Why the Kurbo controversy matters

Amitha Kalaichandran
5 min readAug 19, 2019

An app, licensed by Weight Watchers, promises to help overweight children shed pounds. But the questionable evidence, and potential for harm, is a reminder of the complexity of childhood obesity.

By Amitha Kalaichandran, M.D. — Aug 19, 2019

Last week, the organization formerly known as Weight Watchers (now branded as “WW”) announced they were launching a ‘diet app for kids,’ called Kurbo. Everyone from celebrities like Jameela Jamil, who has been open about her own weight struggles, to dieticians, piped in with concerns. Soon enough, even parents expressed dismay and the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) released a statement warning about the risks of using the app. Then, over the weekend a petition on Change.org gained ground. As of this writing, they are close to 80,000 signatures.

Obesity affects one in six children in the US and 41 million globally. Kurbo was founded several years ago by an earnest entrepreneur and promises to be a convenient ‘weight management coach in your pocket’ for kids. It has also been marketed as a gamification of a reputable ‘analog’ pediatrics weight management program.

In my view, there are three considerable problems with Kurbo that are difficult to reconcile.

The first issue is that, even though Kurbo claims it’s backed by science, this is stretch. As a general rule, if a company says that their product is backed by ‘science’ or ‘evidence,’ and they don’t clearly support this statement with robust peer-reviewed literature, those claims should raise eyebrows. In this case, Kurbo doesn’t list any peer-reviewed articles on their site.

The evidence simply isn’t there. The behavioural science in adults shows that consistency of tracking can be an issue due to poor adherence; one of the best trials looking at mobile technology for weight loss in young adults found that changes weren’t sustained at 18 and 24 months after.

In kids specifically, there is very limited research for weight management apps. I could only find one small systematic review, that was of poor quality and limited in its conclusions. A pilot study that followed girls aged 9–14 found a small change in weight, but the follow-up period was limited to only three months. Another study, using an app with a wearable, found no significant impact on weight loss in children. All of these findings are complicated by publication bias and reproducibility: it’s harder to publish results…

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Amitha Kalaichandran

A physician, epidemiologist, medical journalist, and health tech consultant with an interest in the intersection of integrative medicine and innovation.