Parents, Don’t Let Your Kids Download Kurbo!

Parents, don't let kids download Kurbo appA disclaimer: I have no vested interest in Weight Watchers’ new Kurbo app. This app will in fact create more work for me. But let me be clear: I do not want this kind of work!

I know that you mean well and are merely concerned about your child’s health, but I can assure you that Weight Watchers does not share your concern. They are a commercial enterprise interested in making money and their business model is based on preying upon insecurities.

You would only need to spend a short time in my waiting room to hear from other parents who were once like you—moderately concerned (or maybe unconcerned) about their child’s weight and happy when their child committed to “eating healthier.” The story is nearly always the same. This child has been in what I would call a larger body—you might have called them “overweight”, pediatricians might have labeled them “obese”. It starts with them giving up sweets and then progresses. They start to restrict meat and starches and exercise more. It looks healthy. Over time, some switch gets tripped, and with very little warning the kid has anorexia, a lethal mental illness.

While most cases of anorexia are triggered by dieting, unintentional weight loss can be a trigger as well. It appears that people predisposed to anorexia respond to a negative energy balance in a way that flips this switch and they cross a dieting point of no return. Many of the teens I work with have been hospitalized for life-threatening low heart rates and electrolyte imbalances.

I cannot adequately express the guilt that parents feel from having allowed their teens to start these diets. I don’t blame them. I understand the pressure they are under.

Two of my three children grew out before they grew up. They had gained the weight their bodies needed to fuel puberty and impending growth spurts. I too received the warning from my well-intentioned pediatrician about their weights and weight gain. I knew enough to ignore the implied suggestion of helping them trim down. I cringe to think what might have happened if I had followed it. My children grew just fine and became more proportional according to their genetic predisposition.

My other child was lauded by the same pediatrician for growing up before growing out. It was only years later when I plotted her growth that I realized she had totally fallen off her expected weight curve at the time the pediatrician praised her weight. Yet, I did notice that she didn’t seem to be eating enough. (For more information on the intervention I did with her, read this post.)

The Kurbo app should come with the following warning:

“This app may trigger an eating disorder
from which your child could take 22 years to recover.”

Yes, 22 years! The most rigorous longitudinal study we have of anorexia has shown that at 9 years, only 31% of individuals with anorexia nervosa had recovered. Almost 63% had recovered at 22 years. If this is the path you follow, you may be facing many long years in and out of costly treatments to help your child recover.

Incidentally, Kurbo has made my job tougher. It classifies foods as “green”, “yellow”, or “red”. “Red” foods, such as ice cream, fried chicken, and pizza are “bad” — Kurbo advises kids to avoid them.

I work with children who suffer from anorexia, may be hypermetabolic, and may require ingesting upwards of 6000 kcal per day for several years to recover. I can’t express the difficulty of convincing an anorexic child to eat highly caloric foods to recover, when they immediately parrot back all the health messages they’ve received about these foods being dangerous. It’s terribly confusing to be told that the foods they’ve learned are bad for them are in fact the medicine that will cure them. This is but one reason why we cannot take a one size fits all approach to foods.

Back in my waiting room, maybe you would hear from some of the adults with eating disorders. They might tell you that years of dieting have contributed to weight gain, weight cycling, binge eating, and misery. They will typically remember that this pattern started in childhood with a diet. Dieting disconnects people from their own internal regulatory system (as does tracking calories and exercise).

What Can Parents Do Instead?  The following advice is for parents of kids of all sizes.

I suggest teaching kids that bodies naturally come in all shapes and sizes and that body size is largely genetically determined. I recommend viewing the Poodle Science video from ASDAH. This video does a great job illustrating body diversity and the risks of subjecting everyone to a single body standard. I suggest teaching kids that fat bodies are great too. We have to make it safe for people to be fat in order to prevent and treat eating disorders. Eating disorders are a more lethal problem. Parents can avoid judging or criticizing their own or other peoples’ bodies.

I suggest giving kids access to a range of foods — prohibiting “fun” foods leads kids to overvalue and overeat them. We don’t need to label foods as good or bad. Parents can serve nutritious food as well as fun food and model that they are of equal moral value. They can also model that food is supposed to be pleasurable and offers the opportunity for social and cultural connections.

Parents can also help children to move in ways that are fun, rather than teaching that exercise is penance for eating.

For more specific advice on helping kids develop as strong intuitive eaters with healthy body images, I suggest the work of dietitian Ellyn Satter and my psychotherapist colleagues, Zoe Bisbing and Leslie Bloch, The Full Bloom Project.

To Learn More

I recommend reading the statement from the National Eating Disorders Association: NEDA Statement on Kurbo by WW App.

And also The New York Times Op-Ed by dietitian, Christy Harrison: Our Kids Do Not Need A Weight Watchers App.

 

This Halloween, Serve Candy to Your Teen in Recovery

A Family-Based Treatment (FBT)-approach

Fear FoodFor teens with eating disorders, Halloween can be scary for the wrong reason: the candy! Most teens with eating disorders are only willing to eat a restricted range of foods. Expanding this range is an important goal of treatment, with the reintroduction of fear foods being a key step. Candy tends to be high on the fear food lists of many teens.

Halloween presents an ideal opportunity.

A Taste of Recovery

Most teens in America are excited for Halloween and its bounty of candy. By incorporating some candy during your teen’s Halloween week you can help them approximate the lives of teens who do not have eating disorders. This step can give them a taste of the full life you want for them—a life where they are unencumbered by food restrictions, a life where they can enjoy all foods, a life where they can travel the world confident that they will easily be able to meet their nutritional needs, and a life where they won’t feel the need to shun social events for fear of facing the foods there.

I know that I’m painting a beautiful picture and that this is easier said than done. Teens with eating disorders will deny that the disorder is driving their food preferences. Instead, they claim they simply don’t like candy anymore. Or that candy was the preference of a child and since then their palates have matured. But don’t believe them—you have crucial parental memory and knowledge. You know which foods your teen actually liked a few years back. You also probably know the foods on which he or she binged if they binged. And it is not credible that any teen really hates all candy!

Especially if your teen had a great many fear foods, you may already have experience reintroducing some of them. But once meals start going more smoothly, some weight has been restored, and binges and purges have subsided, many parents are reluctant to push further. Why rock the boat when your teen seems to be doing well? You may be wondering: Is candy really necessary?

In fact, this Halloween is exactly the right time to introduce candy.

Exposure

It is much easier to introduce fear foods before your teen is completely independent in their eating. Right now, you are still overseeing meals and your teen does not yet have their independent life back. Pushing the issue of fear foods becomes more challenging when your teen has regained most of their freedom.

When you introduce fear foods to your teen, you will probably feel anxious. Your teen will too. You may even feel like you are going back a step. This is how exposure works—it is supposed to raise your teen’s anxiety. When your teen avoids these fear foods, their anxiety decreases, reinforcing the avoidant behavior and justifying the anxiety response. This perpetuates both the emotion and the behavior. But the food is not truly dangerous—if the teen were to eat the food, they would learn that nothing catastrophic happens. In exposure, the teen is required to eat the food, and the anxiety response shows itself to be baseless. With repeated exposure, the brain habituates, learns that the food is not harmful, and loses the anxiety response.

Exposure works through repetition over a sustained period of time—not all at once. It’s likely that each food on your teen’s feared list will need to be presented several times before the thought of eating it no longer causes extreme anxiety.

You may feel that requiring your teen to eat candy is extreme. However, remember: the healthy part of your teen probably wants to eat candy, but the eating disorder would beat them up if they ate it willingly. By requiring your teen to eat candy, you are actually granting your teen permission to eat it—permission they are unable to grant themselves. After recovery, many teens report that they really wanted the fear food but were too afraid—it was only when their parents made them eat it that they were able to.

And I would argue that fearlessness in the face of candy is important for your child. So be brave about facing potentially increased resistance by your teen and model facing your own fear.

Here’s How to Incorporate Candy During Halloween:

  1. Choose a few types of candy based on your teen’s preferences about three years before they developed their eating disorder. (If you can’t remember, ask one of their siblings or just pick a few options, maybe one chocolate-based and a non-chocolate alternative.) Make your choice based on providing your teen with the typical American teen experience. (American teens will typically collect a lot of candy on Halloween, have a few pieces that night, and then have candy as snacks a few times during the following week.)
  2. You may choose to tell your teen about the candy ahead of time or not. Some families find that telling teens about exposure to fear foods ahead of time is helpful; other families find that it is better to just present a fear food without warning. But note that you are not required to ask their permission; FBT is a parent-driven treatment.
  3. Serve a single serving of candy during dessert or snack a few times during the week of Halloween. Plan carefully and be thoughtful. Do this with the same resolve that you use when you serve them any starches or proteins. You may want to introduce the candy on a day when you feel more confident, will have more time to manage potential resistance, or can be sure a second caregiver will be present. You may not want to present candy, or any fear food, before an event that you are not willing to miss in case you encounter an extreme reaction.
  4. If your teen binges or purges, make sure to sit with them for an hour after they eat the candy.
  5. Plan for what will happen if your teen refuses to eat the candy. For example, will you offer something else instead and try the candy again tomorrow? Offer a reward for eating the candy? Create a consequence for noncompletion? Whatever you decide, be consistent and follow through.

If you do this-this year, there is a good chance that by next Halloween your teen will be eating candy independently!