Wellness

The Dieter’s Diet

Noom, the popular weight loss app, promises to teach you how to eat better, not less. (Except also, eat less.)

By Virginia Sole-Smith

In April 2018, Aidan, a 30-year-old in Ottawa, Canada, reached a low point with their body. They’d just returned from a trip to Egypt, which should have been amazing but wasn’t. “I’d packed a bunch of summer clothes that I had not visited since the previous summer,” Aidan says now. “And I guess my body had changed.” Many of the clothes didn’t fit anymore, which left them feeling like they somehow didn’t deserve a vacation. “Like, that’s not something that someone with my body should do.”

When Aidan went on Instagram to post their vacation photos, they saw ads for what seemed like the perfect solution: Noom, a brand that launched in 2008 as a scrappy exercise-tracking and calorie-counting app, the brainchild of tech entrepreneurs Saeju Jeong (who previously launched South Korea’s first heavy metal record label) and Artem Petakov, a former Google software engineer, and is now an ubiquitous weight loss app that promises to “Change how you think. Change how you eat. Change for good.”

Aidan desperately wanted to change. But they also liked how often Noom emphasized that it wasn’t a diet. (Earlier this year, a caption on the brand’s Instagram said, “Of course we’re celebrating International No Diet Day! And yes, we also help people lose weight.”) Both Noom’s Instagram and the app itself are filled with cheerful and motivating rhetoric: “Every day is another chance to get stronger, to eat better, to live healthier, and to be the best version of you,” reads a post from around the time Aidan joined. Noom isn’t just about anything so superficial as wearing a smaller jeans size — it’s about unlocking a whole new level of happiness. “Noom felt so reassuring, like, this must be the safe and effective route,” Aidan says. “I dove right in.”

I first heard about Noom in 2019, when a friend told me she was using it because she wanted to lose her baby weight but didn’t want to diet. “It’s helped me find the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had with food in my life,” she told me. I remember thinking that this sounded a bit like a line from a commercial and indeed: “It changed the way I look at food,” a user said in a 2019 commercial. “This doesn’t feel restrictive, it feels like a TRUE lifestyle change,” praised another in an ad from last December.

“I think it put me on 1,400 calories per day. I mean, I’m 6 feet tall.”

The app has evolved significantly from its startup days. In 2015, Jeong and Petakov brought on a “chief of psychology” named Andreas Michaelides, Ph.D., who redesigned Noom’s user support groups and added personal health coaches who help clients set weekly goals. Noom earned more than $400 million in revenue in 2020 and is projected to earn $750 million in 2021, according to a company communication obtained by Bustle. (Noom declined to confirm these numbers.) Much of the brand’s success can be attributed to its careful positioning as the anti-diet diet, the lifestyle change that relies on the millennial-friendly principles of psychology and intuitive eating to help participants lose weight easily and sustainably.

But that wasn’t Aidan’s experience. They downloaded the app, paying around $200 for an annual subscription, and started logging their food and working through Noom’s daily lessons. “I think it put me on 1,400 calories per day,” Aidan says. “Which seems super crazy now! I mean, I’m 6 feet tall.” In addition to calculating daily calorie goals for participants, Noom teaches them to categorize foods as green (eat as much as you want), yellow (eat in moderation), and red (limit your intake). Aidan began navigating every meal that way, eating as few yellow and red foods as possible.

In July 2018, Aidan learned they had to undergo a lumpectomy. “I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to recover from surgery if I continued eating at that low-calorie level,” they say. Aidan stopped their subscription, but Noom did not stop taking up space in their brain. They kept restricting their food intake over the next year, and by October 2019 were eating so little that it impacted their job performance and relationships. “I couldn’t sleep, my digestive system was not functioning, and I was just not my normal, capable self,” they say. Aidan began eating disorder treatment in January 2020 but has continued to struggle.

“I can’t say Noom is responsible for my eating disorder all on its own,” they say. But they see the months they spent on Noom as a kind of tipping point — the moment when they shifted out of years of subclinical disordered eating into a full-blown eating disorder. “A lot of these ‘science-based’ ideas sort of burrowed into my brain,” Aidan says. “Two years later, I’m still trying to get away from them.”

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When I download Noom to my own phone, I’m greeted by a sunshine icon and a question: “How much weight do you want to lose?” The app asks me to pick a “weight loss speed”: turtle, rabbit, or cheetah. Next, I fill in my gender, age, height, and starting weight, then answer a series of questions. Do I eat sandwiches or salads for lunch? How often do I eat per day? The app begins to calculate when I can expect to reach my “target weight,” and as I answer more questions, it lowers the date, putting my new body and life increasingly within reach. “There are no good and bad foods!” it promises. “And if you mess up, that’s okay! You’re in good hands.” After all, the app tells me: “You’re not alone, we’ve helped 1,534,304 people successful lose weight.” As I look at the screen, that number climbs: 1,534,308, then 1,543,315. By the time I finish typing this sentence, it’s up to 1,534,353. How are all these people losing weight so fast? (1,534,384.) Because Noom is going to create my “personalized plan,” which is not a restrictive diet, the app emphasizes repeatedly. On a screen titled “why restrictive diets fail,” I learn that 73% of dieters experience at least one weight-cycling episode, according to a 2019 study of nearly 500 women, and that these “yo-yo” cycles increase diabetes risk and “amounts of belly fat,” according to the Mayo Clinic. So how does Noom achieve weight loss without these risks? “Simply believe!” the app tells me.

Also: Plan to spend a few minutes each day reading a lesson on how to change my eating and exercise habits. Lesson No. 3, for example, explains the importance of choosing foods with lower caloric density, like hardboiled eggs instead of fried. Along with these lessons on “the psychology of weight loss,” the app encourages me to log my weight, exercise, water consumption, blood pressure, and blood glucose daily, along with everything I eat. And it gives a daily calorie budget; to lose weight at a “cheetah” pace, I’m told to eat 1,200 calories a day. By the time I finish logging my breakfast and morning snack (a smoothie, followed by a bagel with peanut butter and a banana), I have... exactly 34 calories left.

This is the first thing to know about Noom, and something that every former user I spoke with — even those who more or less liked the app — told me right away: Noom is not a lifestyle change. It’s a dieter’s diet. “They put you on 1,200 calories a day and tell you to eat mostly vegetables,” Sarah MacDonald, a 31-year-old swimming coach in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, who began using Noom in 2014. “So, you’re basically shitting yourself constantly and you lose 5 pounds in the first two weeks.”

She’s now deleted and redownloaded the app more times than she can count; each time, the initial weight loss is quickly followed by a plateau as the diet becomes increasingly difficult to live with. The longest she’s ever lasted is four months, but more often she drops out after four to six weeks. “In the beginning, I’d rejoin pretty frequently because I’d think, ‘Well, I just didn’t work hard enough last time; I better try again,’” she says.

The fact that MacDonald couldn’t sustain her weight loss is how dieting tends to work — and how the industry stays profitable. According to a 2013 review of common commercial weight loss protocols, people lose around 5-10% of their body weight in the first year of any diet, but over the next two to five years, they gain back all but an average of 2.1 pounds. Noom’s own published research can’t claim any better: 64% of people who stuck with the program lost an average of 7% of their body weight after five months on the plan, according to the 2016 analysis the company includes in its press kit. But there is no data offered on whether these users maintained the weight loss over the subsequent two to five years, when most dieters regain. And Noom’s study followed 43 people — only 36 of whom completed the program. That “64%” is just 23 people.

According to the FDA, Noom is considered a “general wellness product,” which means the app isn’t regulated by the agency. In other words: Nobody is checking to make sure it works. And a larger analysis of its data suggests that it doesn’t. A 2016 study looked at 36,000 users who stuck with the app for six months or more, and found the success rate to be much less impressive: Just 23% of users lost more than 10% of their body weight while using the app. When they followed up with participants less than a year later, the researchers had to exclude more than half the sample due to missing data, and concluded that just 14% of the remaining users — a little more than 2,000 people — had maintained their 10% weight loss, as the clinical psychologist Alexis Conason reported last year.

People lose around 5-10% of their body weight in the first year of any diet, but over the next two to five years, they gain back all but 2.1 pounds.

The other giveaway that Noom is a diet: It uses the same “traffic light” system for categorizing foods as green, yellow, and red that many other weight loss programs rely on. Noom, and every other diet that uses the traffic light system, allots users a certain number of “red foods” per day (in my test of the app, I was told they could account for 25% of my daily intake), which technically means no foods are off-limits. But Noom’s list of “red foods” includes some health food staples, like peanut butter, chia seeds, almonds, full-fat yogurt, cheese, and olive oil. “‘Red’ foods simply raise a ‘red flag’ for foods that contain a lot of calories without filling you up!” the app says. But these are the foods that do fill us up, argues Shana Minei Spence, RDN, a dietitian in Brooklyn. “The more dense a food is, the more filling it will be,” she explains. “Full-fat cheese, yogurt, peanut butter, and so on are more satisfying and satiating, and the more satisfying and satiating a food is, the more content you’ll feel after eating it.”

And categorizing food in this way can lead to the kind of rigid thinking about “good” and “bad” foods that is a hallmark of most eating disorders, Spence and other experts say — and many of the people drawn to downloading a weight loss app may also be more at risk for disordered eating, like Aidan. “I’m still trying to stop automatically classifying foods as good, bad, and medium because of that color-coding,” they say.

Noom tells users to log everything they eat in the app so it can categorize each food and keep tabs on your overall caloric intake. This, too, is a classic dieting strategy that can trigger obsessive thinking. Molly Robson, a nutritionist in Boston, has worked with several clients trying to wean themselves off Noom after recognizing its role in their disordered eating behavior. “They find that logging food forces them to be thinking about food a ton when they didn’t really want to be. It’s also really difficult to eat in community because they worry about not being able to make ‘safe’ choices when they go out to lunch with friends or co-workers,” she says. Robson helps clients shift from logging foods in Noom, which automatically tallies calories and rates the day’s successes or failures, to writing them down on a less-judgmental piece of paper and then gradually to stop doing it altogether. But it’s hard: “Folks feel very scared to stop logging food because of what might happen to their weight and body,” Robson says.

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What sets Noom apart from every other food tracking app and calorie-counting diet is its use of psychology. Or its frequent invoking of psychology, at any rate. In a recent ad called “Miranda’s Mind,” a woman is enjoying herself in a crowded restaurant until a bowl of pasta arrives. She stares at it longingly until she hears a voice calling her name and is transported inside her own brain. “This is where we learn how to eat!” a slicker, pantsuit-wearing Miranda tells pasta-craving Miranda. “And Noom knows that weight loss starts right here — using psychology.”

Specifically, the app talks a lot about cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT, as it’s commonly known, is a technique used by psychologists to improve patients’ mental well-being by changing their behaviors, which in turn help them modify negative or intrusive thought patterns. Noom presents its version of CBT in daily lessons that users are supposed to read and incorporate into their goal-setting work; many of those lessons revolve around the message that your body’s hunger signals are the “intrusive thoughts” you need to reframe or ignore.

MacDonald sent me one lesson called “Tame your inner elephant.” The lesson explains that we all have an inner elephant, otherwise known as our “impulsive, irrational emotional side,” that persuades us to skip the gym or have chips for dinner. But we also have an inner rider or voice of reason. “The rider knows what’s right,” the lesson says, before going on to offer strategies like keeping “a stash of healthy nuts, seeds, fruits, and veggies” on hand to prevent our elephant from stampeding to the office vending machine.

For anyone wanting to lose weight, the elephant metaphor feels particularly cruel. But clinical psychologist Lauren Muhlheim, Psy.D., sees it differently: “That elephant is your body’s survival mechanism,” says Muhlheim, who works with disordered eating patients in her private practice in Los Angeles. “Noom claims that if you can just change your thoughts, you’ll be able to resist the urge to eat certain foods. But that doesn’t acknowledge how human biology works. We are not supposed to try to override our hunger drive. That’s the major nuance that Noom is missing.”

“We are not supposed to try to override our hunger drive. That’s the major nuance that Noom is missing.”

Missing — or banking on. If most people respond to the restriction of dieting by eventually eating more and regaining weight, then those same people are likely to sign back up for Noom later, just as MacDonald has done so many times. MacDonald and other frequent or longer-term users of Noom told me that at a certain point, it felt like the app hadn’t expected them to stick around for as long as they had. (Noom declined to release its user retention rate.) “The thing about Noom that I found suspicious is that in the first few weeks, everything is beautiful,” says Samantha, a 33-year-old therapist in Illinois, who used Noom for several months a few years ago. “The content is amazing; it’s very attractively presented and simple to understand, so it’s really easy to believe you’re doing something.” But after a few months, she says, she felt that the quality declined, with lessons frequently repeating and production values dropping. MacDonald noticed the same thing: “You start seeing typos in everything and it feels really haphazard,” she says. (A Noom spokesperson countered via email that while the app does “reinforce” various concepts, it has “more than a year’s worth of content for users.” In September, it rolled out a redesign for new users that “provides an update to content through the program’s entirety.”)

Both Samantha and MacDonald were also frustrated by Noom’s promises of human interactions with health coaches and support groups. It felt hard to develop a real rapport over text, especially because the name and photo kept changing. “I’d have one woman as my goal leader for a couple of months and then get a note that she was moving to a new position in the company and get someone else. Then a few weeks later, the same thing would happen,” Samantha says. She wondered if she was even talking to humans, and it’s a valid question. Its 2020 company overview describes Noom Coaches as “1,900+ Amazing Team Members,” with backgrounds in fields like nutrition and exercise physiology, and notes that they all trained for 90 days on Noom’s technology and approach. A Noom spokesperson emphasized to me that “these points of communication come from a live, trained member of the Noom coaching staff,” which they say now numbers more than 3,000 people. But that company memo also discussed how Noom is using artificial intelligence to bolster the coaching program, with humans doing 7% of the work and AI handling 93% of coaching-related tasks, which feels a little impersonal for an app that claims it can get inside my brain.

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Recently, I emailed the friend who first raved to me about Noom. “Do you still love it?” I ask.

“Funny you ask,” she writes back. “I just resubscribed to it, but definitely don’t think ‘love’ is the right word.” Later, she tells me she’s struggling to accept her weight after a recent miscarriage. “I’m doing Noom again because it feels like the least evil of all the evils,” she says. “I don’t think it’s healthy that I want to shed these pounds, but if I’m going to do it, this is the best way to do it.” This is exactly what Noom promises: It’s not a diet, or if it is, it’s the Smart Person’s Diet, helping you work through your issues with food and teaching you to just eat better, not less. (Except, also eat less.)

It’s not a diet, or if it is, it’s the Smart Person’s Diet, teaching you to just eat better, not less. (Except, also eat less.)

When diets involve obvious punishment, we question their validity. Very few people do a grapefruit diet or a Master Cleanse without thinking “This is miserable.” But when dieting is presented as a way to understand yourself better, we forget to ask questions. We forget to ask whether losing weight will make us happier or healthier. We forget to wonder whether restriction makes us vulnerable to binge eating or to needing dangerous levels of restriction, as Aidan experienced. And we forget that we’re paying someone to tell us we’re not good enough in the body we have now.

Virginia Sole-Smith is the author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America. She also writes the newsletter Burnt Toast.