Focus on Fitness: Weight-loss apps and diets for children may be harmful

Many experts say weight-loss apps and diets for children may be harmful

By Gloria Schwartz

Earlier this year, Weight Watchers rebranded itself as WW in an attempt to distance itself from its half-century-long focus on concepts that are falling out of favour: weight loss and dieting. All diets have one thing in common – poor long-term success rates. Most diets are not sustainable and the majority of people who lose weight while dieting gain it back once they stop dieting. Then they try another diet. It’s a vicious cycle.

Ironically, while WW is trying to give the impression that it’s more about health and wellness than dieting, it released an app in August called Kurbo that is supposed to help children ages eight to 17 “reach a healthier weight” ( by logging everything they eat. The app categorizes each food item as green (eat anytime), red (limit) or yellow (watch your portions).

The app is free but offers services you can purchase such as weekly video chats with a “health coach.” None of the nine coaches on the website are registered dieticians or therapists, yet their job is to counsel and advise children on how to lose weight. Before-and-after photos of kids as young as eight and testimonials about their weight-loss contradict best practices recommended by experts.

Overweight and obesity are prevalent in children and teenagers as well as adults. Obesity has been recognized by the World Health Organization, the Canadian Medical Association and the American Medical Association as a complex chronic disease that requires medical attention. Excess body weight (fat) puts children at increased risk of health issues such as joint pain, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol – issues that used to be primarily seen in adults. A high body mass index during adolescence puts teens at three times the risk of developing diabetes and five times the risk of developing coronary artery disease in adulthood.

According to dieticians, healthcare professions and clinicians specializing in eating disorders, putting children on weight-loss diets is irresponsible and can result in vulnerable children developing eating disorders ( A 2016 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that adolescents who diet, even if they’re not overweight, are more likely to be overweight and develop eating disorders within a few years than those who don’t diet (

What can you do if you think your child is overweight? A good place to start is with your child’s pediatrician who can determine if there’s reason for concern. Sometimes extra weight simply precedes a growth spurt after which the child slims down naturally.

As a parent, instead of discussing weight and diets with your children, model positive behaviours associated with a healthy lifestyle. Educate yourself about food and fitness so you can begin to make better choices. From grocery shopping to meal planning and cooking, you can involve your children and employ age-appropriate strategies. For example, you can give a young child a couple of snack options so they’re involved in the decision-making. You can’t expect children to eat healthy foods if your kitchen is filled with processed food or if you routinely take your children to fast-food restaurants. Other tips include having family dinner time at the table as often as possible and serving smaller portions at mealtime and allowing your child to ask for more if he’s still hungry. Limit but don’t vilify unhealthy snacks. Make healthy ones readily available. Replace sugary drinks with water.

Set limits on screen time and replace some daily sedentary time with physical activities. Participate with your children when possible, such as going on a bike ride or a hike. At least one hour per day of active play or sports can improve health, weight, energy and sleep for all family members. Don’t single out your overweight child or make negative remarks about his appearance as this can lead to children developing negative self-images that can last a lifetime. By involving the family in the lifestyle changes, you’ll all enjoy the health benefits.

Apps geared for adults (e.g., MyFitnessPal) and food journaling can be useful tools in the short-term for increasing self-awareness. They can help you identify your eating patterns (e.g., how many calories do I actually eat daily versus need, what percentage of my daily intake is from unhealthy food). However, effective long-term weight management requires a range of behavioral and lifestyle changes. Experts agree that ditching diets and developing positive, sustainable habits for yourself and your children is a healthy approach.