What is Noom?

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

Noom Logo

Noom. It’s supposedly different from any health plan we’ve ever seen before. Some people are raving about it. What makes it unique? Is it a fad or the real deal? I signed up to find out.

 

What is Noom?

Two software engineers, Saeju Jeong and Artem Petakov, created the concept behind Noom in 2008. It has morphed over time, but the current version has existed since 2017.

According to their website, Noom is a consumer-led digital health company that helps people live healthier, happier lives. It’s a platform for people to meet their own personal health and wellness goals using “psychology, technology, and human coaching.”

Of particular note, the company and its “Noom Nerds” (those who do Noom) advertise that this is not a diet. So, I decided to experience it for myself and sign up for a 2-week free trial. Here’s what I discovered…

All That Glitters Is Not Gold…

Noom describes itself as a marriage between coaching, psychology, and weight loss. They reference Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as the centerpiece that brings everything together.

For registered dietitians, therapists, and trained coaches, CBT has been a reliable tool to help clients who struggle with disordered eating practices. This therapy is intended to modify behavioral patterns by developing coping skills, specific to each individual based on their own experiences.

When I first joined Noom, the app prompted me with questions that sounded similar to CBT, such as: What led me to be my current weight? What happened? Was it a stressful marriage? A pregnancy? Why do you want to lose weight – for a wedding or a new job perhaps?

The line of questioning felt somewhat intrusive, and it wasn’t the thorough, thoughtful CBT process I was familiar with.

To Thine Own Self Be True…

I was then prompted to enter my ideal goal weight. Though I didn’t have a number in mind, for sake of experimenting I entered in a few different weights to see how the app would respond. Regardless of my inputs, the app told me I could reach that goal.

This started to feel unrealistic when I entered in outrageously low weights that any health practitioner would find unhealthy for me.

I was then given a date for when I could expect to reach my goal weight and was assigned 1,200 calories a day to do so. As a comparison, most nutrition labels on packages base their calculations on consuming 2,000-2,500 calories a day.

Noom was starting to look and smell more like a diet…

There Is Nothing Either Good or Bad…

It is relatively easy to track food items on the Noom app; however, homemade recipes are more laborious to enter, and for me, it was tricky to decipher exactly how much I ate.

Each food is assigned a color – red, yellow, or green – otherwise known as the stoplight system. This is not new. Many programs use something similar. In the case of Noom, food is judged by caloric value with little consideration of whole food impact.

For example, I ate one of my favorite meals for breakfast – peanut butter on whole grain toast. Though filling and nutritious, the app immediately flagged peanut butter in red, a signal it was too many calories for me.

What the app does not evaluate here is the value of satiety. Because of the fat, fiber, and protein this meal keeps me full longer than something with lower calories. That’s a vital piece for healthy eating, and I was disappointed that this concept was overlooked.

Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow…

I was then introduced to a coach who said she would be available to answer questions I had throughout my Noom journey. I asked about her experience and how she came to be a qualified Noom coach. She replied that all Noom coaches had adequate training, but offered nothing more specific, even after prompting.

The website explained that Noom coaches have a BA or associates degree and 2,000 hours of wellness experience. Given the term “wellness” is used rather broadly, its use struck me as intentionally vague, lacking in specific qualifications.

When I canceled the app after my trial was complete, the coach texted me, “We all hit rough patches in the journey,” and encouraged me to make up for my “failed” attempt by signing up again, this time for the discounted rate of $55/month. The response felt like an impersonal attempt to shame me into continuing on.

Fair is Foul, Foul is Fair…

The Noom website promotes its success with a research study by Chin, et al, 2016. However the results are misleading, and here are the main reasons why:

1) The study only included users who used the app regularly for at least 6 months. This is merely <0.5% of people who initially signed up.
2) Weight loss success included some of those participants who lost and regained some weight within the study period; meaning some weight cyclers were included.
3) The results are short-term, as the study followed participants for less than one year. Most research on dieting (or wellness programs if you will) indicates long-term success in this area is highly unlikely.

A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet…

As many of you know, I believe in focusing on healthy relationships with food rather than categorizing certain foods as good or bad. I don’t endorse restrictive eating habits for intentional weight loss. And, I am not the only health practitioner who feels this way.

Noom is aware of this growing shift in paradigm.

They know that one-third of dieters regain more weight than they lose, and there may be links between weight cycling and cardiovascular risks. They know that “diets” don’t work for sustainable weight loss.

In turn, Noom purposely advertises themselves as outsiders to diet culture. They don’t use the term “diet” in their introductions or explanations as to how the program works. They rely on words like “health” and “wellness” to convey their message. They cap it off with terms like “psychology” and “science” to legitimize their approach in the eyes of consumers. 

But I can say with certainty that Noom is definitely a diet.

Interesting side note: In case you were wondering, Noom is moon spelled backwards, and represents the notion that you can count on the moon always being there. The founders liken this to the Noom app always being there for its participants.

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Comments

  1. Kimberly Wills

    Hi, I’m a dietetics student and I tried Noom for 3 months, for myself but also so I could guide others about it, like you. I LOVED the messages and inspiration, but as for the actual eating patterns, nothing applied to me. I already made fairly healthy choices. Like you, I was frustrated by the stoplight system, where I ate a snack of almonds & cranberries and it was marked as red! I stopped in a convenience store and chose that healthy snack over chips, candy, ice cream, etc. So many wonderful healthy foods are marked red just because they’re “calorie dense”. The same amount of calories in nuts vs. in Oreos is not the same quality of food. I asked my coach about that and she just reiterated that it’s based on calories. It could definitely help people be more mindful and think about what they’re doing. Further lessons did include real scientific foundations in behavior, and it could be good for making general changes (they include exercise, time alone for de-stressing, etc), but a person would also have to eat healthy foods, not just less calories.
    Like others here, I also had so much trouble finding out what it was like, so I hope you don’t mind me sharing my experience as well.

    Reply
  2. Jeanne

    Thank you for this information! I have had such a difficult time trying to find more information about Noom, including their pricing after the initial free trial. I have gotten nowhere with correspondence with them. I learned so much by just reading your article. Thanks again!

    Reply
  3. Sheryl

    Wow! Thank you for bringing this to our attention. It’s a shame all of these companies are just looking for money instead of truly helping people. We appreciate you. Sheryl

    Reply
  4. Francie Nelson

    I disagree with most comments made. I have dropped 13 pounds since the end of May when I joined NOOM, and I have learned so much about emotional eating. More than that, I have a much better understanding of such topics as hunger, stress, thought distortions, motivation, relaxation techniques and the list goes on. Not only am I making better food choices (it is NOT a diet), I find that the strategies that I have learned are helping me in my general life. I have been on Weight Watchers and find this an easier program to follow. The articles that are given daily (you don’t have to read them daily) are informative and quirky. I only wish I had tried NOOM sooner.

    Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Thank you for your comments Francie, especially for sharing your own experience with Noom. Being comfortable and confident in what and how you eat is a very good place to be. I also want to reiterate to you and other readers who may feel the way you do, that this critique is focused on the program itself, and in no way intended to knock the people who are using it. Thanks for following along and engaging in worthwhile discussion.

      Reply
    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Shelli – great question! I have some insights surrounding WW, but to make a fair assessment, I may address it in its own separate post. Thanks for the idea 🙂

      Reply