The Strange Mythology of Noom

Behind the scenes of my recent Bustle investigation into the app that convinced you it wasn't a diet.

One quick fun thing: This little old newsletter is a nominee for the Mom 2.0 Summit’s 2021 Romper People’s Choice Award! Thank you very much to everyone who nominated me. It’s so fun to see Burnt Toast on a pretty incredible list of creators in the parenting space. The Romper/Mom 2.0 polls are open until midnight CST tomorrow, so go vote for me here.

Last week, I published a feature about Noom, the popular weight loss app that promises to teach you how to eat better, not less (except, also, to eat less). The piece, which ran over on Bustle, chronicles the experiences of folks like Aidan, who went on Noom two years ago and is still trying to recover from the restrictive eating disorder their experience triggered. But I am, of course, hearing from various Noom disciples now, telling me, no, no, the app really isn’t about weight loss. “Noom is the best diet product ever created,” one guy tweeted. “It’s the only one that’s heavily focused on saying it’s okay to be the weight you are.” I’m also hearing many versions of “it’s not about weight loss, it’s just giving me a healthier relationship with food!”

I am not in the business of convincing readers one by one, nor am I interested in challenging anyone’s personal lived experience. But I will continue to challenge this strange mythology that Noom isn’t really about weight loss. Because we’re talking about a brand that encourages users to eat just 1200 calories per day, “so you’re basically shitting yourself constantly” as one former user told me for the Bustle piece.

Weight loss has been baked into the Noom mission from the beginning. The rhetoric in the app, as well as in the company’s press kit, paints its tech industry founders as simply “passionate about health and wellness.” I completely get why you might think that Noom is encouraging you to “be the weight that you are” (while telling you to eat less than your toddler in a day). But a 2020 company presentation that I obtained during my reporting states their real purpose outright. It begins with the same company mission you’ve heard from their ads: “Healthier lives through behavior change.” But two slides later, the presentation asks: “Why Start With Weight Loss?” Noom’s answer: “Tremendous demand” given worldwide rates of obesity and “low regulation;” because the FDA classifies the app as a “low risk device,” so it “doesn’t require approval for each iteration.” 

In other words: Noom sells weight loss so it can profit off a huge market of folks who have been told their body size is wrong. And they can make this sale without worrying that anyone is going to check up on whether their product actually works, since weight loss apps aren’t subject to government scrutiny. This is convenient because a large analysis of their data shows that it doesn’t. As I reported for Bustle:

A 2016 study looked at 36,000 users who stuck with the app for six months or more, and found the success rate to be much less impressive: Just 24 percent of active users lost 10 percent of their body weight while using the app. When they followed up with participants less than a year later, the researchers had to exclude more than half the sample due to missing data, and concluded that just 14 percent of the remaining users—a little over 2,000 people—had maintained their 10 percent weight loss, as Alexis Conason, PsyD reported earlier this year.

So Noom sells weight loss even though it doesn’t particularly deliver weight loss—and it convinces many of its users that this is fine because hey, it’s not really about weight loss! How is Noom pulling off this sorcery? A big part of the answer is how the brand uses psychology. Or, at least, invokes psychology. In tech industry-speak, this is Noom’s “unfair advantage,” the trait that allows the brand to set itself apart from every other food tracking app and calorie-counting diet. As I wrote for Bustle: 

In a recent ad called “Miranda’s Mind,” a woman is enjoying herself in a crowded restaurant until a bowl of pasta arrives. She stares at it longingly until she hears a voice calling her name and is transported inside her own brain. “This is where we learn how to eat!” a slicker, pantsuit-wearing Miranda tells Pasta-Craving Miranda. “And Noom knows that weight loss starts right here—using psychology.”

The psychology that Noom claims to use is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT, as it is more commonly known, was developed in the 1960s by a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania who wanted to treat depression and found that he could improve patients’ mental well-being by changing their behaviors, which in turn help them modify negative or intrusive thought patterns. “CBT should be weight neutral,” says Lauren Muhlheim, Psy.D., a psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles, who uses some CBT techniques in her work with eating disorder patients to help them stop dieting. “We know that restriction is what drives binge eating, which then drives more restriction and compensatory behaviors,” she explains. “So, we can break the cycle if we stop the dieting and help them reframe that urge to restrict.”

Muhlheim might work to modify a patient’s negative thoughts about pizza, for example, by suggesting they run an experiment: “If the thought is, ‘if I eat pizza, I’ll never stop eating it,’ then let’s see what happens when you let yourself eat pizza,” she explains. “Do your predictions come true? Or, once you have full permission to eat pizza, are you able to eat it without binging on it?” There is good evidence that CBT can help with disordered eating behaviors when used in this way. To Muhlheim, its success offers an immediate challenge to the idea that certain foods or food groups can be addictive. “In CBT, you’re working to legalize forbidden foods and when we do that, they sparkle a lot less and people become much less likely to binge on them.”

But for nearly as long as researchers have been studying CBT to treat eating disorders, they’ve also been studying it for weight loss. “What Noom is doing is nothing new,” notes Muhlheim, pointing to programs like the Beck Diet, which originated in the 1990s, promising to use CBT to teach dieting skills like “how to feel in control in challenging situations.” Noom presents its version of CBT in daily lessons that users are supposed to read and incorporate into their goal setting work. Many of those lessons revolve around the core message that your hunger drive, and any other signals your body sends you to eat, are the “intrusive thoughts” you need to reframe or ignore.

Here’s one such lesson, again from the Bustle piece: 

Sarah sent me one lesson called “Tame your inner elephant.” The lesson explains that we all have an inner elephant, otherwise known as our “impulsive, irrational emotional side,” that persuades us to skip the gym or have chips for dinner. But we also have an inner rider or voice of reason. “The rider knows what’s right,” the lesson says, before going on to offer strategies for taming our inner elephants by setting “realistic goals” and keeping “a stash of healthy nuts, seeds, fruits and veggies” on hand to prevent our elephant from stampeding to the office vending machine.

For anyone wanting to lose weight, the elephant metaphor feels like a particularly cruel joke. But Muhlheim sees the inner elephant differently: “That elephant is your body’s survival mechanism,” she says. “Noom claims that if you can just change your thoughts, you’ll be able to resist the urge to eat certain foods. But that doesn’t acknowledge how human biology works. We are not supposed to try to override our hunger drive. That’s the major nuance that Noom is missing.”

Missing—or banking on. It turns out that a little psychology and a lot of technology is a great way to profit off our worst fears about food and our bodies.

I hope you’ll read my full investigation here.


ALSO

Born to eat: I spoke with Popular Science’s Rachel Feltman about raising intuitive eaters:

Sole-Smith cites her own kids as an example of finding this balance: They love eating sandwiches from Subway, she says, so she gives them takeout from the chain for dinner around once a week. “Other nights we have home cooked meals from scratch,” she says, “but they love Subway, so it’s important that they get it often enough not to fixate on it.”

Read more here.

The Adele Paradox: I also spoke with Vogue’s Emma Specter for her excellent piece on what happens when fat celebrities lose weight, and why we’d actually all be better off thinking way less about celebrity bodies of all kinds: “Musical ability is not tied to BMI in any of the research I’ve read.” Read the rest here.