Weight Loss for Kids? Thanks to WW, There’s An App for That

5 minute read

Last February, Weight Watchers set off a firestorm when it announced it would offer its weight-loss program, for free, to teens ages 13 to 17. It angered many parents, as well as eating-disorders experts who felt it could give rise to obsessive and unhealthy behaviors in adolescents. WW—as the company rebranded itself last September—refused to shrink from the criticism, says CEO Mindy Grossman. “It actually strengthened our resolve and made us offensive.”

Now, WW is doubling down: On Aug. 13, the company rolled out Kurbo by WW, a free nutrition and weight-loss app for kids as young as 8, and up to 17. The app will inevitably draw praise—for giving a new tool to the millions of U.S. children struggling with their weight—and outrage—for potentially furthering unhealthy body standards and eating behaviors—in equal measure.

WW acquired the nutrition app Kurbo in 2018, and then spent a year developing it, adding features like breathing-exercise instructions, a Snapchat-inspired interface and multi-day streaks to encourage regular activity. Kids (or parents on their behalf) enter their height, weight, age and health goals, then begin logging what they eat. Kurbo ranks food choices using a Stanford University-developed “traffic-light” system: Green items are “go foods” that can be eaten freely; yellow foods should be consumed in moderate portions; and red foods should make kids “stop and think.” For a fee—starting at $69 for a month—weekly video coaching is also available. Coaches are trained to pick up on signs of disordered eating or unhealthy weight loss.

Wading into the adolescent weight-loss space could be a good business decision for a company that’s struggling to define its place in an increasingly diet-averse culture, and that has seen its stock prices fluctuate wildly (from a recent high of $103 per share last summer to $21.50 this month). Almost 38% of American teenagers ages 16 to 19 have tried to lose weight, and nearly 20% of kids ages 2-19 qualify as obese, according to the latest government data. Philosophically, however, the move seems surprising for a brand that dropped the word “Weight” from its name to shift focus away from the scale. But weight-loss is still WW’s bread and butter, and Grossman insists Kurbo is an extension of its total-health mission. “If we are going to change health trajectories, we have to educate, inspire and support at an earlier point in time,” she says. “There is a very significant need to help families earlier.”

Obesity is associated with chronic conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and kids who have obesity are likely to continue struggling with their weight as they age, underscoring the need for interventions that start young. “The sooner the better,” says Dr. Brooke Sweeney, an adolescent-weight-management specialist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City. “It’s so much easier to maintain weight or slow down how fast they’re gaining weight versus losing weight.”

However, some studies suggest that childhood weight-loss efforts can, if not done right, lead to or worsen disordered eating and body image issues. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics even advised doctors and families to steer clear of weight talk, and instead focus on emphasizing healthy lifestyles. Apps may exacerbate the issue. One small 2019 study found that almost half of its roughly 100 participants reported negative feelings like guilt, obsession or social isolation stemming from nutrition and fitness apps. Still, apps can also be an easy and accessible way for entire families to adopt healthier habits, says Dr. Stephenie Wallace, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She likes Kurbo’s traffic-light system, but stresses that children shouldn’t use it alone. “Younger kids are going to need support [from an adult] to help supervise their progress,” she says.

Extensive research into Kurbo’s traffic-light approach shows it can promote healthy weight loss. One Massachusetts General Hospital study published in July (undertaken independently of Kurbo and WW) found that a traffic-light system lowered the average calorie counts of meals purchased by around 5,700 adults in a hospital cafeteria over two years. And an independent study presented at the Biennial Childhood Obesity Conference in July found that 84% of child users saw a reduction in their body mass index percentile after 21 weeks. Kurbo is effective because, instead of restricting unhealthy foods, it subtly reinforces healthy eating patterns, says WW’s chief scientific officer, Gary Foster, an adjunct professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. “You don’t want kids thinking about grams of this and ounces of that,” he says. “The goal is never to [say], ‘You’ll never have a cookie again.’ It’s progress, not perfection.”

Sweeney says that’s the right philosophy for anyone trying to get healthier, regardless of their age. In an ideal world, she says, a doctor would be involved in that effort too, especially where kids are concerned. But the U.S. obesity epidemic exists in the less-than-ideal real world, and it demands creative answers like Kurbo. “We have a public-health problem,” she says, “so we need public-health solutions.”

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com