This post was adapted from episode 12 of the Nourished & Free podcast.
Click here to listen to the full episode.
Noom is one of the most popular wellness programs at this time. With clever marketing messaging and a lot of marketing dollars, it's hard to find someone who has not heard of Noom. Today, I want to give a review of the program from my perspective as a registered dietitian.
What is Noom?
Noom is an online weight loss program for smartphone users. It boasts of helping its users heal their relationships with food while losing weight. They are most known for their claims of using a psychological approach, that they are not a diet, and that they do not use restrictive methods.
Sounds great, right? Keep reading.
How Noom Works
What Noom does is similar to WW, who assigns point values to food. Rather than points, Noom users track food using a stoplight as a visual aid. Foods are either green, yellow, or orange. Noom recommends some foods to be ‘green’, meaning eat as much as you like, ‘yellow’ meaning eat them some, and ‘orange’ meaning eat them sparingly.
Noom also includes daily lessons that aim to use a psychology approach in helping Noomers create healthy habits.
Lastly, users will have access to a coach that can help them with goal-setting as well as holding them accountable to those goals.
What Foods Does Noom Allow?
Noomers will find that foods fall into 1 of 3 color categories:
The green category consists of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, egg whites, and non-fat dairy.
The yellow foods are lean meats, low-fat dairy products, and legumes.
The red foods are full-fat dairy products, oils, pre-packaged foods, combination foods (like pizza), and fatty meats.
Unsurprisingly, the color category food is put in is based on the calorie density:
Low calorie foods = green
Moderate calorie foods = yellow
High calorie foods = orange
This is really just like every other diet. The lower in calories the food is, the better. They also are encouraging fiber-rich foods, which can help to keep someone full longer. Not a bad thing to be encouraging fiber, but I can't help but see that they are attempting to help users feel full, even though they aren't eating enough to truly satisfy their bodies.
You might be thinking to yourself: "orange? aren't stoplights green, yellow, and red?", in which case you are correct. Noom used to label the high calorie foods as red. I don't know when they changed it to orange, but I suspect it is because they realize having a 'red' category is a sure-fire way to make users feel negative about those foods, and consequently guilty for eating them.
I am using orange and red interchangeably for the sake of this review, and because I see right through their little messaging shift ;)
Here is a snapshot of what you can eat on Noom:
The Psychology Approach in Noom
Noom boasts of using ‘a psychology approach’. Specifically, they are utilizing methods derived from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
In ACT, we are accepting where we are at. Examples of ACT are: I want to change my relationship with food, but I’ve been struggling for too long. Instead of saying that, we say I want to change my relationship with food AND I’ve been struggling for a long time.
DBT seeks to understand that two different things can both exist. DBT utilizes mindfulness a lot and can look like someone accepting that they have an issue, and still wanting to change their behavior. It's similar to ACT.
CBT really works to rewire negative thoughts into helpful ones: Examples of CBT are: “I shouldn’t eat that” into “I have the same right to eat that as anyone else.”.
The reason I'm not very impressed by their psychological approach is not because ACT, DBT, or CBT are ineffective - they actually really are excellent tools. Rather, it's because they don't personalize these methodologies to the user. Everything is copy/pasted into lessons that are all shown to everyone. Just because something works for someone doesn't mean it will work for everyone.
How Much Does Noom Cost?
Noom does not list their prices on the website, so I had to do some digging on other web pages.
Noom will offer a free trial. I've seen this as both a 1-week trial and a 2-week trial, but after the trial ends it is $59/month, from what I have gathered. I have seen other reviewers mention that there is a discount on the monthly rate the more months you sign up for.
Does Noom Ever End?
A lot of programs have a timeline on them, like 75 Hard. Noom, however, wants you to stay for the long haul.
IF you lose your goal amount of weight (that's a big if), they will recommend you follow a weight maintenance plan. Therefore, you’re locked into using their system (and paying them) forever.
Are Noom Coaches Bots?
As far as I can tell, Noom guides are real people. But are they qualified to coach you on a health journey involving diet and exercise? Now that’s a whole other question.
On Noom’s website, they say “We don’t wear lab coats, but we’re all scientifically-minded.”
My criticism of this is as follows: if someone is qualified to wear a lab coat (such as a dietitian), they are not only scientifically minded but also scientifically trained. It doesn’t matter if someone is scientifically minded if they don’t have the proper training and education on how to guide someone in their health.
Is Noom a Diet?
I can’t help but feel my blood pressure rising when I see Noom claim they are ‘not a restrictive diet’. They even state in their marketing, “ready to stop dieting?” and then encourage you to use their system.
Let’s talk about why Noom is a diet.
Why Noom is a Diet
Noom uses the same old methods of calorie-restriction in order to lose weight. Therefore, it is a diet.
Despite what they say on their website that they “don’t believe in good or bad foods”, or that “just because something is green doesn’t mean it’s good”, the stoplight system is still telling you that some foods are okay, and some foods you should stay away from.
What if your body is really asking for a food that is red on the traffic light? The subliminal message is that you shouldn’t eat it, and therefore you will feel guilty about it when you inevitably do.
This leads us to the F-it mentality: "I've already screwed up, might as well go all in" and consequently binge on the red foods.
Research on Noom
Because Noom is so in-your-face about being "sCieNtIfAcAlLy PrOvEn", naturally I had to look at the research actually done on Noom and see what all the hype is about.
Below are 4 studies that are listed on Noom’s website in support of them being “sCieNtIfAcAlLy PrOvEn”. For obvious reasons, I chose to investigate these particular studies further. If you're interested, I have the studies linked as well as key points listed below.
*To hear a full breakdown of these studies, I highly recommend listening to the podcast episode associated with this dietitian review of Noom.
Study 1 – Postpartum study.
Only 24 weeks.
Did not take into account breastfeeding.
Observational, not a controlled trial.
There was a plateau from week 16-24.
Most participants stopped or reduced engagement before the maintenance phase.
Study authored by employees of Noom.
Study 2 – Prediabetes study.
202 participants, 82% retention.
1 group did Noom, 1 did a paper-based diabetes prevention program but no formal intervention.
38% lost weight and maintained the weight loss for a year. BUT
HgA1C was not significantly different between the groups, so we don't know if Noom really was helpful in preventing diabetes because the group not doing Noom had the same decrease in A1C levels (which is the diagnostic indicator of diabetes).
A1C Dropped about 0.3 points for both groups (ex: 6.4-6.1).
Authored by employees of Noom.
Study 3 – Men’s weight loss outcomes.
Retrospective report looking at 2 studies.
7,495 male Noom users in study 1.
Lost significant weight in 16 weeks… but no follow up past 16 weeks.
971 male Noomers in study 2, reported learning about practical application/psychological aspects relating to food and psychology.
Authored by employees of Noom.
Study 4 – Body positivity and self compassion.
Data collected at baseline and 16 weeks only.
No control group.
Decent results that indicate Noom could potentially be helpful in promoting body positivity and self-compassions [though logically this doesn’t add up to me and I think I might be missing something here].
Authored by employees of Noom.
A huge caveat to all 4 of these articles is that Noom's Chief of Psychology is listed as an author. Why does this matter? Because industry-sponsored studies are 7x more likely to report positive outcomes. Meaning, if the study was funded by someone who has something to gain from the study showing good results, then it probably will show good results.
Why Noom is Harmful
Despite Noom’s best efforts to make money not be a diet and heal people’s relationships with food, I consistently hear time and time again from ex-Noomers that it did exactly the opposite.
Noom adapted to the social climate and realized that they need to be clever in their marketing to make people feel safe. I imagine their executive team meeting with marketing consultants and the conversation going like this: “do everything in your power to make it seem like we aren’t just like very other diet out there – even though we are. No one will buy unless we stand out.”
I have had a number of clients come to me as a direct result of Noom, including a 13-year old girl meeting criteria for Bulimia Nervosa after following Noom's program.
What Noom Users are Saying
Since I’m not an ex-customer myself, I know that this dietitian review of Noom can only go so far. I can look at it from an objective lens, but I need some subjective feedback as well. So, I put out a SOS to my following to hear what feedback from real customers was like. Here’s what I heard:
“My mother-in-law tried it and only ate 3 celery sticks for lunch for weeks. She was trying to ‘save her calories’ for dinner.”
“Logging all of my food was so painful. I started lying to myself and bingeing and then not logging anything.”
“I joined Noom because there were supposedly “no bad foods”, but they simply labeled foods as green, yellow, red. I went over my red allowance every single day. It felt impossible to stay under it. If I wanted to have mayo on my sandwich or eat some Doritos or literally anything sweet, I’d be over my red allowance for the day. The guilt that I felt every day was overwhelming.”
“The daily lessons were A LOT of feel good nonsense.”
“Noom, with all it's added "psychology", was fairly similar [to a previous program I did through my insurance], but actually worse. They rename "good" and "bad" foods by color, which correlates to a stop light (red = bad, green = good). This actually made it harder for me to eat "yellow" foods. I started not eating much at all because foods I could eat were red, and I couldn't force myself to eat "enough" green foods. I couldn't talk to my coach about it, because they were working from a script.”
I only had 1 response saying it was helpful:
“I know it has its flaws but it helped me get away from the ‘earning food with exercise’ mentality. The trainings and philosophy it taught was incredibly helpful, it just still had the food logging and counting program that we don’t agree with. I think it has potential to be really beneficial and I was meeting my goals for quite a while with it. I’m just not good at consistency and committing to things so I fell out of it after about three months…. It also REALLY helped me stop using food as a reward.”
Overall Noom Diet Review by This Dietitian:
In general, I find Noom to be just like any other diet: It’s putting a new spin on the same old methods of food monitoring, which have already been shown to have a potential for increasing eating disorder (ED) risk and symptomatology. This is why I actually believe Noom to be dangerous.
A quick note: there is a report of self-monitoring of dietary intake not increasing ED risk. However, I found this to be an unhelpful report as it only asked participants to track for 1 month.
Pros of Noom:
Accountability at your fingertips
Cons of Noom:
No solid research to back up it's safety or effectiveness
Utilizes calorie restriction
Can be pricey (depending on your definition of pricey)
Categories may be fostering a sense of food guilt
Coaches working from a script, not trained healthcare professionals
Utilizes a tracking method which may increase the risk for eating disorders/disordered eating
If you need help transitioning off of Noom, or were previously considering it but now are unsure of what to do, consider beginning your intuitive eating journey by either registering for my 4-week course, or applying for my group coaching program.