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We need to kick Kurbo to the curb

Kurbo St. Paul's eating disorders


Kurbo St. Paul's eating disordersAli Eberhardt (L) and Hannah Robinson (R) are registered dietitians with the Provincial Adult Tertiary Specialized Eating Disorders Program at St. Paul’s Hospital. They host a podcast, Let Us Eat Cake, where they aim to break down nutrition information, using science and by explaining how our bodies and nutrition actually work.

In August 2019, WW (rebranded from Weight Watchers) announced the release of a new smartphone food tracking app called Kurbo.

It’s appalling.

Kurbo targets children aged eight to 17 years old to help them make their own food, weight and exercise choices. The app gamifies weight loss by labelling foods as “good” or “bad” and uses bolded charts to track weight changes over time.

The Kurbo message: weight loss equals self-worth

Transformation photos of young children losing weight are used to communicate that weight loss is necessary not only to improve physical health but also self-esteem, worth and confidence. The app encourages children to override their hunger and fullness cues and meticulously track each bite of food. They are encouraged to “save up” their “bad foods” so they can more freely indulge at their classmates’ birthday parties.

And, when all else fails, it’s recommended they increase their exercise to compensate for the “mistakes” they have made.

The company claims it consulted industry leaders to develop Kurbo.

But the Canadian Paediatric Society (and its American counterpart), the National Eating Disorders Information Center, numerous Canadian & American Eating Disorders organizations, clinicians, dietitians and healthcare professionals give a resounding “no” to Kurbo.

The danger of weight defining worth and health

Kurbo lets children identify their goals when registering with it. Regardless of whether it is eating healthier or boosting confidence, the only metric used to assess progress is weight loss. Sixty years of evidence shows there is no sustainable way to lose weight and keep it off. The literature suggests that over 90% of people who attempt weight loss regain it within five years. This sets children up for failure, and has dramatic implications on their ability to gauge their own abilities and worth.

Kurbo St. Paul's eating disorders

Kurbo features a goal-setting app, where users can identify their main motivation for using the app.

Encouraging growing children to restrict their intake during critical development years is concerning for reasons beyond just physical health. In Canada up to 30% of girls and 25% of boys report dieting to lose weight, and 40% of girls in grade 9 and 10 believe they’re fat. It’s not surprising we are seeing two to four times as many children being diagnosed with eating disorders than Type 2 Diabetes.

Of all mental illnesses, eating disorders have the highest overall mortality rate.

The dangers of “good” and “bad” foods

Kurbo St. Paul's eating disorders

The food search on Kurbo categorizes food using “red”, “yellow” and “green” to indicate how “good” of a food something is.

Kurbo uses the concept of a traffic light to help children identify foods that are good, bad or should be eaten with caution.

  • Green foods include low calorie foods; users are encouraged to eat them in abundance.
  • Yellow foods should be eaten with caution and their portion size should be monitored.
  • Red foods are “difficult to control” and should be budgeted for throughout the week.

Yellow and red light foods include dairy products, whole grains, meat, oils, nuts and nut butter. Children who use this app are allocated a number of “red foods” they are allowed to eat each week, and can either have a couple each day, or save them all up and eat them all at once. As eating disorder dietitians it is concerning to see a focus on the caloric content of food instead of the nutrient value, labeling food as “good” and “bad” giving it morality which can lead to increased guilt and shame, and also encouraging kids to engage in restrict/binge eating cycles.

How parents can support their children

It’s difficult for parents to navigate the challenges of raising and feeding children, especially when the culture values thinness and views weight as the primary determinant of health.

We always tell parents to foster new behaviours to support their kids. And weight is not a behaviour.

Instead of focusing on the number on a scale, we encourage families to move their bodies together, cook together, limit screen time and connect as a family. We suggest creating an environment where a variety of foods are offered, where commentary about food is neutral, and observations about others are not related to weight, shape or size.

Strong self-esteem is not connected to a number on the scale.

Resources for fostering positive food and body environments for children

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