Christy Harrison, who is a registered dietitian and has a masters in public health, recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about Weight Watchers’ new app called Kurbo for children 8 to 17 years old.
She “strongly recommend that parents keep this new tool—and any weight-loss program—away from their children”.
She writes that over the past 60 years, numerous studies have shown that among people who lose weight, more than 90% gain it back over the long run. For example, a 2015 study of more than 176,000 higher-weight people age 20 and older found that 95% to 98% of those who lost weight gained back all of it (or more) within five years.
So what does that have to do with kids?
A 2017 systematic review of studies of weight-loss programs for kids ages 6 to 11 found that those interventions produced only small, short-term reductions in weight, and that weight-loss studies in kids were flawed at best. “The overall quality of the evidence was low or very low, and 62 trials had a high risk of bias,” the reviewers wrote. That review included numerous studies examining the family-based protocol that Kurbo cites as its scientific basis.
Weight Watchers admits as much in the fine print for Kurbo: “Results not typical. Weight loss and/or BMI reduction will vary by age, weight and height.”
Weight Watchers has described the app as a “holistic tool,” and not a diet, Harrison writes, but the way it’s been branded doesn’t change the effect it could have on its users. Programs like this are fertile ground for disordered eating, encouraging kids to track what they eat using a “traffic light” system that divides foods into red, yellow and green categories, implicitly coding certain foods as “good” and others as “bad.”
Harrison says that if we truly want to help children be the healthiest and happiest people they can be, we need to stop putting them on diets of any kind, which are likely to worsen their overall well-being. Instead, we need to start teaching them to trust their own inner wisdom about food. And we need to help them make peace with their bodies, at any size.