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Experts divided on dieting app aimed at obese children's weight, food choices

By Amy Williams for rnz.co.nz

A new dieting app that aims to curb childhood obesity is attracting controversy from health experts, with some warning it's a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Launched in the US last week, the Kurbo app from WW - as Weight Watchers is now known - allows children from eight years old to track their weight and food choices.

Kurbo shows before and after weight loss photos of children and uses a traffic light system for food developed at Stanford University, which Weight Watchers says scientific studies have shown it's safe and effective for weight loss.

The app is free to download and although it is not yet available in New Zealand, the backlash against it has reached our shores.

Registered nutritionist Jennifer Bowden said the app's focus on body image for young children could trigger eating disorders.

"I really dislike before and after photos for adults and seeing it for children was just sickening. Our bodies are so much more than what we look at," she said.

"If you're sending all these eight and nine-year-olds into life with messages that you need to be working on this app and making sure you're the right weight you can pretty much guarantee that as an adult they're not going to be satisfied with their body."

Ms Bowden said children need to learn to accept their bodies change as they grow.

"It's that worry well now we need you to track and look after your children as if parents don't have enough on their mind ... now you've got to track all their eating on an app as well. It's just another thing that plays into the modern parents' need to make sure we are doing everything really well for our kids."

She takes a non-diet approach to nutrition and weight loss, and says people can be healthy at every size.

Auckland writer and body positivity campaigner Angela Barnett is a member of Endangered Bodies Worldwide, a global group of women who consider body image issues.

A week since WW's Kurbo app launch, six petitions calling for it to be removed are gathering signatures on Change.org - including one from the group.

Ms Barnett delivers talks about body image in schools to 11- to 13-year-olds, and was concerned about the app's shaming of children in the before and after photos.

"There's already a bunch of us already alarmed and not happy about it, we've heard about it, we live in a global community and there's already a backlash to it," she said.

"It's heartbreaking to see the before and after photos of really young children. It's focusing so much on 'you have this body and how it looks is incredibly important' rather than building body resilience which is how it feels on the inside."

Ms Barnett said children are becoming critical of their bodies at a younger age.

"It's getting younger and younger and younger the messages that they get, 'am I fat', 'am I okay'. Five and six-year-olds are worried about it, it happens at primary school now with children looking at their bodies and questioning. There's a real fear in children that fat is not okay."

"That's super young, six-year-olds worrying about that when they should be thinking 'can I get to the top of that tree'."

Childhood obesity expert and paediatrician, Barry Taylor, was also concerned about shaming children's bodies in Kurbo's before and after photos, but said the underlying programme looks okay.

"Obese children and obese adults are pretty sensitive about what they look like. We know that that can lead to higher rates of mood disorder and actually avoiding dealing with the issues because if you start to get down about your weight you're more likely to eat even more unhealthily," Dr Taylor said.

Also Dean of Otago Medical School, holds clinics for obese children and is quick to say it is not their fault, genetics are at play.

But, he said, if it was introduced here - where WW offers its programme for adults - it would not address the problem of childhood obesity among lower socio-economic groups.

"If you've got the money - and it looks expensive to me - and you have the motivation, then it looks like a reasonable system to engage with. The real issue is that it will not engage people who most need it," Dr Taylor said.

"It certainly doesn't address lower socio-economic groups where obesity is a much bigger problem than in people who are relatively well off."

The New Zealand Health Survey found around one in eight children were obese in 2018, and those living in deprived areas were twice as likely to be obese as children living in least deprived areas.

What's more, recent New Zealand research has found sleep makes a big difference when it comes to preventing childhood obesity.

Dr Taylor said research he's involved in shows getting a good night's sleep halved the rate of obesity for children at both two and five years of age.

"It turns out that if you have a good sleep your appetite is better controlled and you're more likely to be physically active. One of the main intervention points that seems to work better than just focusing on diet and physical activity is making sure you get a good sleep every night."

An overweight young girls eats a burger.