So, you want to lose weight. You’re not alone. About 49 percent of U.S. adults do too, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But they aren’t embarking on these weight-loss journeys alone. Many people choose to use a program to keep them on track. You know the ones. Weight Watchers (or, as it's now known, WW). Jenny Craig. And now there’s a new dark horse app that’s being marketed to millennials like crazy: Noom.
There's a good chance you’ve seen the ads that promise you’ll “lose the weight for good” everywhere from Instagram to the TV at your gym. Maybe you were even enticed to fork over $50 for the first month. Wondering about the pros and cons of the popular new plan? We've got the scoop.
What is Noom, anyway?
The app, which claims to have over 50 million users, provides you with a personalized diet plan and gives you access to a health coach (that's different from a registered dietitian).
It's schtick is that it uses a stoplight system to classify foods, and a "proven psychology-based approach" to help you stay motivated. Basically, the categorization system, along with Noom's regular reminders and tips, creates a behavioral change model that the developers say is meant to “trick” your brain and body into making lifestyle changes.
Dietitian and health coach Barbie Boules, RDN, says that behavioral change — or rather, a mindfulness approach to eating — can work. But she takes issue with the language the app uses. “I don’t think we should 'trick' our bodies into anything or attempt to,” she says.
That said, the idea is that if you change your habits, mindset, and approach to weight loss — as opposed to just restricting how much or which foods you eat — you’ll be more successful in reaching your goals.
Wait. But what is a “Noom?”
You might think it’s just a silly word. You also might assume the founders Saeju Jeong and Artem Petakov were getting their branding advice from the same place as Gwynth Paltrow. (Goop got its name because someone once told her that “all the successful internet companies had double O’s,” or so the story goes.)
But a rep for Noom told me that the name is actually “moon” spelled backward. Jeong and Petakov wanted to build a program that would always be there to support their customers: “Just like you can count on the moon being there, no matter what.” They also wanted to incorporate mindful eating, and “looking at the moon reflected in water is a mindful moment everyone can relate to." Inspiring, if a little cheesy.
For what it’s worth, on Urban Dictionary, noom means to “explode violently.” The app's actual meaning is a little less drastic, but if thinking about your goals obstreperously bursting into confetti helps you, we support that.
How does it work?
On the app, the on-boarding process cuts right to the chase, asking, “How much weight do you want to lose?” and "How fast do you want to lose it?"
Once you're through the intro, Noom will help set you up with a game plan, and lets you keep tabs on your food and weight. You’ll learn about nutrition science through quizzes, and get daily emails with tips to keep you focused and motivated. Be prepared: The app interacts with you an above-average amount. Some reviewers found that annoying; others liked it.
As for the eating plan, Noom doesn’t have any “off limits” foods. They’ll let you have the decadent hot chocolate and comforting rigatoni you might be craving on these cold winter days (in moderation). Boules says this puts Noom a step ahead of many of its many competitors because, as many nutritionists and researchers will tell you, following a super restrictive diet is a sure-fire way to yoyo — and torture yourself in the process.
But Noom is still a weight-loss app, and that means it places some restrictions on what users eat. Sure, it lets you “have your cake and eat it too,” but it also categorizes food into three groups based on a traffic-light system.
It asks you to only eat a little (the exact amount will vary by plan) of the red foods (such as pizza, peanut butter, and cake), and then gives you more liberty with the yellow (including turkey and beer) and green foods (strawberries, broccoli, and oatmeal).
The categories are set up based on nutrient density, so you can eat more of the foods that provide you with the most vitamins, minerals, and proteins per calorie. Noom believes the plan is better than calorie-counting because it teachers users which meals have more nutritional value.
They also explain that you're not supposed to think of red foods as "bad," but as a "red flag" because they contain more calories without making you feel full. This is interesting, but in all of my dating experience, red flags actually are "bad."
Nutritionists like Caitlin Kiarie, RD, founder of Mom-N-Tot Nutrition, have a few bones to pick with this system. "Any time we start to put food in a category, we’re eluding that there’s a good category and a bad one,” she says. “When our brain thinks something is bad, we see it as more desirable."
It's called the "restrict, rebel, repent” cycle. “We can only really maintain that distance from that food for so long before we eventually just say, Screw it, throw our hands up, and allow ourselves to have it," Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, of Street Smart Nutrition, previously told Refinery29. That may lead to a binge, which brings on guilt, and sets the cycle in motion again.
Plus, as Boules puts it: “There’s more to life than calorie density, and if we only focus on only that, we miss out on one of the most fun parts of life — yummy food.”
Does it actually work?
Some research suggests it might. In a study looking at almost 36,000 Noom users, about 77 percent reported they lost weight using the app over a median of 267 days. (Folks who logged their dinner lost more weight than those who didn’t, indicating that consistency counts.)
Boules says that of her clients who’ve used Noom, the people who like it best are those who liked it for the “encouraging daily emails that helped them understand why they were making the changes to their lifestyle.” Boules also points out that Noom won’t give you a menu of foods to choose from or a grocery list, like WW. Something to keep in mind if you’re someone who's looking for a ton of structure.
In the App Store, Noom overwhelmingly has five-star reviews. We combed through them, and customers seemed happy with the fact that the program “aims to educate and promote lifelong, sustainable habits that lead to a healthy weight and lifestyle.” Some say, however, that the support isn’t reliable (the health coaches for Noom aren't available 24/7).
But, Boules says, it's not for everyone. If you have have a history of eating disorders or an underlying medical condition that impacts your weight, you’ll probably want to work with a RD who can offer truly personalized advice instead of any app.
At its core, Noom is a weight loss app, not a wellness app. And increasingly, people are realizing that a number on a scale does not equate good health or happiness.
As for whether Noom is a miracle app for weight loss, the jury is still out. “What works for you is what’s going to work for you,” Boules says. “Noom might work, or it might not.”