Dr. Conason Psy.D.

Why Noom is the Worst Diet Trend of 2021

Let’s be real: all diets are awful. Intentional restriction is unhealthy for the body, mind and spirit. A life spent fixated on food rules and self-criticism is a small life. Dieting is associated with a whole host of negative psychological and physical health outcomes including eating disorders and disordered eating, body image dissatisfaction, and weight cycling, to name just a few. Diets fail for the vast majority of people (many studies estimate less than a 10% success rate). If you’ve been following my blogs, social media, or have ever heard me speak; this is probably not news to you–and if it is, be sure to check out my book The Diet-Free Revolution for a deep dive into the harms of dieting (and what to do instead).

The good news is that people are beginning to catch on about how impractical (to put it gently) it is to diet. People are tired of spending their valuable time, money, and emotional resources on programs that have failed them time and time again. The body positivity movement is gaining steam and people are rejecting unrealistic beauty ideals while striving to accept themselves in the skin they are in. Many people are seeking recovery from diet culture through mindful eating, Intuitive Eating, and other anti-diet philosophies, which I love to see! The bad news: someone also told the diet companies. Enter: Noom.

Noom is a diet program that has caught onto the marketing trend that people don’t want to diet anymore. A 2017 New York Times article described the “dieting fatigue” tearing through the US and how this impacted the business model of Weight Watchers (now rebranded WW to try to distance themselves from the fact that they are indeed a weight loss program), whose stock has been on a downward trajectory for the past couple years. Noom saw these struggles and, not having the long branding history that WW had, they were able to position themselves in the weight loss market to capitalize on the buzzwords that consumers wanted to hear like ”anti-diet,” “cognitive behavioral therapy,” “mindfulness,” “intuitive eating,” while also promising it’s customers what diet culture convinces us we all still need–weight loss. With Noom, you can have your cake and eat it too. Or can you?

I want to be very clear with you. Noom is 100% a diet. It relies on restriction – we are talking about severe undernourishment here. Signing up through the website requires the input of stats such as height, weight, and target weight (with their ‘helpful’ recommended weight for your height displayed on the screen to guide you). It then provides leading questions about how you think you’ll feel when you’ve lost weight (or when you’ve “reached your happy weight”, as they put it). You can select between options such as ‘having a more vibrant social life’, ‘putting [your] needs first’, and ‘believing in [yourself]’! Make no mistake, these ‘options’ are Noom’s promises of what your life will be like when you are thinner.

But when it really comes down to it, there’s not much new here. Noom relies on the stoplight method (same program as WW’s infamous Kurbo plan); instead of counting calories, the app has you track all your food and classifies it into green, yellow, and red foods (read: good, not-so-good, bad) and limits how much of the categories you should consume. It roughly translates into the daily calorie allotment for a toddler. Their research studies (the ones in the journals, not the headlines they cherry picked for their ads) suggest pretty dismal success rates. I did a deep dive on their data for my article Is Noom a Diet published on Psychology Today. And honestly, if it wasn’t for their marketing, I would just plop Noom into the diet bucket along with WW, Atkins, SlimFast, Paleo, Intermittent Fasting, or any of the other countless diet programs.

But, if you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that Noom has earned a special place in my heart. And for that distinction, I award Noom the worst diet trend of 2021. Here’s why:

Noom has co-opted the language of the anti-diet movement to sell their diet plan. And if that doesn’t grind your gears, think of it this way: their advertisements and marketing directly target people in eating disorder recovery and those trying to heal from diet culture. By claiming that they do intuitive eating and mindful eating, they are presenting an escape route to people who are struggling, then locking them in the same room they were already in (but also, like, filling that room with human-eating spiders). It’s a classic bait-and-switch. The business magazine Fast Company called them out in their recent article aptly titled How $4 billion Noom co-opted the language of eating disorder recovery to sell weight loss, which I was thrilled to be interviewed for and quoted in. Noom has targeted ads that make them come up as the top google search result for terms commonly searched for by people in recovery including “intuitive eating,” “anti-diet,” “mindful eating,” and more. Some people have shared that Noom was even a top sponsored search result for “atypical anorexia” and pregnancy-related concerns.

As soon as I started posting on my Instagram account about Noom, messages started pouring in from people who had been harmed by the diet app. Many were from people in eating disorder recovery who were tricked by Noom’s deceptive marketing and believed that the program would be consistent with their recovery; after all, it used the same terms their recovery programs did like “intuitive eating,” “anti-diet,” and “psychology.” They signed up for the program only to be encouraged to restrict their eating, track every bite of food, weigh themselves daily, and more behaviors that would be strongly contraindicated for anyone in recovery (and quite honestly, for anyone period). The first-hand accounts are all saved in my Noom highlight on my Instagram.

I want to remind you all that mindful eating is not a diet tool. It is a fundamentally weight-inclusive practice, steeped in body acceptance and self-compassion, with a focus on non-restrictive eating. It is used to heal from diet culture, not in the service of diet culture. If you see a diet company using mindful eating to promote weight loss, run away. Same with intuitive eating and–I can’t even believe I have to say it–but a diet plan that claims to be “anti-diet.” It’s a literal impossibility.

If you’ve been duped by Noom, please know that you are not alone. They are a $4 billion company that is using it’s endless resources to target a vulnerable group of people. It’s a normal part of recovery to feel torn between a rational knowledge that dieting is harmful and an intense discomfort in your body that makes you want to pursue weight loss. When a company magically appears and tells you that you can have just that, all the goodies of weight loss without the harms of dieting, it is understandably enticing. Unfortunately, it’s all a marketing ploy filled with empty promises and high potential for harm. Healing from diet culture is hard work but it is possible if you stay the course–and oh so worth it!

If you have a story about Noom that you would like to share, let me know. I would love to hear from you!
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