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Noom is not meant to be a diet. The app is a weight loss program, yes, but it’s different: “Developed by psychologists and scientifically proven to achieve real, sustainable results,” says the marketing copy. When you’re tired of dieting, the ads say Noom is for you. The personalized health coaching company was founded in 2008 by the two engineers Saeju Jeong and Artem Petakov and started in 2016 with the publication of an app and your body through an individual program. For most of the users, the goal is weight loss.
Obviously, the message is getting through to the people. Noom has been downloaded more than 50 million times since it was launched five years ago, according to Forbes. In May 2021, TechCrunch reported that the company raised a staggering $ 540 million in Series F funding. (For reference, Peloton raised $ 550 million in the same funding phase in 2018.) It’s safe to say that Noom is huge and will continue to grow.
But behind Noom’s popularity and nifty “no diet required” marketing, there really is just one more diet. The app is essentially a calorie tracker, complemented by behavior modification lessons and a personal coach to send you messages. Many nutrition and mental health experts have warned that the way Noom presents itself is misleading.
(Photo: Courtesy of Noom)
Earlier this summer, I signed up for the two-week free trial of Noom (which then costs $ 59 a month or $ 199 a year). After downloading the app, I completed an initial survey asking for basic information such as my gender, weight, lifestyle, goals, and food preferences. I entered a weight loss goal of 12 pounds and it gave me a schedule that suggested when I could realistically achieve that goal – about seven weeks. Technically, that’s the equivalent of the one to two pounds a week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) thinks is healthy.
I flipped through a greeting that had a couple of multiple choice questions, including one that said, “What’s the best way to achieve your weight loss goals with Noom?” The correct answer was “just believe”. I was also assigned a noom coach, a woman named Laura, who sent me a message through the app’s chat feature telling me she was there to provide support and answer questions. Then there were a couple of swipe-through lessons about Noom’s approach, which is supposed to be flexible, intuitive, and motivating.
On the second day, I opened the app and saw a calorie goal for the day at the top of the screen: 1,200. With all of the Noom’s talk about psychology, behavior change, and no diet, I was surprised that it expected me to keep track of my calories. But I was more shocked by the drastically low recommendation.
“Our bodies only need a minimum of calories to keep us alive and to keep our hearts pumping,” says Danielle Bublitz, a dietitian from the Los Angeles area. This minimum number varies, but the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says most women need between 1,600 and 2,200 calories a day, and most men need between 2,000 and 3,200 calories.
I reached out to Noom as a reporter asking for clarification on how my (extremely low) calorie allocation was calculated, and a rep told me that Noom’s recommendation based on user information, desired rate of weight loss, and principles of the Harris-Benedict equation, a Formula based on legitimate science and often used by health professionals to estimate a person’s basal metabolic rate (BMR) and total energy expenditure.
For comparison, I entered my height, weight, age, and gender into the Harris-Benedict equation (widely available online) and a BMR – the minimum number of calories just needed to function – of 1,486 calories per day received – 286 more than Noom’s recommendation. Taking into account my activity level, the online calculator added an additional 1,000 calories to my total energy expenditure, the estimated number of calories burned daily taking into account activity. Since my body mass index falls into the normal weight bracket, the CDC recommends no more than a 500 calorie deficit for weight loss – which means I should be consuming around 2,000 calories a day. That’s 800 calories more than Noom’s recommendation. (The CDC also notes that even “healthy” weight loss typically plateaus after six months, and most people end up regaining the weight they lost.)
I was wondering if Noom’s calorie recommendation was more applicable to others, so I posted about it on social media. Several dozen women wrote to me that Noom had prescribed them the exact same calorie goal. Many of them also shared their height, weight, and age – each of us weighed over 100 pounds and our ages spanned three decades. It’s hard to imagine how we could all legitimately end up on the same recommendation.
I asked Noom about this and a rep told me via email that 1,200 is the minimum amount for women. “Many Noom users choose the fastest weight loss rate, which is about two pounds a week,” they said. But you’re not choosing your weight loss rate explicitly in advance – the survey will walk you through a series of questions and visually shorten your weight loss schedule based on your answers. You can adjust your weight loss speed in the settings, but it’s not intuitive and the option isn’t at the forefront of the user experience either.
“Noom’s calorie budget is not a rigid recommendation, but a starting point,” the rep told me. “We have worked to best visualize this philosophy on the platform.”
(Photo: Courtesy of Noom)
Noom complements its calorie tracking with a traffic light-inspired food categorization system based on calorie density. High-calorie foods like olive oil, dried fruits, and french fries are red, slightly lighter options like whole grain bread and grilled chicken breasts are yellow, and things like berries, egg whites, and non-fat dairy products are green. The app recommends increasing the amount of green foods and limiting red foods. While it tries to explain that red foods are not inherently bad, and recognizes that a healthy diet encompasses all three categories, the colors are clearly associated with permission and lack thereof; From then on, it is not difficult to think of certain foods as good and others as the opposite. Amy Porto, a nutritionist and nutrition professor at Messiah University in Pennsylvania, says that thinking about food in such a binary way can be harmful, as it leads to feelings of guilt and shame when someone eats a “bad” meal.
Also of concern is the lack of eating disorders in Noom. While a Noom rep emailed me that trainers are trained to be “hyper-vigilant” and watch out for signs that a user is struggling, his first survey doesn’t ask about the history of eating disorders or the association with food . Alexis Conason, a New York-based psychologist, eating disorders specialist, and author of The Diet-Free Revolution, has real concerns about this. Many of their eating disorder clients have tried Noom because they thought it would help their recovery and didn’t realize it was actually a calorie tracker.
“People start the program and find that it’s incredibly triggering,” says Conason. “It contradicts everything the anti-diet movement is about.”
Noom repeatedly suggests that it involves psychological research to help users lose weight safely and sustainably. The premise of this psychological approach is cognitive behavior therapy, a form of treatment that focuses on changing people’s thoughts and feelings in order to change their behavior. But while CBT is legitimate, Noom’s use looks very different than in a clinical setting where a licensed therapist administers it in ongoing one-on-one counseling sessions. On Noom, users read short lessons about behavior change and may receive weekly encouraging messages from their coach.
Even a psychologist probably wouldn’t be able to effectively manage CBT through messages in an app, Conason says. And Noom’s coaches are not licensed therapists – instead, they take part in Noomiversity, a 75-hour “health and wellness coach training program,” after which they complete 200 hours of coaching experience, a Noom representative told me via email. Mail with. These coaches are signing confidentiality agreements and have not been able to speak to me on record, but several Glassdoor reviews indicate that each coach is assigned to more than 350 active Noom users at a time. In comparison, a full sample size for a licensed therapist is typically between 15 and 30 clients per week.
Like other diets out there, Noom will not result in long-term weight loss for most of the people who download the app. On a “Learn More” page of the app, Noom cites a statistic that 78 percent of its users are losing weight. But this number, which comes from a 2016 study of their methodology published in Nature, is a bit of a misnomer, explains Conason. When the authors collected the data, 10 million people had downloaded Noom, but the company only pulled data from 36,000 people because the other 99.6 percent of users quit the app six months ago.
There isn’t much data to support long-term weight loss from Noom users either. Of those 36,000 people, 15,000 were enrolled in a one-year follow-up, less than 0.5 percent of the original sample size, and the data about their experiences are opaque: 38 percent of this small group are absent from the data table and only 24 percent adhered to weight loss Upright for a year.
Despite its popularity and clever marketing, Noom is simply a calorie counting app with a chat feature and bite-sized lessons on eating and weight loss. If you are trying to lose weight – although I encourage you to reconsider because most diets fail and weight loss is not required for improved health – there are more sustainable ways. Consult with a registered nutritionist, and perhaps a licensed therapist, and come up with a plan that is truly tailored to your body, history, and goals.