Now I will say that this all sounds fine and dandy, the Kurbo system with the traffic lights has some merit towards it as an education tool for making healthy food decisions but the food types chosen to represent each “light” are absolutely LUDICROUS.  Children and teenagers need healthy sources of fats for brain development. They need additional protein and calories to support their physical growth.  Their bodies are undergoing hormonal changes triggering physiological changes, including fat pad stores, muscle growth and weight gain, which are NORMAL AND HEALTHY. This tool does not help kids and teens to build a healthy relationship with food. They’re not being encouraged to think of those red light foods as occasional yummy treats (like that dessert at the fancy conference), instead they’re being taught that perfectly healthy foods like avocados, nuts, and SKINLESS CHICKEN BREASTS are things to avoid lest they get too many red lights in one day.  They are likely to fall into the same orthorexic trap of figuring out how much exercise I have to do so I can “earn it”, or deciding that this food is “bad” (or “stop” to use their lingo) and therefore cannot be part of my diet.  And yes I’m using the word diet because despite what WW wants you to believe, THIS IS A DIET FOR CHILDREN AND TEENS.

Children should not be on diets. Full stop. Period.

Yes, childhood overweight and obesity is a problem. But putting kids on diets comes with it’s own physical and mental health concerns – in fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a statement advising physicians to steer clear of speaking about weight and diets, focusing instead on healthy lifestyle.  Some studies have found negative psychological impacts of using nutrition and weight focused apps in youth, with feelings of guilt, obsession and negative body image resulting from use of these tools.  If we consider that Kurbo by WW is not about dieting, I then wonder why kids need to track their foods, activity, or weight at all, or receive education on portion sizes.  Why can children choose weight loss as a goal as soon as they sign up for the app?  If the goal is to encourage healthy choices overall, why would there be any need for tracking and tabulation of portions, rather than just having engaging articles, games, tips, recipes, and interactive tools that don’t focus on one’s food intake?  Also, why do they have to fork over nearly SEVENTY DOLLARS to participate in what WW seems to be claiming as a public health education tool?
It sounds good to say that ‘we aren’t telling kids to lose weight, we’re just nudging them in a healthier direction’ (or however they want to word it).  While I don’t necessarily have a huge issue with the traffic light system as a TOOL to encourage healthy choices (with significant alterations to the foods that WW has chosen to represent the lights…), it needs to be followed up with supervision from a competent adult to guide the child towards a positive, healthy relationship with food that starts with behaviours, not obsession with the nutrient content of foods.  Kurbo by WW has the option for video chats with staff for encouragement and guidance, from coaches who are “trained to pick up on signs of disordered eating or unhealthy weight loss”.  Let me tell you what this means.  Remember when I mentioned that marginal training thing earlier?  About 5 years ago, my “leader” training was a 2-day workshop which mostly revolved around teaching the program, how to troubleshoot common questions and negativity around the program, and public speaking skills to facilitate a group meeting. There was no “training” to recognize unhealthy weight loss or disordered eating patterns, asides to keep an eye out for people losing more than 2lbs/week consistently or with a BMI under 18 (and even then, there was no training on what to do once you had a member who fit that criteria).  Maybe things have changed since I did this training, but something tells me that it hasn’t.  Maybe Kurbo has it’s own staff who received different training.  Regardless, this leads to another issue that makes me angry – of providing medical nutrition therapy or psychotherapy outside of being a qualified, regulated health professional.  I don’t expect that staff will be educated on the psychology of eating disorders or how to effectively coach someone out of a disordered eating pattern, because they are not medical professionals and it’s actually a good thing that staff should not be expected to be competent in these highly specialized skills. But in my experience, there was really no suggestion around how to spot disordered eating patterns, unhealthy attitudes towards food, or how to refer a person to someone who CAN help them, and only training on how to “troubleshoot” the issues.  Not to mention the clear closeted orthorexia already existing in the staff collective – you can’t screen for and refer to a professional for a behaviours that you are ENCOURAGING with your program.  This in and of itself is a MASSIVE risk for people at risk of developing an eating disorder, for example, teens and children on a diet.  Oh wait…
At the end of the day, Kurbo by WW is a weight loss app, with a WW brand prominently displayed on it.  Kids can set a goal of losing weight.  They are tracking their food.  They are on a diet, whether WW wants to call it that or not.  And, with their logo prominently displayed, WW is creating brand loyalty for a future generation of paying members, much like the conference room full of fiercely loyal employees (all former/current members) who eyerolled as high as the moon at the thought that someone would think that their program wasn’t the best choice for everyone.  And, WW is making MONEY off of this, which is exactly what their goal is as a business.  Though those staff members with bright eyes truly do have a caring heart and feel the desire to be helpful, the program standing behind them is a brand, a business, with stakeholders to answer to and a bottom line to consider.  They. Want. Your. Money.  Dieting and weight loss is a MASSIVE industry, and the teen/youth market is one that has been largely untouched.  WW can dress up their program to look all chic and hip and all about positive lifestyle changes, but look under the lipstick and it’s the same Weight Watchers, the same dieting, and the same desire for brand loyalty and the cash from your wallet.
If you feel that your family could benefit from behaviour changes around eating and lifestyle, speak with a registered health professional, like your physician or a dietitian, to ensure that your health remains the top priority, and your child’s mental health and physical safety are not compromised.  Don’t give your money to corporate greed and diet culture.

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