Why weight loss apps for kids are a disaster and what you should do instead

In light of the new WW weight loss for kids app (thankfully not available in NZ right now – but the media s**t storm certainly is!) I thought I’d re-post all the stuff I’ve done about kiddies and their weight shape, and food intake that you need to know.

This app basically uses a traffic light system to rate foods – think green light for “good foods” and orange and red for “bad foods”. The only green foods are fruits and vegetables, even cheese, bread, peanut butter perfectly healthy dietary staples score low. There is a recommendation that kids only eat 3 ‘red’ foods each day and that they “budget” their bad (red and orange) foods.

This app tracks weight aiming at weight loss (which only happens in kids when they are sick), height, food intake and exercise and gives feedback on what they are eating.

There are so many reasons why this app is incredibly harmful and there is not a dietitian, pediatrician or Dr on this planet who would support this app. It flies in the face of everything we know about how to feed our kiddies. So…

Why kiddies should not count calories: Counting calories and matching the calories you’ve eaten, with burning calories off by doing certain exercises IS NOT helping kiddies learn about health and nutrition!

This just fuels

❎ disordered eating behaviours

❎ bad relationships with our body and with food

❎ guilt when eating certain foods

❎ promotes the diet culture

❎ takes the fun out of exercise! And eating!

Kids and ‘junk’ food – there’s a fine line between making sure our kids have a healthy diet and making sure they don’t feel like they are “missing out” from foods their peers commonly eat. Foods that may not fit within our food values.

I was never allowed biscuits and “junk food” at home. And when I wanted to bake biscuits my mum would tell me I’d get fat if I ate them.

Placing labels on food, that attach a value on it, such as good or bad, and like the WW traffic light system, can be really damaging for kids.

Primary aged kids don’t have the mental capacity to understand about healthy and unhealthy or good and bad foods. And if they are eating “bad” foods they can interpret that to mean they themselves are bad.

So how do we balance making sure our kids have a healthy relationship with food, eat mostly healthy foods but don’t fear or crave or binge on ‘junk’ foods?

Because….

Yes we want our kiddies eating healthily.

And no we don’t want them eating endless amounts of “junk food”

And yes we want our kids to BE healthy.

But we don’t want our kids doing anything they can to get their hands on biscuits or lollies, or to fear them. And we definitely DON’T want our kids to have an unhealthy relationship with food.

Ideally, what we want is our kids to be easily able to take or leave any food depending on their hunger, even ice cream!

But what if your kid is “overweight” and you’re genuinely concerned?

All parents worry about their kids. We all want what’s best for our kiddies, we want them to be happy, healthy and to do well in school.

A lot of parents worry about their childs’ size. And with the “obesity epidemic” being a “major health concern” and we’re told that 6 out of 10 New Zealanders are over weight or obese and around 36% of NZ kiddies are over weight or obese.

We’re all taught that being fat is “bad” and if you are too fat you can get type two diabetes or increase your risk of heart disease (etc, etc). So naturally, we hear this and we worry.

Well, I’m here to tell you not to. If your child is growing predictably, hasn’t lost or gained any weight in a short period of time and has no medical condition that could affect their weight, then you can sit back and relax.

When you see your kids height and weight plotted on a Plunket style growth chart anywhere between the bottom percentiles to the top percentiles is normal. What we want is our kiddies to grow predictably and not change percentiles.

Every child (and every adult, too!) are different sizes and shapes. This is normal and mostly about our genetic make up. Kids often resemble their parents. I’m 5 foot tall and petite, my girls will be lucky to reach 5 foot 3! My friend is 6 foot, with a large frame, her children are big built, just like she is. Size and shape is mostly about genetics! Small people have small children, big people have big children. What’s important is that our kids grow in a way that is predictable for them.

So, whether too fat or too thin, accept your child’s body shape and size for what it is. I know first hand how hard this is, my daughter is very thin, partly due to genetics and partly due to medical reasons. Once we sorted the medical stuff I had to let my fears and worries about my child’s weight go, so she could return to eating intuitively (without me peering over her watching how much she was eating and encouraging her to shove more food in when she really didn’t want to!). So I get it! It’s really hard!

BUT any pressure on kids to be any weight or shape that they are not, any calorie counting, calorie restriction or dieting in any form WILL lead to trouble.

A quote from a 2018 published study that followed over 500 people from 1998 to 2015:

Experiencing parent encouragement to diet as an adolescent was significantly associated with a higher risk of overweight or obesity, dieting, binge eating, engaging in unhealthy weight control behaviors, and lower body satisfaction 15 years later as a parent. Additionally, intergenerational transmission of encouragement to diet occurred and resulted in parents being more likely to report other weight-focused communication in the home environment.”

“Exposure to parent encouragement to diet as an adolescent had long-term harmful associations with weight-related and emotional health outcomes in parenthood and was transmitted to the next generation. It may be important for health care providers to educate parents about the potential harmful and long-lasting consequences of engaging in encouragement to diet with their children.”

In short, encouraging your kids to diet, or exposing them to diets, calorie restriction or any weight loss activities or goals is incredibly harmful to children and teens. It leads to INCREASED weight in our kids, poor relationships with food and with their body and they are likely to pass those behaviours onto THEIR kids!! It does generations of damage!

Which, quite frankly is what WW want! They want generations of customers!

So dieting doesn’t work, watching how much your kid is eating and calorie restricting them or only giving them low calorie foods definitely doesn’t work!

So what does work?!

🍓 Infants and kids have innate hunger and satiety senses. They know EXACTLY how much they need to eat. It’s super important that we don’t over ride their hunger queues by what we think they should be eating. So encourage them to eat to appetite, listen to their tummies and eat when hungry, stop when satisfied.

🍓 Following the division of responsibility is: It’s our job, as parents, to provide the types of foods we want our family to eat, at the times we want them to be fed. It’s our kiddies responsibility to choose what they eat, out of what is offered, and how much.

🍓 model good eating behaviours – eating regular meals as a family, as much as possible

🍓 talk about food in terms of how it makes our bodies feel, does it give us energy until the next meal, or leave us feeling super hungry an hour after? Does it feel good in our tummy? Did we enjoy eating it? was it crunchy, smooth did we enjoy the texture and the taste?

🍓 avoid labeling food that places a value on it, like good, bad, toxic, junk, poison, even healthy and unhealthy aren’t great labels. All food is equal cucumber is no better or worse than french fries. Food is food.

🍓 If there are certain foods you choose not to eat, explain why: you don’t like the taste, don’t like how they make you feel, don’t like the companies ethics (not because it’s bad, fattening, unhealthy). But, if your kid is given the opportunity to eat these foods and there is no medical reason not to, let them try it. It’s just food, it’s not a big deal. If we make it a big deal, they’ll want it more. And remember, it’s not what we do sometimes that matters for our health, but what we do on a regular basis.

🍓 Teach kiddies to enjoy exercise and understand it is healthy for our body by making it stronger and able to do amazing things (like be a Ninja Warrior: my girls love Jessie Graf, for her incredible strength and amazing ability, we never talk about how she looks in her outfits! Just saying!)

🍓 to enjoy food and the social life which surrounds food, meals and special occasions

🍓 to eat mindfully

🍓 to grow, prepare and cook healthy food

And remember: there is more to health then a number on the scale, our physical, biochemical, emotional, spiritual and psychological health all matter just as much!

If you are worried about your child, their eating and size see your Dr to rule out any underlying medical condition that may be contributing. And see your local dietitian to help you sort out feeding behaviours and nutrition.

You can contact me directly if you want advice on your nutrition and health.

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