Childhood Obesity, An App For That Too?

The prevalence of childhood obesity is truly alarming: One fifth of American kids are obese.

When an adult is obese their doctor might recommend a weight loss diet. Their health professional’s advice will be just a drop in the bucket of counsel: Weight loss plans of all stripes materialize from every bookshelf, digital screen and food outlet. Weight loss is a 72 billion industry, which in and of itself might suggest that we don’t yet have a reliable solution – most weight loss plans work to a certain degree when people reduce caloric intake, and ultimately have miserable long term success rates in avoiding weight regain.

Should the same approach be used for kids?

A few weeks ago WW, previously known as Weight Watchers, launched an app called Kurbo, intended to help kids (as young as 8 years old) and teens “reach a healthy weight”. It tracks food intake, physical activity and weight loss. The app categorizes foods into Green (fruits and veggies), Yellow (bread and pasta) and Red (candy, soda and French fries), encouraging kids to eat according to the traffic light system, and asking them to select a goal, such as ‘lose weight,’ ‘feel better in my clothes,’ ‘make parents happy’, ‘boost my confidence’ and ‘eat healthier.’ For a fee, it will set kids up with coaches. The app follows a previous encroachment into young audiences: Last summer WW offered free membership to teens aged 13-17.

The newly launched app was met with widespread criticism from consumers and dietitians, and a petition in has collected tens of thousands of signatures. Why the outrage?

Should kids diet? What are the risks?

Kids and teens, unlike adults, are growing, and caloric restriction, if not done carefully, may interfere with their growth and development.

Another concern is the link between food restriction and eating disorders, which are extremely prevalent among teens, and are in fact the third most common chronic condition in teens – right after obesity and asthma. Although eating disorders usually appear in teens who are not overweight or obese, quite often, teens who try to lose weight develop eating disorders.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a clinical report several years ago in which it reviews the studies and states that dieting – caloric restriction with the goal of weight loss – is a risk factor for eating disorders, and, un-intuitively perhaps, to obesity. Pediatricians are advised to discourage dieting.


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