Kurbo, a Smartphone Program for Child Weight Control

Phone app. John Lamb/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Labor-saving technology, and the seemingly irresistible allure of “screen time,” have been implicated in adult and childhood obesity alike.  But we are unlikely to give up our New-Age tech, and unlikely to talk our kids out of theirs.  This, then, becomes a case of: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!  The practicable answer, as illustrated by Wii Fit, Dance Dance Revolution, and other such efforts, is to make tech a support for behaviors that promote health and weight control, rather than conspire against them.

In this context, I was fascinated to learn recently about Kurbo, a smartphone program for weight control in children.  I had a conversation about the approach with Kurbo founder and CEO, Joanna Strober, and share it here.


What problem were you trying to fix with ​Kurbo?

Right now, despite the skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and even though billions of dollars are spent in this country marketing products for adult fitness and weight loss, there are few if any truly effective, mobile and scalable solutions for parents who are looking to get help for a child or teen who is struggling with his or her weight. There are great university and hospital-based programs with proven track record at helping get kids get healthy such as Stanford’s pediatric weight control program, but nothing mobile and more accessible for families who can’t take advantage of those because of busy schedules, lack of geographic proximity or cost.

And all the adult mobile tools, like MyFitnessPal and Weight Watchers, are restricted to users over 18 because they are based on calorie counting, which is not safe or effective for kids.

I learned about all of this firsthand by the way when my own son, who was 11 at the time, was told by his pediatrician to lose weight.

Just trying to get him to “eat less and exercise more” led to fights and power struggles within the family. When I started researching to seek out solutions and tools, I came up short. That’s why we decided to create Kurbo. We decided to take the best of the hospital-based programs like Stanford’s and adapt it these to the digital age with a kid-friendly app and personalized coaching delivered via text, video chat or phone calls.  

What sets Kurbo apart from other offerings in this space?

Unlike any of the other mobile weight loss programs out there, Kurbo is specifically designed for use by children and teens, which means it is not based on calorie counting. Instead, the goal is to empower and encourage kids to make healthier lifestyle choices and develop patterns that will last a lifetime.

Also, in comparison to the hospital programs, kids are excited to be allowed to participate from their own homes rather than having to attend in-person visits to a doctor or clinic that are often embarrassing or uncomfortable.

Here’s how it works. Kurbo, which licensed Stanford’s pediatric weight control program, is based on the Stop Light food classification system specifying “green,” “yellow” and “red” foods.

A Kurbo subscription includes a fun and engaging food and exercise tracking app (iOS and Android) along with live coaching - kids get to check in with a live coach via text and weekly video chats or phone calls. This is huge because it takes the role of “food police” off of the parent because your child has someone else to talk to and who holds them accountable for behaviors. They are encouraged by the freedom and independence to make their own choices.

In addition, Kurbo was designed specifically to engage and appeal to young users. We use games, tutorial videos, avatars and challenges (called “Krunches”) to make following the program fun for kids.

How do you measure outcomes, and what are those results to date?

The short answer is that Kurbo is working. In the first pilot program for 65 children ages 8-17 years old who completed the Kurbo program between March and July 2014, users experienced a significant reduction (0.26) in their body mass index by (BMI). Of this group, 90% of the children either maintained or reduced their weight, and of those who reduced their weight, 58% reduced their BMI by over 3% and 20% of these reduced their BMI by over 7%.

In addition to weight loss and BMI reduction, at the end of the Kurbo program, kids reported higher levels of self-confidence & self-esteem, improved feelings of self-control, more physically active lifestyle, and reduced conflict between kids and parents over food and exercise. (For more on Kurbo’s outcomes, visit https://kurbo.com/the-science/ )

How do you avoid the issue of stigma?

With Kurbo, the emphasis is on health and making healthy and nutritious choices. There is no conversation about diet, calorie restriction and little emphasis specifically about weight loss. Our entire goal is to educate, encourage and empower children and teens to develop and reinforce life-long behavioral habits that result in health and fitness for the entire family.

We also make Kurbo fun and empowering. Kids like that they have a really cool coach they get to check in with instead of their parents, and that they get to use their favorite toy – the cellphone – to follow the program. For some kids, it’s less embarrassing and uncomfortable than attending in-person visits to a doctor or clinic, too.

It’s also important to note that at Kurbo, we encourage the entire family to get involved so that there’s no singling out of one child “with the weight problem.” It’s been shown that the most successful weight loss programs involve changes in the household and lifestyle that parents and siblings need to support.

How do you engage the whole family?

Because we believe an entire family should get involved in the program, we make the Kurbo app available to download and use for free for the parents and siblings of the child enrolled in the program. That way everyone can follow along and learn more about “red,” “green,” and “yellow” foods and how to eat healthily. We encourage parents to track along with kids, and have found many moms and dads actually start to exercise more and even lose weight along with their children by using Kurbo.

What's next for you?

We are looking at ways to reach even more kids, with goals of launching a Spanish-language version of the program this year, along with forming partnerships with nonprofit and corporate organizations to provide subsidized subscriptions for needy or low-income children. We are also in talks with corporate wellness executives looking to fund employee benefit programs offering Kurbo for families struggling with obesity.

Where can people learn more?

For more information on Kurbo, visit https://kurbo.com/