Two years ago, I was at my weekly Weight Watchers (WW) meeting when something happened that disturbed me so much that I left and never came back. One of the participants—chatty, enthusiastic and full of weight-loss ideas—was a child.
What was so deeply upsetting about seeing a kid offering suggestions about cravings is that I used to be her. Long before the company decided to market a food-tracking app to children, I became a Lifetime Weight Watchers member at age 10 and was the only child at most of my meetings.
At an age when I should have been playing outside or hanging with friends, I watched adults berate themselves at weekly meetings for gaining a quarter of a pound. I don’t recall leaders—who, by the way, are merely other successful dieters, not dietitians or medical experts—ever discussing disordered eating patterns or genetics. It was all geared toward self-control. It was like being dipped in a vat of shame each week, and it’s where I internalized the concept that what you eat determines your self-worth.
I was put on the program by my parents, who had the absolute best intentions, but with the wisdom of adulthood I can now say that it did more harm than good. Considering the fact that I was a prepubescent minor, WW shouldn’t have allowed me to participate in the program at all, but it did—money and vegetables are both green, and the diet industry in America is worth an unprecedented US$72 billion. I place blame not on my loving family, but, rather, on corporate greed.
It took years to undo the negative self-talk, dissatisfaction with my body and self-consciousness that programs like WW thrive on. But recently, a wave of harmful feelings came flooding back when the company announced its new Kurbo app, which targets kids as young as eight.
The app uses a Stanford-approved “Traffic Light system” to grade ingredients and how often kids should eat them. Red light foods are bad, green foods are good, and those in the handle-with-care yellow category are mostly carbs. Kids sign up, are matched with a coach–a stranger selected based on your child’s interests–and decide on a health goal (like boosting confidence or increasing energy) via video chats.
The site boasts gleeful success stories from children aged eight to 17, many with a focus on reductions on BMI percentile—despite the fact that studies have shown BMI to be an inaccurate measure, mislabeling millions of healthy people as overweight or obese.
Much like some of the kids in the testimonials, I started dieting at age nine, when I was 5 feet tall and 113 lbs. I was given a goal at my first meeting, based on my height and weight, and over that summer I reached it: 96 lbs. There was no point system at the time. The program relied on limiting foods by dividing them into categories–breads, fruits, vegetables and protein. As an example, 12 grapes counted as one serving of fruit. I remember a classmate grabbing hold of my Tupperware and hooting with laughter, announcing to the lunchroom that I only had six grapes. “Who packs six grapes?” he shrieked.
The weight came off, but nothing about it made me feel good. While on the program, I felt self-conscious as I ate my “special” meal, and odd being applauded at meetings as I achieved various weight-loss goals. I felt monitored by family and friends, who all knew about my membership with WW, and I wanted to please everyone—but I felt horrible about myself.
Losing weight only helped insomuch as the pressure was off, but it wasn’t a goal I’d ever dreamed of—and it wasn’t sustainable, either. Dieting so young permanently damaged my relationship with food, preventing me from achieving goals, standing up for myself and just plain living.
Kurbo is asking adolescents who struggle with their weight to accept themselves not as they are, but as they “should” be. And if some of these kids are already too scared to try a sport or meet new friends because they’re ashamed of their bodies, imagine how much this reinforces their beliefs. Parents need to take this seriously, as you’re potentially stunting your child’s emotional and physical wellbeing by putting them on a diet (which is why a change.org petition to take down the app has already racked up more than 112,000 signatures).
It shouldn’t surprise you that I no longer weigh 96 lbs. It may surprise you to hear that I went back to WW several times—in the eighth grade, ninth grade, tenth grade, college, post-college and my final stint two years ago. As a Lifetime WW member, I’m treated to the privilege of coming back whenever I like with no joining fee. Over the years I’ve also turned to fad diets like Atkins, Jenny Craig and South Beach.
None of them lasted, unsurprisingly, because dieting has consistently been shown to be an ineffective long-term plan for weight loss. The child I was and the adult I am are both immensely relieved that experts agree, warning that WW is putting children in danger by overlooking the fact that they are supposed to gain weight during puberty.
Beth Rosen, a non-diet registered dietitian who practices Health at Every Size®, says most kids will put on between 20 and 50 lbs. (which is key to young girls getting their periods, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society) and experience other growth markers like stretch marks and cellulite. But dieting can stunt this essential growth, not to mention increasing the risk of eating disorders, according to the American Dietetic Association.
Evelyn Tribole, a specialist in eating disorders, registered dietitian, and author of The Intuitive Eating Workbook: 10 Principles for Nourishing a Healthy Relationship with Food, hates to see kids starting a dieting journey so young. “The moment you make a food forbidden and outlawed, that’s the food the kid ends up sneak eating,” Tribole said.
This can lead to binging and disordered eating. I vividly remember not being allowed candy and other treats, and how I would sneak them at friends’ houses or in the middle of the night. When caught, the food was taken away and I was admonished.
Rosen thinks children may end up malnourished because they want to be “good.”
Foods in the green category include fresh fruits and veggies, non-fat milk, vinegar, tea, coffee, herbs, water, mustard and tomato sauce, but a number of nutritious food groups are conspicuously absent, Rosen explains. “The green category includes no protein sources, no grains, no nuts, no beans and no legumes.” On the other hand, she says, peanut butter, 2% milk and Goldfish crackers fall into the red-light category, which means consciously limiting them. “Could you imagine a childhood without milk, peanut butter and Goldfish crackers?”
Tribole suggests that instead of putting kids on diets, parents can model healthy behaviours for the whole family. For example, if you’re serving a meal and your child gets full, don’t force them to finish in order to get dessert. Parents who are unsure about how to help model healthy behaviour should reach out to a non-diet registered dietitian, says Rosen.
Another way to maintain a healthy relationship with food is to avoid using food as a reward, offering more phone time or a later bedtime instead. Families can move together with fun activities like a day at the park, and parents can teach kids to respect all body types.
“Bodies come in all shapes and sizes,” she said. “It’s like a bull mastiff and a chihuahua–the sizes are different, but one isn’t better than the other.”
It took me almost 30 years and lots of therapy to get here, but I agree. Please don’t let your children follow in my footsteps.