“I don’t want to wear that,” my friend’s little sister told her. Shivering in the Wisconsin cold, my friend tried reasoning with her. “You don’t like the color? You wore this one last week!”
“My belly is too big,” her sister complained. “Your stomach is just fine. You need to put your leotard on. Gymnastics is starting soon,” she assured her sister.
Later on, my friend told me this story and I should have been in disbelief. My friend’s little sister was three years old—THREE—when this exchange happened. Yet, I was not shocked at all.
Everything in our society tells people that they need to look a certain way to be accepted.
The rules about your hair, clothes, skin, and more only get stricter as you get older—but they always start with thinness being sold as the path to happiness and acceptance.
The fact that a three-year-old was able to pick up on this cultural norm was not surprising to me. After all, the negativity of diet culture is all around her!
Weight Watcher’s New App Promotes Diet Culture
Last summer, Weight Watchers released a new app called Kurbo, claiming that it helps kids “eat healthier, move more, and feel great!” They use a traffic-light system to label food as green, yellow, or red. Children can eat as many green foods as they want, but they should watch their portions with yellow foods and try to avoid red foods (though they can enjoy them sometimes). From the way Weight Watchers is promoting the app, it doesn’t sound too bad,—until you actually look at the app itself. It focuses on kids ages 8 to 17, which is problematic in and of itself.
When you look at the app and see how it organizes foods, it is immediately frustrating. The app also categorizes perfectly healthy foods as red just because they have a lot of calories—some examples of these foods are avocados, nuts, and olive oil. Categorizing healthy foods in the same way they do junk foods is not teaching children proper nutrition—just how to count calories and avoid high-fat options, many of which are healthy fats that kids need to grow.
The app also includes before-and-after photos of kids who have used it, which is interesting to say the least. You can see the weight loss, but you can’t see health changes.
If they really wanted to help kids make healthier choices and increase their self-esteem, they wouldn’t include photos that make them compare their bodies to other children’s—especially with kids as young as eight years old.
Probably the most disturbing thing about the app, as one dietician pointed out, is that it asks kids to choose what their goal is. Children can pick from a range of options such as losing weight, boosting confidence, or making their parents happy. Even if a child doesn’t pick that option, they now get the idea that being fat or making “bad” food choices will make their parents unhappy. That is something no child should ever have to hear, and it associates food with feelings of guilt and shame.
We Don’t Need Diets to Tell Us How to Eat
Associating food with moral behavior—“I’m so bad for eating this burger,” “I’m so good for eating green beans”—causes a bad relationship with food later in life. What kids hear about food in childhood shapes their entire future with it.
Foods should never be labeled as bad or dangerous (red), and it can actually lead to overeating these foods out of guilt. Children who are free to choose their own food will eat until they are full and eat a variety of food. Kids who are restricted will eat an entire bowl of candy in one sitting when they are allowed.
As far as portion sizes go, human beings have natural portion control in our brains, which is wired from birth. No one needs to tell babies how much milk to drink—they simply stop when they are full. After that, the world comes in with messages about how much to eat and mixes up our hunger cues. The more people diet, the more those cues get desensitized.
Doing this at a young, impressionable age only makes it worse.
In the “Health At Every Size” program, Linda Bacon, PhD, teaches people how to eat intuitively, listen to their bodies, and find what is right for them. She encourages people to move their bodies in ways that feel good and to eat a wide range of foods. Bacon believes that when people listen to what their bodies are asking for, they will end up eating healthier most of the time. For many people, this approach to food is better than dieting because it focuses on getting your body what it needs—not losing weight.
Diets Don’t Work Anyway—But They Can Kill Us
New studies show that dieting doesn’t work about 95% of the time and that dieting creates weight cycling, which can lead to health problems and eventual weight gain. Even if you don’t believe this app can be harmful for children, the statistics show that using the app won’t help kids lose weight in the long run anyway.
Based on a study done by the American Academy of Pediatrics, discussing weight loss and dieting is not good for kids. Families are encouraged instead to discuss healthy lifestyles. Dieting and diet talk can lead to eating disorders, which are extremely dangerous and can take a lifetime to recover from.
Anywhere from 5 to 18% of kids who have eating disorders will die from them.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), at least 30-million people deal with eating disorders in the United States alone, and every 62 minutes, someone dies from one. Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, making it a deadly problem.
Weight-Loss Apps Cause Obsession
As a late teen in college, I was making my own food choices unsupervised for the first time ever. I was rapidly becoming obsessed with losing weight and dieting, so I downloaded a food-tracking app that, like Kurbo, claims to help people make positive food decisions and lose weight safely.
Instead, I got sucked into the app, putting my daily calorie count lower and lower until I was eating fewer than 1,200 calories a day. I did everything I could to please the app, as these kinds of programs reward you the more you beat your goal—even when it becomes unhealthy.
I had a very strange, obsessive relationship with food, and most of it was due to a dieting app I didn’t need in my life to begin with. I should have just been listening to my body.
I can’t even imagine what would have happened if I had an app similar to Kurbo as a child. As a late teen, someone who was considered old enough to know better, an app made me obsessed with food and calories. Using this type of technology as a child would have only made it worse. My obsession with a dieting app is not uncommon—a 2019 study found that half of their participants felt obsession and social isolation after using dieting apps. That is not how we want our next generation to grow up.
Kids Don’t Need More Lessons—They Need Acceptance and Love
Kids already know our society values thin bodies and treats fat ones poorly. They don’t need more conversations around weight loss, or an app that judges their every move.
What we need to teach kids is that they should love their bodies however they look, and that because they love them, they need to take care of them.
If you want your child to eat vegetables, talk about how strong you feel when you eat them. If you want them to eat fruit, tell them about how blueberries power your brain and help you think in school. Discuss what gives their bodies energy to move, play, and grow!
Childhood should be about learning, exploring, laughing, enjoying, and adventuring. You can’t do that if you’re constantly entering everything you eat into your phone. The best way for kids to learn and sustain healthy habits is to learn them from their families. You don’t need an app for that.