Apps have become a mainstream part of living more healthfully. Just think about it: There are apps built in to smart phones that help you track activity levels (perhaps prompting you to move a bit more), apps designed to help you track what you eat, apps to guide you through workouts and meditations, and more. While there are a sea of apps to help you put healthier habits in place, Noom, which touts itself as “the last weight loss program you’ll ever need” is getting considerable attention. Case in point: Noom was one of the top-searched diet terms on Google in 2018.
Is Noom really the last weight loss program you’ll ever need? How does it work and who is it suitable for? Here’s what you need to know.
How Noom Works
The app takes a behavioral approach to weight loss in order to “trick” your body into building healthier habits. Noom promotes their coaches — supposedly real people (though not registered dietitians) — who help you set achievable goals and keep you accountable.
When you get started, you’ll answer a series of online questions to address your current weight, health concerns and lifestyle (like whether you cook or dine out more, and whether you sit at a desk most of the day). From there, you’ll be assigned a coach and given eating recommendations, as well as have access to built-in tools to help you track your fitness, food, blood pressure and blood sugar. Much of the advice comes in the form of short tips and quizzes, which, according to reviews, can be both helpful and overwhelming. If you find the on-boarding process cumbersome, this may not be the program for you, since the rest of the content on the platform is set up in a similar fashion.
Noom's nutrition philosophy
The nutrition advice is based on the idea of calorie density, which was also popularized in the book Volumetrics. Low calorie (or low energy) density refers to foods that have few calories for the amount you eat (or the weight of a given food). Noom divides food into one of three categories: red, green or yellow. No foods are off limits, but it’s suggested that you limit the number of red foods you eat, while you’re encouraged to eat more yellow and green foods.
It’s scientifically validated
Noom has been scientifically studied (although minimally) and shown to help people lose weight and keep it off. In one study among almost 36,000 people who were Noom users, almost 80 percent reported weight loss while using the app for a median of 267 days. Among the group, certain behaviors promoted better results: Tracking dinner was an especially effective strategy, while tracking overall calories, activity and weight weren’t far behind.
A second, much (much!) smaller study among just 43 overweight and obese Noom participants found that the plan led to a 5 percent loss of body weight — an amount that sounds small, but it’s been tied to really meaningful health improvements. Again, weekly weigh ins and meals logged were the main predictors of success.
No food is off limits
Noom is totally inclusive of any food you want to eat, so if you want an apple pie a la mode, you can have it. You might get a tiny note on your food tracker telling you that you’ve gone over your portion limit for red foods, but you’ll also receive encouraging words for tracking at all.
Get the better newsletter.
Several red flags jump out at me. Here are some to keep in mind.
The food categories are flawed
I’m all for encouraging fruit and veggie consumption, but the calorie density approach doesn’t take into account how filling, delicious and healthful many high-calorie dense foods are. Nuts, seeds, olives and avocados — along with their butters and oils — all supply protective plant compounds that help lower the inflammatory process, thereby lowering your risk of disease. These same foods as part of a healthful eating pattern have also been linked with improvements in body weight and waist measurements, and they may make it easier to prevent weight gain, which is a huge step toward aging healthfully.
And in my experience, people enjoy the green-light foods so much more when they’re served with these plant-based fats. Wouldn’t you rather have a salad with some crunch from nuts, creaminess from avocado, and a delicious dressing made with extra virgin olive oil compared to a salad with crunch from carrots and a sparse dressing? Granted, you can have either with Noom, but putting healthful fats in the red zone is misleading and may lead you to unnecessarily restrict them.
Reviews online are mixed
Many people complain that the coaching is inconsistent (and some say practically non-existent) and that the responses feel canned. People also complain that the database lacks many foods, is unreliable, and that tracking food on this plan is a big pain. That’s a big drawback given that tracking is integral to this program’s success (according to the research). There are also a notable number of complaints about canceling the program.
Health coaches don’t have the same qualifications as registered dietitians
I don’t like to knock any program or plan that makes people feel mentally and physically healthier. However, I will point out that there’s a huge difference in education and training between a health coach and an RD. If you have any food sensitivities, medical concerns, or other roadblocks to eating better (including lifestyle issues, like business travel or inexperience cooking), you’d be better off working one on one with someone who can help you discover what works best for your unique body and circumstances.
On top of that, based on reviews, the health coaching is really over billed. Among the common complaints: people felt like they were talking to a chat bot instead of a person; the coaching support is superficial; coaches aren’t available 24/7 and often leave you hanging.
When I tried the app, I asked a few questions and felt like responses were slow and vague. For example, on day one I asked, “How come I can’t find my food log?” and on day two, I got a response that said, “As we begin the journey, I want to point out one opportunity to get closer to your Super Goal: meal logging!” There was no further explanation on how to find the food log, which I eventually found on my own.
Calories might dip too low
In one online review, a reviewer said the app recommended an 1,100 calorie diet. This is too low to get all of the nutrients you need to thrive. Though the reviewer said she got used to this calorie level, most people would find this amount to be severely restrictive and limiting and I would never advise anyone to eat this few calories. In my case, the app suggested 1,200 calories, which is also too low.
While tracking can be an effective tool, studies also indicate that you don’t need to count calories if you stick to a few basic principles: Eat more whole foods, eat more veggies, and eat fewer processed foods and sugary foods.
A lot of reviewers found the program helpful, and if you’re someone who likes app-based learning and doesn’t mind tracking your food and hopping on the scale, you might also find it useful.
However, many people find tracking every last bite annoying! Even WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers) has a wide range of zero-point foods that don’t need to be tracked, reducing the number of foods that do require tracking and making this task a little less daunting.
If you’ve ever had disordered eating behavior, this wouldn’t be an appropriate program, despite the emphasis on the behavioral components. Truthfully, I found some of the prompts condescending or insensitive. For example, a prompt to hop on the scale: “Now that you’ve weighed yourself (wait, you still haven’t? What would Michael Jordan say? Just do it. Right now. We’ll wait…)” Tracking food and monitoring your weight can be triggering so you’d be better off working one on one with someone who could provide meaningful support and guidance.
Noom has a lot of bells and whistles, but you may not need all of them, and you may get tired of the reading material and quiz format after a while. As I mentioned, there are plenty of apps that help you track food, weigh ins, activity levels, and that support mindful eating, and many of them don’t cost a penny. If you’re in it for the support, read the reviews online before you subscribe. This part of the program seemed to receive the most complaints.
WHAT A NUTRITIONIST WANTS YOU TO KNOW
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.