Talking with The creator of a weighty app for kids

Joanna Strober

Name: Joanna Strober

Age: 47

City: Palo Alto

Position: Founder and CEO of Kurbo Health


J.: What prompted you to start a health and weight-loss app for kids and teens?

Joanna Strober:  My 11-year-old son had a weight problem; his BMI [body mass index] was high, and I learned from going to the doctor that there were no solutions that were particularly easy [and] would be effective. There were in-person programs at the hospitals that my son wasn’t interested in going to, and they were very expensive and [a parent] had to leave work in order to go to them. That was the only recommendation.

My background was in technology investment, and I saw there were a number of companies to help adults use their smartphones to lose weight. I wanted to start a kids’ version.

How is a weight-loss program for kids different?

JS:  We don’t want kids to calorie count. My son looks at MyFitnessPal [a calorie counting app] and says “Mom, I can lose weight by eating five bags of potato chips a day.” It’s clear that [other apps] are focused on calories, which is fine for adults; it’s just not fine for kids. For kids, we need them to get healthier eating habits, and we need them to change the foods they’re eating.

The [Kurbo app’s] red light–green light system is a way of classifying food as basically healthy and unhealthy, which makes it much easier for kids to learn how to make healthier choices. We don’t need them just to reduce their calories; it’s not safe for them. For many kids, they just need to stop gaining weight, so we want to slow down the rate of gain. For other kids, their BMI is high and they need to reduce it. We’re not trying to make people skinny; we’re focused on getting them to a healthy weight.

Doesn’t using technology make kids less active? Why market this program as an app?

JS:  Kids do have phones; they are online. Let’s use it for good instead of making a villain out of it. Lots of people argue that cellphones contribute to obesity, but we want to meet kids where they are. This takes five minutes a day [and] it’s very gamified, so it’s fun for them to use. You unlock different levels and different virtual prizes. They get prizes for watching a video, for tracking their food, for doing extra exercise.

You grew up in the Bay Area. How have you been involved in the Jewish community?

JS:  I grew up a member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. My closest friends today are people I did the Beth Am Israel trip with at age 16. Two of my kids are at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. I love going with my kids to the Contemporary Jewish Museum and having lunch there at the deli. I really like the chocolate babka.

Jewish food is not known for being low in calories. Are there any Jewish foods you recommend?

JS:  I recommend all of them in moderation. My kids like challah so much that I was buying two or three challahs on Friday night, then we’d have it throughout the weekend. We’d make sandwiches, French toast. But that’s a lot of white bread that turns into sugar very easily. Now we have one challah on Friday night and we have wheat bread the rest of the time. So much of Jewish mothering is about wanting to feed our kids well, so it’s very painful to feel you have to feed them differently. But a lot of Jewish people have weight problems.

What mistakes do parents make when trying to help their children with a weight problem?

JS:  One of the biggest is they treat one child differently than the other. They say, “Oh, you are teeny so you can have cookies and ice cream.” And they say, “You can’t” to the other child. That’s unfair and makes the problem worse. Or they have Coke in the house, or ice cream for the parents, and they say the kids can’t have it. Go out and get ice cream once in a while as a family, but don’t keep it in the house and say the kids can’t have it. Willpower is an incredibly difficult thing to have, for all people.   

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Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.