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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers, has a new app now for kids. It's called Kurbo. The app asks kids to track what they eat and sorts food into good and bad categories without mention of calorie counts. Some experts say this approach could have serious health consequences, including development of eating disorders. At the same time, though, child obesity is on the rise and can lead to medical problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes. Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford specializes in obesity medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. She joins us now.

Welcome.

FATIMA CODY STANFORD: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So I understand the Kurbo app uses something called the traffic light system. What is that?

CODY STANFORD: So the traffic light system seeks to categorize foods within different categories, meaning green would be something that's a good, high diet quality. Yellow would be something that you might be a bit cautious about and wouldn't want to be, you know, consuming on a very regular basis. And the red light would be something that - these are things you might want to stay away from most of the time, not saying you can never...

CHANG: Got it.

CODY STANFORD: ...Have them, but you want to stay away from it.

CHANG: OK. Has this traffic light system ever been tested on kids? Does it - is it effective?

CODY STANFORD: So it's been tested more in the adult population, even within my own hospital. For example, one of the larger studies came out of Mass General Hospital. It is utilized throughout our hospital cafeteria as a way of really getting persons that come to the hospital that are eating within the cafeteria to pick selections that are more healthy for them.

CHANG: So we mentioned earlier that there has been some criticism that an app like this might lead kids to disordered eating or even eating disorders. Do you see that as a real possibility here?

CODY STANFORD: I do think it's a real possibility. And we need to be thoughtful when you're considering using an application of this sort - and the likelihood that persons that might not struggle with obesity might utilize this to further curb their intake. And that would lead to...

CHANG: Right.

CODY STANFORD: ...Issues like anorexia nervosa. But what you said at the outset is that we do have a burgeoning obesity problem. Fourteen million children in the United States actually have the disease of obesity, and this tool might be one that we should consider with some modifications for this patient population.

CHANG: OK. So if kids are using this app, is it better that they be monitored by a medical professional while they're using the app? I mean, otherwise, they're not getting screened before they sign up for this app, right?

CODY STANFORD: So I do think using a medical professional would be helpful, but I really think that the parents really have some shared ownership here, right? So they're going to be the ones that really need to be on the ground monitoring what's going on with their children and this application if they're - if this is indeed a strategy that they take. For those that require even more diligent care, then you would use a medical professional, whether that be a physician like myself, a psychologist, psychiatrist, et cetera, for those that are prone to eating disorders, which we know is a mental illness.

CHANG: Yeah. So putting this app aside, I mean, what, in general, should parents do if they are worried about their child's weight?

CODY STANFORD: So I think that they need to think about, hey. We want to actually treat this disease of obesity. It's a disease that requires treatment. And for some persons, we can use behavioral means. For others, we may need to escalate care and use medications. And for those that have severe obesity, we may need to utilize surgical intervention. So just think about the breadth of potential possibilities. Speak with your pediatrician, and make sure that you go from there and using these strategies to tackle this issue of childhood obesity.

CHANG: Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford of Massachusetts General Hospital, thank you very much for joining us today.

CODY STANFORD: Thanks for having me.

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