I’ve been asked my many people what my take on the popular weight loss app Noom is. I had always answered, “I’ve heard of it and seen it widely advertised, but I have no idea what it’s about — sorry.” Well, after being asked about it for the umpteenth time after I gave a grand rounds lecture at my hospital in December, I decided to give it a try myself so that I could comment on it in a more informed way.
I signed up for the app a week ago, and one of the first things it asked for my my current weight, my goal weight, and whether I wanted to proceed through my weight loss journey quickly or more slow-and-steady. I chose the “somewhere in between” response and was given a calorie goal of 1200 per day and promised I’d reach my goal weight (20 pounds lighter) by April. So the first thing I can tell you is: Noom focuses heavily on calorie counting. The second thing I can tell you is: they claim not to be a restrictive “diet” and reject other weight loss programs which use restriction, which they claim only leads to weight gain in the long run (they even show graphs of this yo-yo phenomenon with weigh gain over time), and then in the same breath they tell me to dramatically restrict my intake to 1200 calories per day, which in my view is the very definition of a short-term restrictive diet. Unless I plan to eat 1200 calories per day forever (which, of course, would kill me eventually after months of lingering in starvation). Total hypocrisy.
The second thing I noticed on day one was that they emphasize caloric density as their guide to nutrition. I completely agree with this as a general guideline, as it’s been shown in many studies to be effective for weight management, but I take issue with the specific way they go about it. The premise of using caloric density for food choices is that foods that are intrinsically higher in water and fiber content naturally fill you up and cause satiety (kill your appetite) on fewer calories than foods that are high in caloric density. A classic example I use when teach this concept to my medical students is the comparison of one ounce of cheddar cheese (which is the size of about 4 dice laid end-to-end) to 20 stalks of raw celery. These have the same amount of calories (about 114), but the water and fiber content in the celery makes it much bulkier than the calorie-dense cheddar cheese. Imagine how your stomach would feel after eating 4 pieces of cheddar cheese the size of dice vs. 20 stalks of raw celery. Yeah, this is legit. So Noom categorizes foods into three categories, labeling them green, yellow and red based mostly on caloric density. They suggest an example on day 1 of substituting a few teaspoons of jam for more calorie-dense peanut butter on your toast as a way to lower your calorie density. Because jam is less calorie dense than high fat peanut butter. Well this may technically be true, but I would argue that added sugars like jam are one of the things we know promote overeating due to its effects on the reward system in our brains. I would never recommend eating jam over unsweetened nut butter, which has much more satiety value due to the protein and ft content, and frankly I would not even be recommending eating the toast in the first place (as you know by now) because bread is a refined grain and refined grains tend to lead to overeating… though I do agree that you can overdo it calorie-wise if you eats gobs of fatty nut butter. It’s nuanced, clearly. But think about it: if you sat down to a breakfast of a couple hard boiled eggs and a small grapefruit, would you be likely to go eat 2 more eggs after you were done? Versus if you sat down to a piece of whole grain toast with strawberry jam… would you be more likely to go for another piece of toast with jam? Yes, our brains urge us to overeat bread and jam, but not so much eggs. So I personally feel that added sugars and refined grains are a bigger problem for people who struggle with their weight than healthy fats like almonds or olive oil, but Noom makes wheat bread a “yellow” food and vilifies almonds as a “red” food because they’re mostly fat. According to Noom, almonds are in the same category as Oreo cookies: red (eat as few as possible). This stoplight gimmick psychologically makes you feel bad for choosing olive oil or almonds, by flagging them as red. Essentially, Noom subscribes to a low fat calorie-restricted diet, while allowing you to occasionally “reward” yourself with “fun food.” This is very old school. It works for some people. But it’s nothing new. Weight Watchers has been doing it for decades.
The last thing that I personally didn’t love about Noom is the voice they use. It’s clearly geared toward younger people. Every lesson is littered with kitschy jokes and phrases intended to be funny. I just found it annoying, but then I am – at almost 47 years old – approaching the age of shaking my fist at the neighborhood kids and yelling at them to get off my lawn. Noom uses the example of how to handle it when your friends ask you to go to happy hour rather than how to handle it when your screaming preschooler drives you to drink wine. They constantly use hashtags and make jokes about how reading the scientific literature is nerdy (in a cute way, like you want to be a nerd, but still). The psychological lessons are valid, but they are delivered to an audience of young ‘uns. If you’re a single millennial worried about happy hour and find references to using the Force and Harry Potter amusing, Noom may be right up your alley.
Then there are the pros of Noom. While I disagree that calorie density is the end all be all for weight management, I do feel overall that incorporating more low calorie-dense foods like fresh fruits and non starchy veggies into your diet can help promote weight loss. For a layman’s guide to this written by the head scientific researcher who has done the clinical studies to prove it works, check out Volumetrics by Barbara Rolls, PhD.
Noom also asks you to log your foods every day and weigh yourself every single day. Many people hate this. But these are behaviors that have been shown over and over in scientific studies to be associated with the most weight loss success (and the most weight loss maintenance success over the long run). I don’t think these are bad things, though there are sensitive folks who allow their thoughts about the number on the scale to affect their feelings and therefore don’t want to see their weight. I get that, but truly, your daily weights are just data. It’s just a measurement of the gravitational pull of the earth on your body, not a reference on your worthiness. And data points over time can help guide your behavior if you use it in the right way.
Noom also is unique in that it really does include valid lessons on the psychological basis of many of the behaviors needed to successfully lose weight and manage your weight long term. Just in the first 6 days of my trial, I’ve been taught about stress management and given breathing exercises, taught about how important planning ahead is (I’ve said this myself – planning uses your prefrontal cortex, your best self, to decide what you’ll eat in advance rather than allowing your primitive glutton brain to choose in the moment), and taught about how important the use of SMART goals is when goal setting.
Noom also uses regular quizzes to ask you the information they just taught you to help consolidate their lessons into your memory. I personally think that this psychological aspect of Noom is where they shine.
If only they had set my daily calorie goal higher (to maybe 1800?) or allowed me to log foods without focusing on calories, and if only they didn’t vilify healthy fats, I might feel better about Noom. But overall, I was so bothered by the restrictive diet aspect (and the silly voice they use to talk to a much younger audience) that I chose to cancel my subscription at the end of my one week trial before being charged the $180 for the next 3 months that they planned to charge me. Overall, I feel that Noom is essentially Weight Watchers for millennials and has valuable behavior change psychology incorporated in. Maybe it’s for you! It’s just not for me.