May 19, 2022

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Noom May Just Be Another Diet App That Costs More

I keep getting this ad for the Noom app, served up with so many YouTube videos and cable TV shows that I feel uniquely targeted by them. It begins with a supercut of an attractive young man clearing plate after plate at restaurants, waving off waiters while a folksy cover of “Where Is My Mind” by The Pixies plays. Then he stares agape at his phone while his bros sit around him eating snacks and drinking beer. “I was conditioned to finish my plate since childhood?” he says, astonished; we see a flashback of a kid mopping up the last of an egg while his father glares at him. “When it comes to losing weight, it’s psychological,” the voiceover says. The message: Noom is different. It will help you get thinner the smart way.

Much of Noom’s advertising leans on this “not like the other girls” characterization. “Stop going on a diet. Start going on Noom,” one ad says. “The last weight loss program you’ll ever need,” another says. The people who work there use the same framing. “We think of it as a health and wellness tool,” Noom President Artem Petkov told me over Zoom last year. “It’s a psychology-minded type of education. It’s how you teach people the behavioral science of these things, to empower them. That’s ultimately what gets you control.”

But if I google “diet,” the first result is a Noom ad (your algorithm may vary). Noom’s core offering is called Noom Weight, which “empowers participants to achieve and maintain a healthy weight through lifestyle intervention.” One prong is a general “health” program, and there’s another for those looking to manage their diabetes, but it’s clear that at least one major purpose of Noom is to help you lose weight — key elements include calorie deprivation, daily weigh-ins, and text that emphasizes losing weight. Noom says it wants to help you lose weight “sustainably,” meaning gradually, long-term, and through behavioral changes as opposed to rigid rules and elimination diets. In one Noom ad, a woman talks about how she lost 87 pounds, saying that in order to lose the weight, she had to — and here, she taps on her head — lose the weight.

“We consider ourselves to be a digital health platform,” a Noom spokesperson told me via email this month. “Calling Noom a diet is like calling a car an engine or a ship a sail — it’s a part of the vehicle but not the whole picture.” (Noom also has a newer offering called Noom Mood, designed to “help you develop the techniques, emotional awareness and resilience to reduce stress and live a happier life.”)

Noom does differ from its competitors in two ways. First, its novel app-based approach explains the “psychology” of what you’re choosing to eat, why you’re eating, and when you’re eating. “We use gold-standard principles from psychology (CBT, ACT, DBT, etc.) to help users understand why they should and how they can create healthier behaviors — not just what to eat,” a Noom spokesperson told me via email. The goal is to teach your brain to overcome bad habits and unnecessary calories. Cravings are contextualized as emotional eating, and emotional eating as conquerable.

Second, it’s much more expensive than some other options; a monthly Noom membership is around $60, while comparable Weight Watchers services, for example, run to about half that price. But none of this really differentiates Noom from the diet programs and apps it seeks to define itself against. Ultimately, its aims are the same: to help you eat less, so you can weigh less.


Noom / Youtube / Via youtube.com

A Noom ad begins with a supercut of an attractive young man clearing plate after plate at restaurants, waving off waiters.

We might as well get this out of the way: Diets don’t work. It’s been proven many, many, many times. Even if they might help you lose weight in the short term, you’re more likely to gain that weight back than to actually keep it off. Deprivation diets in particular impact your metabolism, making it even harder to keep that weight off in the future. (That’s why a lot of The Biggest Loser contestants struggle to keep their weight down after they leave the show, which reportedly restricts what they eat to under 1,000 calories a day.) Because of an antiquated idea from the early 1900s, most deprivation diets targeted at women function on a 1,200 to 1,500 daily calorie allotment, which is essentially equivalent to the appropriate amount of food for a particularly large dog. Diets that require you to cut out entire food groups — like the keto diet or the Whole30 program — could fail in similar ways. Even if you do lose weight, you’re unlikely to keep it off, and at worst, your metabolism slows down long term.

Noom has one other similarity with its competitors: Its approach suggests that losing weight is simply a psychological game, but that’s not necessarily true. Psychology is just one influence, because biochemistry, genetics, and environment play a role too. The way Noom sees it, cravings and caloric needs beyond its guidelines are compulsions that your mind can crush. But do understanding and modifying your thoughts really help if you live in a food desert? Can you mind over matter yourself out of starvation mode while eating far less than what your body actually requires to function optimally?

Perhaps the most significant difference is really Noom’s marketing itself, which has successfully reached beyond the traditional weight-loss audience of women to also target men. Noom ads feature a lot of men, and the app seems to have a higher percentage of male users than others in its category. (When asked, Noom would not confirm their user demographics.) Unlike wellness and diet programs marketed to women (like Gwyneth Paltrow’s juice cleanse routine), which are usually promoted using the flowery language of self-care and beach-body imagery, Noom presents itself as rooted in science. It’s based on psychology and hard facts. It’s a diet app that’s dressed up in a therapist’s blazer and slacks, giving you advice on how to change for the “better,” telling you that if only you could just get out of your own way, you could do the impossible and make this diet work for the rest of your life.

It’s not like Noom invented the idea of men dieting. Keto-based plans are often marketed to men and 10% of Weight Watchers’ users are men. Back in the 11th century, William the Conqueror lost weight by going on a liquid diet of nothing but alcohol and became thin enough to resume riding his beloved horse. (In 1087, though, he died in a riding accident.) In the ‘50s, people started drinking apple cider vinegar to stay thin, something that Lord Byron did in the 19th century. And in the ‘60s, “The Drinking Man’s Diet” was introduced, advising men to drink as much alcohol as they’d like, while eating fish and steak.

In 2019, the diet market reached a record $78 billion in the US alone (there was a small decline in 2020 because of the pandemic). And the male weight-loss market is steadily growing; for the last decade, Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig have seemingly also been refocusing some of their energy to capture the male market. In 2018, Atkins brought in Rob Lowe — their first male spokesperson — to promote their products to other men. When I google “diets for men,” Noom is right at the top, promising to change your life in just 16 weeks.


Noom was founded in 2008, the brainchild of 42-year-old Saeju Jeong, who came up with the idea after his father died of lung cancer 20 years ago. Raised in South Korea, Jeong started his first business — a record label — at 19 before moving to the US in 2005 and launching the app in 2016. “We want to help many lives, as many as we can, by changing behavior,” he told me in an interview last year. “Weight management is the most effective and efficient way to deliver health. It’s simple. It’s powerful.”

14 years later, Noom is generating $400 million in revenue and is gearing up for a $10 billion valuation once it launches an IPO, which could happen this year or in early 2023.

The diet industry has changed significantly in the last few years, turning away from promoting weight loss and toward “wellness.” If a “diet” is defined as a restrictive program used to lose weight, then the language of wellness is often employed for a softer, gentler approach. Weight Watchers is now called WW, sometimes referred to as WellnessWins. The low-carb Atkins diet is now about “a life well lived,” and Jenny Craig’s site has a Healthy Habits section with suggestions that go beyond weight loss.

By also co-opting the language of wellness, Noom has effectively captured people’s attention — the app reportedly has 50 million users worldwide. Investors like Serena Williams and WhatsApp cofounder Jan Koum have lent high-profile shine as well: “Noom’s mix of empathetic human support paired with modern technology and science makes it possible for people to achieve significant, lasting behavior change,” Williams said in a 2019 Noom press release.

Noom presents itself as rooted in science.

But what anti-diet nutritionists and therapists see are the same old diet culture rules, just wrapped up in a different skin. “I think it’s a good example of diet culture shape-shifting,” said Evelyn Tribole, a registered dietician and one of the coauthors of Intuitive Eating. “We’ve seen Weight Watchers rebrand because they’re trying to move away from dieting. You can call it whatever you want. You can say you’re using mindful tools. In the end, when you’re counting calories and categorizing food and tracking your weight, it’s a diet.”

When you give Noom any of your information, it talks back to you like a comforting coach, someone who’s on your team no matter your goals. Despite that, it does operate just like a diet, albeit one made to look like a gamified MyFitnessPal. The interface for Noom looks a little like a board game, your marker steadily moving along the path every day you use it. The app quizzes you and rewards you with encouragement when you get the right answers. It gives you the endorphin rush of checking off a box on a to-do list.

Even before you sign into the app, the Noom website asks a series of questions to hook you, along with some very enticing charts of a person’s potential weight loss. (Noom claims it can help you lose one to two pounds a week.) When you respond to a questionnaire that asks about health risks like diabetes or high blood pressure, it coos back, “We’re really glad you shared. Weight loss is an important goal, but Noom’s mission is helping people get healthier, whatever that is for them.”

The questionnaire also asks whether you have an “active diagnosis” of an eating disorder. (If you say yes, it suggests you talk to a therapist instead of continuing to sign up for Noom.)

Like many other web-based diet programs or trackers, the Noom app requires you to input all your calories and movements. It categorizes your food: green (largely fresh fruit and vegetables), yellow (lean meats and dairy), and red (desserts, saturated fats). Your green allotment is limitless, while just a couple hundred calories of red is permitted a day. When you eat a green food, the app chirps back, “Great choice — Enjoy!” but red foods come with the warning, “Limit your portions.” (Calorie counts for each category are listed in small print.) You’re prompted to weigh yourself daily so the app can track your “progress.” If you forget to log into the app for more than a day or two, you’re sent a text to remind you to get back in there. The app assigns you daily tasks, like reading summaries of peer-reviewed studies about how to be more “mindful” when you’re stress-eating.


Noom

Noom describes cravings as an “inner elephant,” an “impulsive, irrational, emotional side.”

You also get a series of motivational sticky notes that say things like, “Stop saying I wish. Start saying I will,” and “Great things never come from comfort zones.” Another day, it’ll present you with a PowerPoint-like presentation featuring the definition for metacognition, “a fancy psych term that describes an awareness and understanding of one’s thoughts and thought processes.” You are told to “embrace” the “journey.”

Like Weight Watchers, Noom assigns each user a coach to work with one-on-one — the company employs 3,000 coaches across the country, all trained as dieticians, psychologists, or therapists — as well as a support group, where users can keep each other on track. “We have a lot of customers who might not get the weight loss that they want to get, but what we hear all the time is, ‘I feel different as a person,’” Andreas Michaelides, chief of psychology at Noom, told me last year. “‘I have a different relationship with food. I have a different relationship with my body.’”

But the psychological element is exactly what may make Noom potentially harmful. When you fail at Noom, you don’t just fail the way you might fail a typical diet — physically, because your body needs more food or is craving calories or comfort — but you also fail psychologically.

Both Tribole and her Intuitive Eating coauthor, nutrition therapist Elyse Resch, have had clients who have used Noom but kept struggling with an unpleasant and complicated relationship with food. “It becomes a mindfuck for our patients, because they think, Oh my god, I tried the psychology and it doesn’t work,” Tribole said.

“In the end, when you’re counting calories and categorizing food and tracking your weight, it’s a diet.”

And as with other diets, it seems inevitable that many users will fail Noom’s program. “They’re telling you it could be mind over matter, but it’s not possible. The survival part of the brain is going to do whatever it can to keep you alive,” Resch said. “You can learn how to have power over [other habits] but not something that’s so physiological and neurochemical. You cannot overcome that unless you’re priming yourself for a very serious eating disorder.”

“This has an impact, causing food obsessionality, food worry, food anxiety, feeling like you’re lost, out of control eating,” Tribole said. She likened a diet to being pulled underwater by an ocean’s riptides. “When a big set of waves come, you go under and you hold your breath. When you come back up, you can take a big breath: ahhhh. No one denigrates you, Oh my god, you’re addicted to air. This is what happens when you restrict your eating below what your body needs it to be. You’re going to be gasping for food.”

I tried Noom twice, and both times I failed. I lost a little weight, but not much — the app told me to consume just 1,200 calories a day, which was not nearly enough for my 5-foot-5-inch frame. I binged every night; I felt like a failure. But Noom considers failing a part of the process. “The psychological tools we teach are geared towards a holistic understanding of how people can use their self-awareness to change any type of behavior,” a Noom spokesperson told me. “We hear many instances of people who might not lose the amount of weight they wanted when they came into the program but leave with a great deal of other meaningful improvements [like] self-esteem, self-compassion.”

Using these apps is different for everyone, and some people I spoke to did have success losing weight. But others said they had trouble like I did, which impacted their sense of self-worth.

“When I joined Noom, I was probably at my leanest and strongest. Physically, I was my most capable,” said Kate (who asked to be identified by a pseudonym), a 27-year-old woman who tried Noom in 2019. “Once I got on Noom and I had to weigh myself every day, that deteriorated. It overpowered how strong I felt in my body. Those weigh-ins definitely messed with my head.”

The dozens of women I spoke to about Noom had some version of this story: They joined the app to lose that last 10 pounds, or to work on their relationship with food, and were instead rattled by the weigh-ins and the tight calorie count (“Almonds are a red food,” Kate said, incredulous). They also didn’t find the psychological element that helpful. Most of the women were raised in some form of diet culture, meaning that they already knew some of Noom’s tips — like taking a sip of water between bites to slow you down — and decided the app might not be worth $60 a month.

“[It’s] mental gymnastics and rhetorical pretzel-twisting to say this isn’t about weight, it’s about psychology,” Christy Harrison, registered dietician and author of Anti-Diet, said. “I’ve seen Noom try to convince people it’s not about the numbers and you’re not a failure if your weight doesn’t change, but how does that square with making people weigh themselves every day, and using a traffic light system to categorize foods? Of course that creates a sense of good and bad foods.”

Even the app’s framing of how you eat can feel weaponized. Take, for example, the way Noom talks about cravings, describing them as an “inner elephant,” an “impulsive, irrational, emotional side.” Noom wants you to tame your elephant, to make it behave. But that really means you should behave. “The emotional eating piece really gets to me, the way it demonizes emotional eating, meanwhile creating the conditions for it to happen,” Harrison said. “Of course you’re going to feel so deprived after a few days or weeks of a 1,200 calorie diet. I would be crawling out of my skin.” Also: an elephant? Really? Come on.


BuzzFeed News, Getty Images

Noom’s appeal to men makes a lot of sense in the context of the male-dominated trends of bio-hacking and self-optimization. Last year, former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey claimed to follow one of the most horrific diets I’ve ever heard of: one meal per weekday, and a full weekend of fasting. (This is a version of intermittent fasting — which is usually a 16-hour fast, or one 24-hour fast a week, and not two full days of starvation, which is an unhealthy routine.) There are fasting clubs in Silicon Valley. The tech-obsessed track every calorie and step with interactive watches and rings, and a lot of those devices are targeted specifically to men looking to optimize their bodies and brains. “It’s not quite as extreme as Jack Dorsey’s intermittent fasting thing, but it’s still this instrumentalization of your relationship with food, putting it into the realm of intellect and numbers and apps,” Harrison said of Noom’s method. “I have seen men for whom Noom was the trigger — it was the straw that broke the camel’s back of severely disordered eating.” Men make up around 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 cases of eating disorders, but many of them rarely get treatment.

The app might also speak to men because they are traditionally not very practiced in talking about their feelings, especially around food, and Noom seemingly provides a space to do so, or at least think about food a little differently. “Often men have a harder time accessing their feelings and acknowledging that they have eating issues,” Resch said. “This guides them along so maybe their brains find that more accessible.”

For men, longstanding diet tips might actually feel new — especially because Noom presents them as digestible factoids. For example, for every calorie you burn, you get half a calorie back for your food intake. Noom explains it thusly: “When you create a calorie deficit, you’ll lose more weight. It’s math. And science.”

“It has that sciency veneer, the emphasis on psychology. This is going to teach you how to rewire your brain, that speaks to men,” Harrison said. “It’s funny how common those diet rules are for women.” For men, meanwhile, those rules are framed as brand new, and much more revelatory for their eating habits.

None of the men I spoke to said they were unhappy with the app. 32-year-old Alex Thibodeau told me he has been using the app for around four months — he started after getting targeted ads on Instagram — and said he had lost around 10 pounds. “I think what led me to sign up for it was the alleged promise of it being psychological,” he said. “They make using their app habitual. The prompting they do keeps you addicted. It makes me feel more accountable.”

Thibodeau said his progress on Noom has plateaued, but felt this was more to do with him than the app’s failings. “I didn’t feel as though it was a scam in the way that I feel a lot of apps tend to overpromise and underdeliver,” he said. “The shortcomings I’ve experienced with it are more to do with my lack of interest than the effectiveness of the app.” (Tribole said that was another unique characteristic of diets. “[Dieting] is the only industry that blames the consumer, and the consumer believes it,” she said. “It’s gaslighting 101.”)

For 55-year-old Chris McNaught, it’s not the theory so much as the accountability element that has proved useful. McNaught said he lost around 60 pounds on Noom in six months. (He regained 20 pounds after quitting the app, and has since rejoined.) “I’m actually a licensed professional counselor,” he said. “[Noom] hasn’t taught me anything I didn’t already know, but they put it in concrete terms for me, why I think about food the way I do and the habits I repeat.” McNaught said that Noom helped him break one of his unhealthy eating habits, namely going to Sonic after playing golf, even if he wasn’t hungry. ‘That was one of my ‘fog’ eating scripts,” he said, using Noom’s term for consuming food when “not fully present.” “I’m just trying to establish a new normal. I’m not going to be on Noom forever.”

The point of Noom, like most wellness-based diet programs, is still to get you to lose weight.

At 5 feet, 10 inches, Thibodeau was told by the app to eat around 1,900 calories a day. McNaught, at 6 feet, was told to eat just 1,500 calories. Some of the men I spoke to (all around 5 feet, 7 inches or taller) reported that they were told to consume between 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day. This, simply put, is not enough. (When I asked Noom if they considered this amount of food sufficient for adult men, they said yes. “There are a variety of inputs that get individuals to a recommended calorie goal — all based on safe and scientifically-proven research,” a spokesperson said. “Noom’s calorie budget is not a rigid recommendation but a starting point, and users have the option to manually adjust their goal.”) According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, intake for men should generally range between 2,400 to 3,000 calories a day.

“This is ridiculous,” Resch said. “They will feel starved on this calorie allotment.” Resch mentioned the 1944 Minnesota Starvation Experiment, where men spent three months eating a diet of 3,200 calories a day, followed by six months of 1,570 calories a day (split into breakfast and lunch). The semi-starvation phase led to decreases in strength, stamina, body temperature, heart rate, and sex drive. The men became obsessed with food, fantasizing about it, becoming more depressed and irritable as time went on.

Men may be an important market for Noom and its competitors because women are starting to diet less. Over the last three decades, fewer people have been dieting in general, but women are leading the charge against traditional diet programs. “There’s this growing movement towards body positivity, weight inclusivity, and anti-diet movements. That has really taken hold for women and also trans folks and marginalized folks, a little more so than [for] cis straight white men,” Harrison said. “The diet industry in general, and maybe Noom in particular, is looking to expand their market base.”

Last week, a friend who lives on the West Coast texted me from his parents’ house. He’d seen that ubiquitous Noom ad while watching sports on TV. He was surprised — when was the last time he saw a diet ad during a football game?

The funny thing about that ad, which features the man finishing his meal, is that it focuses more on how he eats all his food than why he originally felt obligated to eat everything on it. The way his dad glares at him while he does it is striking. How did his father make him feel about not finishing his plate, or conversely, about eating “too much”? What kind of psychological trauma might be tied up between him and his relationship with food? There are plenty of factors at play if someone is eating beyond satiety or undereating, if someone’s relationship with food is fraught and painful and demoralizing.

Which is what makes Noom so frustrating for some people. The point of Noom, like most wellness-based diet programs, is still to get you to lose weight. And just because you’re using psychological tools in hopes of reshaping your brain into eating less food, less frequently, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those are healthy habits. Knowing that you’ve been conditioned to eat a certain way doesn’t mean you’re bound to change in a holistic, healthy way. “People don’t have to track their calorie count, their exercise, label foods, weigh themselves every day,” Harrison said. ‘There’s another way to live, beyond all this obsession.” ●

If you’re dealing with an eating disorder and need someone to talk to, the National Eating Disorders Association helpline is 1-800-931-2237; for 24/7 crisis support, text “NEDA” to 741741.

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/scaachikoul/noom-weight-loss-diet-app-men