Diets Are Just Diets, Don’t Be Fooled

Dieting is not what Noom is about. Despite its name, the app isn’t your average weight-loss app: it was “designed by psychologists to produce real, sustainable results,” according to its marketing copy. According to the ads, Noom is for those who are tired of dieting. Saeju Jeong and Artem Petakov founded a personalized health-coaching firm in 2008, and it took off in 2016 when they released their app. A customized program is designed to teach sustainable health habits and mindful eating, as well as improve your relationship with food and your body. Weight loss is a common goal for most users.

People are clearly responding to the message. It was launched five years ago, and since then, Noom has been downloaded 50 million times. According to TechCrunch, the company raised $540 million in Series F funding in May 2021. (As a comparison, Peloton raised $550 million in the same amount of funding in 2018.) Noom is huge, and it will grow even more in the future.

Noom’s popular marketing and “no dieting needed” promise make it sound quite appealing, but, in reality, it’s just another diet. Basically, it’s a calorie counter, with behavior-change lessons and a coach who messages you. There have been many warnings that Noom presents itself in a misleading way.

(Photo: Courtesy Noom)

My summer months ago, I signed up for Noom’s two-week free trial (which is then 60 cents per day or $199 per year). As soon as I downloaded the app, I completed an initial survey that asked for information about my gender, weight, lifestyle, goals, and food preferences. It suggested that I might realistically reach my 12-pound weight-loss goal in seven weeks after I entered a 12-pound loss goal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers one to two pounds per week as healthy.

During my introduction to Noom, I swiped my way through several multiple-choice questions, among them one that asked, “How can I achieve my weight loss goals with Noom?”.The right answer was simply believe. I was also assigned a coach through Noom, a woman named Laura, who told me that she was there to answer any questions and provide support. Afterward, Noom’s approach was swiped through, which is flexible, intuitive, and motivating.

My calorie goal for today was 1,200 calories, according to the app on day two. Noom’s talks of psychology, behavior change and not being a diet surprised me, and I never expected it would expect me to track calories. The lowest recommendation shocked me more.

Dietitian Danielle Bublitz, who practices anti-diet nutrition in Los Angeles, says our bodies need the bare minimum amount of calories in order to function. That minimum number varies, but the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says that most women need between 1,600 and 2,200 calories per day, and most men need between 2,000 and 3,200.

I contacted Noom as a reporter to clarify how it calculated my (extremely low) caloric allotment, and a representative explained that Noom bases its recommendations on the information users provide and on the Harris-Benedict Equation, which is based in legitimate science and is often used to determine an individual’s basal metabolic rate (BMR) and their total energy expenditures.

I calculated my BMR, or the calories needed just to function, based on my height, weight, age, and gender (available online). The calculation came up with 1,486 calories per day — 286 more than Noom’s recommended amount. My total energy expenditure increased by 1,000 calories when factoring in my activity level, which measures how many calories are burned during a day when activity is included. Since I have a body mass index that falls into the normal range, I should aim to consume about 2,000 calories per day as a weight loss diet. Noom’s recommendation is 800 calories lower. (The CDC also points out that even healthy weight loss typically plateaus after six months, and that most people gain back the weight they lost.)

After reading Noom’s calorie recommendations, I wondered whether she was more accurate in her recommendations for others. Noom prescribed the same calorie goal for several dozen women, most of whom contacted me. The others all had similar heights, weights, and ages – we weighed over 100 pounds each, and we spanned three decades. The idea that we all ended up with the same recommendation seems hard to fathom.

Over email, Noom’s representative informed me that women are entitled to 1,200 dollars as a minimum amount. Approximately two pounds per week is what most Noom users lose by choosing the fastest weight loss speed, they said. But you don’t explicitly choose your rate of weight loss up front—the survey takes you through a series of questions and visually shortens your weight loss timeline based on your answers. Weight loss speed can be adjusted in settings, but it’s confusing and it’s not prominent in the user experience.

The representative explained that Nooom’s calorie budget is not a rigid recommendation, but merely a starting point. “We have been working on the best way to visually represent this philosophy within the platform.”

(Photo: Courtesy Noom)

With Noom, caloric density is used to categorize foods based on their calorie density and track their calorie intake. Glucose is orange, olive oil is red, dried fruit is yellow, whole grain bread is yellow, and things like berries, egg whites, and nonfat dairy are green. In the app, you are encouraged to eat more green foods and fewer red ones. However, it is clear that the colors are directly associated with permission and a lack thereof, meaning that we are encouraged to think of certain foods as good and others as bad. Approximately 65% of people who eat a “bad” food feel guilty and ashamed about it, according to Amy Porto, a dietitian and professor of nutrition at Messiah University in Pennsylvania.

Concerningly, Noom has not been screened for eating disorders. In an email I received from a Noom representative, she said the coaches are trained to be “hypervigilant” and watch for signs that a user may be struggling, but the initial survey does not ask about eating-disorder history or food relationships. A psychologist, eating disorder specialist, and author of The Diet-Free Revolution, Alexis Conason, is deeply concerned about this. Many of her clients with eating disorders have used Noom, believing that it would help them recover, not realizing that it was actually a calorie tracker.

According to Conason, people find that the program is incredibly triggering when they begin it. “That is the complete opposite of what the anti-diet movement is all about.”

Noom emphasizes several times that it incorporates psychological research to help users lose weight safely and sustainably. Psychologists use cognitive behavioral therapy to help change people’s perceptions, feelings, and behaviors with the goal of modifying their behavior. Although CBT is legitimate, the way Noom uses it is very different from the way it would be administered in a clinical setting, by an individual clinic therapist. You might get weekly messages from your coach encouraging you to change your behavior on Noom.

An app could not effectively provide CBT even for a psychologist, Conason says. A Noom representative told me through email that the company’s coaches are not licensed therapists-instead, they enroll in Noomiversity, a 75-hour “health and wellness coach training program,” after which they accumulate 200 hours of coaching experience. I could not speak to them on the record because these coaches sign nondisclosure agreements, but it appears that each coach works with 350 Noom users at once based on Glassdoor reviews. A licensed therapist typically maintains a full caseload of 15 to 30 clients per week.

For most people who download the app, Noom does not lead to long-term weight loss. 78 percent of Noom users lose weight, according to a “learn more” section on the app. However, the numbers from the study, which appeared in Nature in 2016, may be a little misleading, says Conason. Ten million people had downloaded Noom when the authors collected the data, but the company only collected information from 36,000 users because 99.6 percent of users abandoned the app before six months.

Noom users don’t seem to lose weight in a long-term way, either. The data about the experiences of those 15,000 people is opaque, as 38 percent are missing from the data table, and only 24 percent maintained weight loss for a year.

Although it features clever marketing and a chat feature, Noom is just a calorie-counting application with bite-size lessons about eating and weight loss. Although most diets fail and losing weight isn’t necessary for health improvement, if you are set on losing weight, I encourage you to rethink this, as there are more sustainable paths available. Get the help you need from a registered dietitian and possibly a licensed therapist, and design a plan that truly reflects your body, your history, and your goals.

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