Weight loss is big business. In the UK the diet industry is worth an estimated £2 billion, and across the western world no one is safe from the relentless marketing of apps, books, pills and shakes that promise a golden ticket to eternal thinness.
The most recent target is children. Earlier this month Weight Watchers, now known as WW, launched its new app Kurbo, a weight loss programme aimed at children aged 8-17.
Currently only available in the US, Kurbo uses a traffic light system to help children make healthy choices about food. According to the app, vegetables are “green light foods” and can be eaten freely, whereas “yellow light foods” such as pasta should be eaten in moderation. “Red light foods”, such as cakes and high fat dairy, should make kids “think about how to budget them”.
Hold on a minute. Food items are not traffic lights. Food isn’t red or green or amber. Food is food, and teaching children to categorise and fear it is dangerous.
It is commonplace for weight loss institutions such as Weight Watchers and Slimming World to create bizarre ways for people to track what they are eating. At Slimming World it’s “syns”, a made-up word for foods that should be limited in accordance with the plan.
According to Slimming World, a large avocado, a health food lauded for its nutritional benefits, packed with fibre and a number of useful minerals such as iron, copper and potassium, contains 14 syns, the same amount as a Twix.
Exposing children to these companies’ nonsensical ways of categorising food sets them up for a lifetime of uncertainty, where they are not confident enough to make decisions about food without consulting an app.
And what happens on the days when the Kurbo-subscribed child realises they have accidentally exceeded their red food quota for the day? Perhaps they were, you know, busy being a kid and forgot to track how many Haribos they ate at their mate’s birthday party, or how many handfuls of popcorn they ate at the cinema. I’ll tell you what will happen. They will eat more red foods. That day will be red, red, red. They’ll tell themselves they will start again tomorrow, or, if it’s late in the week, they’ll start again on Monday.
That week they will consume more red foods than they ever would have dreamed of eating before Kurbo came along, and they will be left feeling anxious, guilty and ashamed – emotions that have no place in an eight year old’s mind, and should never be attached to food.
Children should be taught about how food nourishes and sustains them, how the food we eat gives us energy and helps keep our bodies alive.
Yes, we are facing an obesity epidemic, but surely the way to tackle it is to teach children about the joy of food, about how food is grown and prepared, how some foods make us feel better than others, how some food simply has more value to our bodily structures.
It is not up to corporations to sow the seeds of insecurity in young children for their own financial gain. Anxieties about food can leave people scarred for life, putting them at risk of eating disorders and a lifetime of weight issues. Children should be protected at all costs.
Childhood is a time for imagination, learning and growth. Dieting simply has no place.