Trigger Warning: This article talks about eating disorders and weight loss.
You’ve probably seen the ads for the app Noom. They claim it’s “not a diet, but a lifestyle.” But Noom is very much a diet — and a dangerous one at that.
Founded in 2008, Noom claims to be based on psychology and says it uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to change your eating patterns for life-long results. They market themselves as a program that puts mental health first.
However, users have found just the opposite.
Luring in Eating Disorder Survivors
It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that a weight-loss app is using deceptive marketing. But what’s particularly dangerous about Noom’s tactics is that a lot of their language particularly targets those recovering from eating disorders.
Nutritionist Christine Byrne explained that a lot of their marketing materials used language similar to that of eating disorder clinicians. On her blog, she wrote,
“Noom promises that it’s sustainable and says that it’s not a diet. Even though it’s literally just a low-calorie diet. And, here’s the real trick: Noom promises food freedom and weight loss.”
And Byrne isn’t the only one to express concern. Registered Dietician Victoria Myers expressed outrage at the program and explained how it actually encouraged disordered eating. She wrote on Instagram,
“Telling their customers to eat extremely low-calorie amounts, drink water when you’re hungry, and weigh yourself daily is not only dieting but harmful and promoting disordered behaviors. Make no mistake, Noom is a diet and these types of recommendations are how disordered eating and eating disorders begin.”
How Noom Works
Noom claims to be all about mental health, but in reality, it works like any other diet.
After filling out your information and answering a questionnaire, they tell you how many calories you’re allowed to eat (yes, you count calories). Most women reported being given only 1200 calories, regardless of their weight, height, or physical activity level.
To be clear, health professionals recommend that nobody should eat less than 1200 calories and, in fact, most women need more calories than that to function. Many health professionals recommend that, when trying to lose weight, you aim for a calorie deficit of no more than 200-300 calories.
The app also requires you to weigh yourself every day and claims that the scale is “your friend.”
However, this is not necessarily great for your mental health, particularly if you’ve struggled with an eating disorder in the past. As many know, your body weight naturally fluctuates from day to day (for a variety of reasons). But seeing the number on the scale constantly change can be, well, a mindf*ck. For that reason, many health specialists advise that you weigh yourself no more than once a week.
Additionally, Noom categorizes all foods as either green, yellow, or red based on caloric density. Despite claiming that “there are no bad foods,” Noom consistently guilts users if they eat too many foods they categorize as red. Many users said their Noom coaches would reach out to them to say they had eaten too many red foods, even if they had stuck to their calorie count.
Horror Stories From Noom Users
Numerous folks who have tried the app found it to be extremely detrimental to their mental health. And those with eating disorders particularly struggled with the program.
Psychologist Alexis Conason shared some of the stories she had received from followers on Instagram, many of which were heartbreaking.
One person wrote,
“I was on [REDACTED] calories a day and with my physically demanding job I was hungry all the time. I was told to drink lots of water to fill me up, eat all the lettuce I wanted, and focus on getting my binge eating disorder under control.. It was relentless! I felt like I was in a cult!”
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Another person compared it to Weight Watchers and said,
“I felt guilty all the time using both WW and Noom. Going out to eat made me panic and the daily weighing really hurt my self-esteem. Even small weight fluctuations would make or break my day. Terrible way to live.”
Someone else wrote,
“I only lasted a week on Noom but ED relapse lasted months.”
Yet another described being constantly guilted by her Noom coach anytime she ate food in the red category. She wrote,
“I was at the edge of my sanity at one point and if I had kept using Noom I would have developed an eating disorder.”
Struggling with guilt over the food color categories seemed to be a common experience. A blogger on Medium said that seeing her foods marked as red made her feel like she had “failed”, despite the fact that she had followed her coach’s plan to a tee. She wrote,
“When I logged my food into Noom, a strange thing happened. I felt a very certain shade of guilt. As if I had failed.”
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People have also shared their stories and experiences with Noom on Reddit. One user, who’s a recovering bulimic, recalled having “a mild panic attack” when they found out they were supposed to weigh themself every day.
These are just a few of many stories from users who felt duped by Noom only to discover that the program encouraged disordered eating.
Inexperienced Eating Coaches
Noom pairs all of its users with an eating coach, who works with them on their eating plans and their goals. However, these coaches are extremely inexperienced and certainly not trained to deal with eating disorders.
One former coach, who worked for Noom for three years, took to Instagram to reveal the truth about what goes on behind the app. She wrote,
“Your so-called ‘coach’ is most likely NOT a Registered Dietician or even has a viable background to be able to provide you with valid advice.”
In fact, she admitted that 95% of your coach’s responses are actually copied and pasted based on a word you used. She explained,
“For example, if you respond and use the word ‘struggle’ we would just go into an excel sheet and paste back a reply that would work when the word is pinged.”
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On top of that, she said that the coaches were not equipped to handled disordered eating. She wrote,
“Yes, when an ED behavior was severe Noom had a policy to refer the user out, though when someone would allude to ‘bingeing’ behavior, the response was essentially to ‘find something else to do.’ Leaving the user feeling lost, and like their behavior was attributed to a ‘lack of willpower.'”
Not only is this just bad advice, but it’s also scientifically wrong. When you’re on a diet, your brain reacts differently to food. Certain areas of your brain become overactive, making you more likely to notice food. It also convinces you that food actually tastes more delicious. On top of that, activity in your prefrontal cortex reduces, making it more difficult to control your impulses.
All this is to say that if you’re struggling with your diet, a “lack of willpower” is most likely not the problem — biology is. And for a dieting app that’s supposedly trying to improve your mental health to even suggest that is irresponsible.
There are, of course, many alternatives to Noom. But the tactic that many eating disorder specialists recommend is something called intuitive eating. Intuitive eating is meant to help you listen to your body: to eat when you’re hungry and to recognize the signals when you’re full.
If you have the money and opportunity, you should definitely consider consulting with a registered dietician, nutritionist, and/or therapist to work towards a healthier relationship with food.