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Experts are Questioning the Efficacy of This Popular Weight Loss App

You've seen the testimonials for NOOM, but does the app's methods really work, and is it safe for everyone?

Struggling with weight loss is one of the most common shared human experiences. The CDC places the percentage of obese American adults at 42.4%, and new research suggests that more people are on a diet than ever before. (Given the health risks associated with obesity and its link to COVID-19 complications, that's good to hear.) For any possible reason people want or need to drop pounds, there are about a dozen more weight-loss methods for them to choose from.

For centuries, people have tried it all, from ingesting tapeworms in the early 1900s (yikes) to today's popular (but controversial) intermittent fasting. Of course, different approaches have different levels of effectiveness, and the most important factor in any weight-loss program is sustainability—aka the ability to maintain it for a long time. The quest for such a solution has led many people to download Noom, an app that claims: "Stop Dieting. Get Life-Long Results." (Related: 100 Unhealthiest Foods on the Planet.)

Founded in 2008 by Saeju Jeong and Artem Petakov, Noom's philosophy is one we know well: Crash diets don't work, and people need lasting, healthy lifestyles in order to lose weight and keep it off. The app charges $59 per month or $199 annually and uses psychology in its weight-loss methodology. Specifically, it employs cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT), which is a common type of talk therapy in which users are encouraged to reflect on their habits, emotions, and thoughts. In this case, this analysis is in regards to food and eating habits in order to identify and permanently improve any problematic tendencies.

While Noom outwardly subscribes to mindful eating over crash dieting and calorie-counting, the program actually does end up counting calories because users have to log everything they eat. It also provides information on healthy vs. not-so-healthy foods, quizzes, and the ability to chat with fellow users and/or trainers (who are not all registered dietitians but are approved by the National Consortium for Credentialing Health & Wellness Coaches). The amount of information, the virtual support system, and the real-time guidance are objectively helpful tools that users have found success with.

Currently, there are 45 million Noom users and the company claims to have helped 1.5 million people lose weight. However, for every happy user review and expert endorsement, it seems there has also been negative critques and concerns raised (oh, and a slew of Better Business Bureau complaints, too).

Most recently, Vice writer Sarah Hurtes investigated whether or not Noom works and/or promotes disordered eating. The main problems Hurtes found have already been flagged by NBC: the app can sometimes recommend daily calorie totals for users that are too low to be healthy, the program fails to ask new users if they have a history of disordered eating, and while the behavioral therapy approach could be a game-changer in theory, Noom doesn't have enough trainers on hand for users to get the one-on-one attention necessary for it to work.

When we asked experts to weigh in on the app, they raised their own concerns as well.

"This approach works for some people and not for others," NYC-based registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD  tells Eat This, Not That! "Many are overwhelmed by logging every single thing they eat, and they give up on their weight loss journey… Others find tracking calories a useful tool—it helps them recognize proper portion sizes and not overeat."

Mitzi Dulan, RD, founder of simplyFUEL, agrees. "I do believe Noom can effectively help some people lose weight in a healthy way by logging food intake, goal setting, and using cognitive behavior therapy."

However, both Rizzo and Dulan express concern about the fine line between helpful food-logging and encouraging disordered eating habits. "Anyone with a history of disordered eating should absolutely not track calories, as it can induce unhealthy thoughts surrounding food," Rizzo says.

In other words, Noom can certainly work for those with no history of disordered eating who are ready to track calories and analyze their eating habits. But anyone who has ever struggled with restricting themselves too much should instead seek the help of specialized therapists and dietitians.

"The vast majority of people have an exceptional experience using coaching and psychology to lose weight using Noom, but like with anything in life, it's not the perfect fit for everyone," says Shanon Whittingham, a holistic nutritionist who is also a health coach for Noom. "It really comes down to trying it out for at least a month to give it a good feel, and then deciding from there if it's a good plan for you."

While Whittingham has seen Noom's CBT approach help users on a daily basis, she advises potential users to think about how they like to work on their weight loss. Noom offers different options for food logging as well as group or one-on-one coaching, but some people may still find that specialized attention from a registered dietitian or nutritionist is best.

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Courtney Iseman
Courtney Iseman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer covering food, beverage, and lifestyle. Read more about Courtney