North America

Kurbo by WW takes on contentious childhood obesity challenge by stressing holistic health

The app and coaching service has been relaunched with new tools that address kids' and teens' stress and sleep habits alongside their diets.
By Dave Muoio
04:18 pm

Following an acquisition last year by WW (formerly Weight Watchers), Kurbo Health has retooled and relaunched its weight loss app and coaching services as Kurbo by WW. The tool not only sports a new look, but now includes a new focus on healthy behavior and wellness promotion that’s designed with children and adolescents in mind.

This subtle shift in approach comes in part from hands-on audience research Kurbo was able to conduct with the additional resources of its new parent company, Kurbo co-founder Joanna Strober told MobiHealthNews, and falls in line with the broader goals of the WW brand.

“A lot of the work we did initially was around talking to kids and parents about weight, and the best way to have those conversations. We had over 75 conversations with kids and over 20 conversations with parents where we got into what is the best way to talk about this really difficult topic and address this in a way that is healthy and motivating,” she said.

“We met with a number of researchers and decided that the things we would focus on primarily would be sleep, stress and relaxation. In the app now we have a number of relaxation videos and sleep videos, and we’re working on more content to come soon about sleep. … So, we’re trying to think about it very holistically and, in the same way that WW is thinking about healthier living, we’re trying to make Kurbo both about health and weight."

Kurbo by WW is a free app available on both the App Store and Google Play that’s intended for children and teens ages eight to 17. Designed around the longstanding Stanford University Pediatric Weight Control Program, the tool encourages users to track their food intake and behavior while dispensing general tips regarding healthy lifestyles and more specific guidance on skills such as reading and understanding food labels. In particular, the app uses an approach called the “Traffic Light System,” in which different foods are characterized as one of three colors with messages warning users away from too many non-green foods.

“There are major benefits for kids to use the traffic light program and how Kurbo has designed it. One thing that’s really important is that we don’t put you on a specific number of calories or red lights that you can’t eat,” Strober said. “Unlike many adult programs that might immediately start you on a low number, we decrease the number of red light meals very gradually. First, all we do is track the number of reds, and then it goes down by 7% a week. Some of the other programs out there have you at a very low number to begin with, and that’s … not a safe system for children. It’s designed over very slow behavior change, and kids also are able to eat the foods they want to while getting healthier at a very reasonable rate.”

While the app and its various tools are a free download, Kurbo by WW also includes a $69 monthly subscription for one-on-one virtual sessions with a live health coach. These video visits can be scheduled as weekly 15-minute appointments, and also engage parents in an effort to educate the entire family.

The relaunch was an opportunity for Kurbo to update its look with a younger audience in mind, Strober explained. As such, she said the app now is designed in a way that will engage more users and, hopefully, encourage longer lasting health benefits.

“We had some amazing graphic designers help us, and we absolutely updated the look and feel of the app. I joke that we ‘Snapified’ it, quite honestly because Snapchat seems to be a language that kids and teenagers are very comfortable with,” she said. “So, we tried to simplify the interface and add streaks — in the same way that Snapchat has streaks for photos, we have streaks for tracking. … We got a lot of feedback from kids about what they were looking for and decided to adapt it for them.”


Being a child-focused weight app comes with some challenges, however. Academic studies and pediatrician groups have sounded the warning against weight and diet products that can have a detrimental impact on developing and vulnerable adolescents if the subject isn’t handled with care.

Both Kurbo and WW told MobiHealthNews that they are aware of the risks these kinds of products may bring to young users, and emphasized Kurbo by WW’s focus on broader health and gradual, low-pressure goals as a means of preventing harm.

“In a recent review of literature aimed to investigate the impact of obesity treatment, with a dietary component, on eating disorder prevalence, eating disorder risk and related symptoms in children and adolescents with overweight or obesity, it was found that structured and professionally run obesity treatment leads to a reduction in the prevalence of eating disorder, eating disorder risk and eating disorder‐related symptoms for most participants,” Gary Foster, chief scientific officer at WW, told MobiHealthNews in an email Q&A. “There is considerable evidence for the long-term effectiveness of family-based, behavioral change programs for children and teens. With that in mind, we took a deliberate approach to ensuring kids and teens develop healthy habits. WW worked with our Youth and Family Advisory Board, a distinguished group of 24 leaders in pediatric health and nutrition across seven countries to develop a holistic tool for kids, teens and families to get the guidance they need to manage their environment and build and sustain healthy habits. Kurbo’s approach is based on educating children and their families around a pattern of eating that includes all foods.”

“I’m a mom, and almost everybody who started the company are parents, and we think deeply about making this a positive resource for kids,” Strober said. “We needed to have a positive approach, and what we’re excited about is we have an approach that has been tested for over 40 years and has been proven to be safe and effective. What excites me is that we can now get that to more kids.”

Despite this, many are viewing Kurbo and WW’s new app with skepticism. Since launching yesterday, petitions against the organization and its kid-focused app have begun to circulate, while concerned individuals and eating disorder groups are organizing a Twitter takeover tonight under the tag #wakeupweightwatchers.


Prior to its acquisition last year, Kurbo had collaborated with a handful of health industry players such as Anthem Blue Cross and Humana for limited deployments of the earlier app. Beyond the app maker, other digital programs targeting childhood obesity have looked to wearables like the Fitbit Ace and Fitbit Ace 2, or games that promote activity like Pokémon Go or the Middle Eastern-focused Daman Tamshi.


The latest news in digital health delivered daily to your inbox.

Thank you for subscribing!
Error! Something went wrong!