Diet Apps For Children? Kurbo Your Enthusiasm
This summer in the USA, Weight Watchers, now branded as WW, launched Kurbo – a mobile diet app aimed specifically at children and teens. The company heralded this as a solution to the problem of childhood obesity, but it’s also been met with significant criticism from parents and healthcare professionals who see its potential for harm rather than good.
There’s no denying that childhood obesity is an issue that needs addressing: so, should we be embracing technology that claims to tackle this problem? Or should we exercise caution, look at the bigger picture and the role we play as parents in promoting healthier lifestyles?
I got in touch with Priya Tew, an award-winning dietitian, eating disorder specialist and presenter from BBC television’s ‘Eat Well for Less’. Whilst it’s unclear whether WW plans to launch Kurbo in this country, I was keen to hear from a dietitian and fellow mother how she feels about it.
Drastic times: drastic measures?
Childhood obesity is a concern in the UK as well as in the USA. According to NHS Digital, statistics show “that 34.3 per cent of Year 6 children and 22.4 per cent of reception children were either overweight or obese in 2017/18.”
Proponents of the weight loss app believe it’s important that they specifically target children at an early age, if they are to make a long-term impact on their behaviour. They recognise that to do this requires rapid engagement, which is easier to achieve when using platforms with which children are familiar. They justify its features with scientific research and recognise that, in drastic times, you need more creative methods. WW say they collaborated with “a team of leading healthcare professionals and academic experts in pediatric health and nutrition from around the globe.” Which makes it all sound rather hard to argue with, and I can imagine that there are cases in which this technology is seen to be a success.
Yet, for all the science and the buzz around engaging children in healthy lifestyles, paradoxically, through mobile technology, I find it worrying. Priya agrees: “I find diets and diet apps marketing at children to be hugely concerning. I have nothing against nutrition apps that educate children about nutrition and help them plan a balanced intake of food, but I do take issue with putting children ‘on diets’ at such a young age.”
Whilst I recognise that some children need to cut back on certain foods or be more active, the thought of a calorie-counting 8-year-old is disturbing. And on top of this is the idea that, at the age of 8, it’s the child and not the parent who should be taking control. It also encourages society to ignore environmental causes of obesity such as almost 24/7 access to sedentary screen-based activity, food marketing, portion sizes and poverty. As Priya says, “it requires a multifactorial approach… [it’s] so much more than just food.” Recent US research shows a link between food insecurity and childhood obesity, for example.
Calorie-counting and eating disorders
In Priya’s experience, exposure to such apps also runs real risks for future eating habits: “This could set children up with a lifetime of dieting, counting points, and tracking their food intake, or even lead to an eating disorder. As a dietitian who works in the eating disorder field, I have seen the rise of ‘diets gone wrong’, where people have started on a diet and this has spiralled out of control. Diets give the message that there is something wrong with your body, therefore something wrong with you.”
This is echoed in a recent BBC investigation into adult dieting apps, stating that ‘‘eating disorder charity ‘Beat’ said the mobile apps could exacerbate unhealthy behaviours and make recovery harder.’’ If adults are finding themselves under the damaging control of weight loss apps then it raises serious moral and health questions over the impact these have on children.
As parents, how we develop early relationships between our children and what they eat is important. We’re conditioned from the outset of parenting to think about our children’s weight; it’s one of the first questions we’re asked when they’re born. Our lives become structured around their feeding times when they’re babies and then once they start school, second to the question: ‘what did you do today?’ is ‘what did you have for lunch?’ We have pretty much exclusive control up to this point. Relinquishing this can be difficult and getting a reliable answer to either of those questions, impossible. Unless there’s been pudding – I hear a lot about pudding!
As a mother and an educator, I’m aware that my children are now exposed to and learning from, a whole host of external influences. They have teachers and peers with them at lunchtime rather than me and they’re learning to make their own decisions about what they choose to eat. This is an important time in their development, and it strikes me that introducing technology would disrupt this natural process of human judgement.
Priya suggests that as parents, “we can help our children embrace the positives of food and learn how to love their bodies, so they choose to nourish them well.” With her own children, she gets active with them and encourages positivity around food; growing it, cooking and eating it together. She sees role modelling as key to influencing how children develop their own relationship with food: “As parents, it is important to eat with our children; show them what a balanced meal is and how we eat over a day.”
This might seem like an ideal-world scenario and, for some of us, eating together may not always be possible. But regardless of time or technology, there are some messages we can try to teach:
Priya’s top tips for healthy eating habits:
No food is good or bad: all foods are fine to eat, but it’s how much you eat of that food that matters.
If you eat ice cream all day, what happens? You’ll feel sick! That’s a way your body tells you to stop. Working with your children on listening to their body signals is key.
When you’re hungry, you eat; when you’re full, you stop. It’s a simplistic but an important tool for children to learn.
Slowing down eating, chewing well and thinking about how their tummies feel can help.
Be active daily.
This can be achieved in so many ways and be a family activity. A walk together round the block, a game of football or dancing in the kitchen; it all helps children to see that everyone needs to move their bodies to keep them healthy.
Change4Life also has lots of helpful information for parents, including recipe ideas for quick and easy lunchboxes.
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