Jennifer Harriger, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Pepperdine University who studies the development of weight stigma and disordered eating in children and adolescents, said that there’s strong evidence that dieting at any age, but especially in early childhood, can increase the risk of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating later on.
In a study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2003, for instance, researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard University periodically surveyed the eating habits of 8,203 girls and 6,769 boys between ages 9 and 14 between 1996 and 1999. While both boys and girls reported dieting in some capacity during the study period, about twice as many girls — nearly 30 percent — did so, and were five to 12 times more likely to have reported binge eating than those who didn’t diet. The girls who dieted were also more likely to have gained weight by the end of the study. In another study published in 2012, researchers from the University of Minnesota and Columbia University analyzed surveys that 1,902 adolescents took between 1998 and 2009, starting when they were in middle or high school. The adolescents who reported skipping meals or using other unhealthy weight control behaviors such as using food substitutes or taking diet pills in the early years of the study were nearly twice as likely to gain weight than the non-dieters.
In recent years, Weight Watchers has worked to overhaul its image, presenting itself less as a scale-obsessed giant of modern diet culture and more as a lifestyle program that approaches “wellness” more holistically. Weight loss meetings are now called “wellness workshops,” and their “WW Freestyle” program promises weight loss by eating from a preapproved list of foods rather than by counting points. “Our brand has evolved,” said Gary Foster, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and obesity researcher who serves as WW’s chief science officer. “For 50-plus years, we were known as Weight Watchers, and while we’re proud of our legacy, that had some unintended consequences.”
While Foster said that the company as a whole will certainly help those “who want and need” to lose weight, he was quick to emphasize that Kurbo is “not prescribing weight loss to kids.”
But some experts disagree. “Diets don’t call themselves diets anymore — they’re all wellness systems or lifestyle plans,” noted Anna Lutz, M.P.H., R.D., a pediatric dietitian in Raleigh, N.C., who specializes in eating disorders and family feeding. “But when a child is asked to use an app like this, they get the message that their body is flawed and they need to use external rules to restrict and change their body in order to be accepted. This pressure can be spoken or unspoken and have the same impact.”
In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report that advised parents and doctors to avoid discussing weight or prescribing weight loss to children and adolescents over concerns that it could increase their risk of developing disordered eating habits or weight gain. As NYT Parenting has previously reported, young children are especially susceptible to such conversations, which can later manifest as low self-esteem and unhealthy body image.
“Focusing on weight loss in young people is misplacing our priorities,” said Traci Mann, Ph.D., a professor of social and health psychology at the University of Minnesota who studies health behaviors like dieting. She noted that “everyone, regardless of weight” can benefit from adopting healthful habits like eating more fruits and vegetables and getting more sleep and physical activity. Whether these activities lead to weight loss is irrelevant, Dr. Mann said, as long as they’re healthy.