I have started and stopped writing this post so many times. On the one hand I am extremely enraged by what I have read and on the other I don’t want to use my blog as a platform for me to rant. I started this blog so that I could openly share my thoughts, experiences and ideas. I never really intended to write much nutritional based content. However, I feel that the more I learn in my studies and though my nutritional research the more compelled I feel to share my knowledge. This week’s post is going to be two parts. Today I will share my point of view and next week I will delve deeper into what other people might be thinking about the issue.
The health and wellness world is overflowing with “facts”, opinions and studies. You don’t have to go much further than Instagram or Google to get all the information you could possibly desire about health. The link between what we eat and our overall health is definitely present. On some level, we all know that the way that we feel and perform has a lot to do with our diets and the ways that we choose to move (or not move) our bodies. Unfortunately, the information about what we should and shouldn’t eat isn’t always portrayed positively. Rather foods are placed into two categories “good” or “bad.”
When we are children food is fuel. Before the media, our parents, schools and diet culture captures us we just see food as something we need to eat to stop that gurgling feeling in our tummies. Without a proper education on the importance of food and what it does for us every day, its significance is somewhat diminished. If a child does not know what the food they eat is doing to them, how are they supposed to make informed decisions about what they eat and how much of it they eat?
WW (previously “Weight Watchers”) launched a new app called “Kurbo” on the 13th of August for children aged between 8 and 17. The app was created to help children and teenagers to reach their health and weight loss goals.
“Kurbo makes it easier to get fit, stay healthy and have fun.” – Kurbo.
To encourage “smart” food choices, they have implemented a traffic light system. The healthiest foods are those that have a “green light”. It includes foods such as vegetables, fruit and low-fat milk. The next category is “yellow light” foods that should make children “slow down when [they] see them.” These are the foods that can be consumed in moderate portions such as lean meat, whole grains, pasta and low fat milk cheese. The final category is the “red light” category. These foods should make children “stop and think” before consumption. It includes foods such as chips, milkshakes, cake and cookies.
When a child finishes their meal or snack, all they have to do is open the Kurbo tracker and then enter the food they ate, its colour and number of servings they had. To determine the serving, the child uses their hand as a guide. A fist is a serving size for foods such as fruit, vegetables, rice, pasta and snack goods. An open palm is a serve for foods such as pizza and bread. So if a child has two slices of pizza that would be two red lights. A cupped hand is for snacks such as popcorn and pretzels. A palm (minus fingers) is for cooked lean meat and poultry. A thumb is for fats such as cheese, oil and peanut butter.
At the beginning of a child’s Kurbo journey they select a goal from the following options: Eat healthier; lose weight; make parents happy; get stronger and fitter; have more energy; boost my confidence; feel better in my clothes. To ensure that the child stays “on track” with their goal they are assigned a coach. The coach is someone who they speak to once a week to review the foods that have been eaten, encourage them and come up with plans of action to achieve their goals.
Kurbo has made it explicitly clear that their app is not a “calorie counter.” They do, however, speak about having a “budget” of the amount of red light foods a child can consume a day and a week. Every week a red light food goal is set based on the number of red light foods consumed in the previous week. The child needs to keep the red light count at or below that number. Kurbo recommends implementing a plan to “budget” red lights to the days you want to have them. For example, if a child has a birthday party on Saturday and wants to have cake there, they can have no red lights on Friday so they have an extra one to spend on Saturday.
In my opinion, I think that calorie counting has just been replaced with red light counting… but that’s just me. As someone who has tried calorie counting in the past the premise was the same. If I eat 100 less calories today, then I have 100 extra calories to eat tomorrow. See the similarity?
Now I could really hop on my high horse here and rip into WW for even suggesting such a system but that wouldn’t really be of benefit to anyone. Rather, I want to use my platform as a means to educate.
It would be incredibly naïve to sit back and ignore the global childhood obesity epidemic we are currently facing. Something definitely does need to be done. One in four Australian children are overweight or obese. That means out of the five million children we have, 1.25 million fall into that category. Those numbers are astonishing. That is the future of the Australian public. The unfortunate thing about this is that about half of those overweight and obese children will be overweight and obese in adulthood.
Obesity is a trigger point for many diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, gout and high blood pressure. This is more than enough of a reason to prevent our children becoming overweight or obese. The other issue that really needs to be considered is the rising levels of mental health issues among children and adolescents. Children are very vulnerable between the ages of 8 and 17. I understand that losing weight may be physiologically important but their mental health cannot be compromised.
"Children are very vulnerable during the age range they are targeting and they are potentially setting them up for a lifetime of weight-related disorders." Charity Obesity UK.
I am going to be very straight up and say that I don’t believe that tracking food in children and in early teenage years is a good idea. I think that it oversimplifies the foods we eat and places each individual food into a box. Foods aren’t looked at for their nutritional benefit, but rather are assessed based on their traffic light colour. I am not even going to get into the “success stories” showing before and after pictures of the children on the website because it is slightly irrelevant (and personally I find it quite infuriating).
The American Association of Pediatrics have released a report titled “Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents.” In it, the academics explore the connection between diet behaviour and eating disorders. When obesity prevention involves eliminating foods or labelling them as “good” and “bad” it is not unusual for an unhealthy relationship with food to develop. In the beginning of a “health” journey, people are generally praised for their progress by their friends and family. This inflates self-esteem and provides the motivation to continue. The report went on to say that long term, the restricting behaviours result in social isolation, irritability, difficulty concentrating and distorted body image over time. I can definitely concur with this, having gone through this myself.
"Encouraging teenagers to start dieting sends entirely the wrong message and can set them up on a path of yo-yo dieting." – British Dietetic Association (BDA)
From a young age, the influences around me dictated my attitude towards certain foods. I listened to the opinions of others and observed diet behaviour. At first this was meaningless but as I got older and became more body conscious I internalized the things I heard and applied them in practice. Common thoughts included “pasta is bad”, “butter is fattening”, “chocolate is full of sugar”, “nuts contain a lot of fat.” I used the knowledge I attained, most from alarming news headlines, to cut out certain foods.
Slowly this transitioned into looking up every food I ate and checking to see how high in calories it was and whether I could “fit them in” that day. The “budgeting” system used in the Kurbo app is dangerous. I think it places unwarranted pressure on children always be thinking about food. Having to log food after every meal or snack engrains the behaviour. It makes them constantly think before they eat. It makes them reflect after they eat. It makes them think about how much they can eat at their next meal.
From a nutritional point of view, I think it is important that we are conscious about the food we eat. Our body requires protein, fats, carbs, vitamins and minerals to function optimally. The nutrients we need can be found in a number of different foods and that is what we should be teaching. We need to look at what our children are eating across the course of a week not every single day. We should be educating children about the positive elements of the food they eat. We should be teaching them the real words and not merely colour coding foods as “red,” “yellow” or “green.”
Calorie counting and restrictive eating destroyed my relationship with food. I have been on a journey for nearly three years to foster a positive relationship with the foods I eat. It has taken education about my anatomy and how essential it is for me to eat everything to do this. This was not only imperative for my physical health but for my mental health as well.
I am not saying that every child that gets this app is going to start becoming obsessed with food. I am saying that it is a possibility and a risk. I understand that we are in a time of a childhood obesity crisis and something needs to be done. I just think that there has to be another way.
The link to the Report I referred to and the Kurbo website are below if you are interested and want to check them out. Stay tuned for next week when I discuss the issue with an early childhood professional, a primary school teacher and get the opinion of a child within that age bracket.
Golden, N., Schneider, M., Wood, C. (2016). Preventing Obesity and Eating Disorders in Adolescents. American Association of Pediatrics 138(3).
Kurbo Website: https://kurbo.com