Weight Watchers, who are now rebranded as WW, Wellness that Works have launched a new app under this new branding for children as young as eight… as Young. As. Eight. It’s marketed as a potential solution to the childhood obesity crisis in America. However, a lot, and by a lot I mean, basically everyone who is an eating disorder advocate has lashed out online about the Kurbo App.
America is not the only country where childhood obesity and associated lifestyle diseases are high on the public health agenda. In the UK we have a Childhood Obesity Plan which has been associated with sugar reduction campaigns. With childhood obesity so highly on the public health agenda in the UK and USA. In the last decade, obesity amongst infant school aged children has dropped, whereas for year six children, obesity has risen. There is also a very strong correlation with social deprivation and obesity, which seems like it should be the other way around, that having more would mean you eat more. It isn’t, and so beyond calorie counting, we have to take into account social status and level of deprivation. Childhood obesity is a social class disparity – which will not be addressed solely by calorie counting on apps.
I would be curious to see if there is a similar chart to represent diagnosed eating disorder prevalence across social deprivation status’. Does it really mean that children are healthier just because they are not obese? Are there more underweight children in either end of the spectrum? Are there more mental health problems and what kind? Are there accessible facilities for exercising in the community? Where I live in SOuth London you pay £5 to access the tennis courts. This seems perfectly reasonable to those who an afford it, but what about all the children living in poverty in the area? Whereas in Surrey where social deprivation is not so much of an issue, the tennis courts in the park are free to use for everyone. As you can see, the picture is not so straight forward as calories alone.
Children being incredibly overweight, to such an extent that their quality of health and life are negatively impacted is a problem. I will not sit here and pretend that it is normal or healthy for a child to be unable to play and run around with their friends. It is not normal or healthy for a child to be limited by their body, or to be in pain when they try to play catch with their mates, and it’s not fair either. By over feeding our children, we are neglecting their holistic needs, and depriving them of a lot of what childhood has to offer for the ease of not managing their diet appropriately. Now I’m no sugar police, have some cake, have an ice lolly, heck, eat ice cream in the rain if you want to – a little bit of sugar here and there, and a child’s natural propensity to be drawn towards super sugary sweet foods is not the issue. It is the abundance in which these foods become a dietary staple, and in depriving children of attention and freedom to be kids in the streets safely (looking at you gang culture!!), we limit their potential coping mechanisms and potential social development. It is much more complex than diet alone. It is much more complex than calories in and calories out – although this is a suitably reductionist prophecy to sell to the general public because in being so reductionist it is also very easy to explain and sell.
As adults we have no right to deny children of the childhood freedoms of running around with their mates playing catch and relevance 40-40 in for days on end. As adults we have no right to either to instill pathological dieting practices into the young and impressionable under the guise of “this is for our health”. It’s not. Let’s not pretend for one moment that WW Kurbo app is for one minute about healthy relationships with food. In the same breath, we need to stop reducing the idea of health down to a BMI chart number, which is incredibly outdated now. Placing utmost importance on the weight of a child will mean that in a child’s mind, the idea of health can be measured easily and singularly in one arbitrary measure, the number on the scales. A very accessible number with which an obsession can easily be built. A very unreliable number with which our sole judgement of health should not be placed upon. What about getting their blood pressure down, and their glucose sensitivity up? What about a way to do this that doesn’t mean scanning every food and counting calories because equating losing weight with success very quickly equates not losing weight with failure. Why would we put such a bullshit task that’s easy to fail at the definition of daily failure for young children.
A child does not need to count calories to be healthy. Kurbo is a reductionist approach to nutrition that undermines the complexity and importance of a varied diet to support the very varied systems inside our bodies upon which our lives rely. Weight is not everything, if it is to be very much at all. A quick anecdote from a children’s weight management programme I worked with: His mum was using it as child care during the easter break and he qualified via BMI. He had an overweight BMI. He played sports, enjoyed sports and was a picture of health for a young boy with a tall athletic build. He was fast and very competent beyond his years in sports, and our nutritionist was quite stunned that he met the admission criteria for the programme. The admission was based solely on BMI and waist measurement. His waist measurement was not “concerning”, just his weight according to our guidelines. Neither his weight nor waist circumference were “concerning” in the slightest. Two words: MUSCLE. MASS. He shouldn’t have been on this particular programme and learning to eat less food, although I can entirely understand why his mum took the opportunity for free childcare during the Easter break.
The solution is not simple or straight forward. An app in principle is perhaps not the worst idea for a health tool, but basing results and goals on weight numbers is plain lazy. Reducing health to calories in vs calories out though, and encouraging children to count calories is dumb at best, and downright fucking dangerous at worst.