Does Noom really work? A detailed investigation into the weight loss app


Noom is a health app that helps you ‘learn to eat mindfully.’ “Psychology is the key to lasting change,” Noom’s website reads. Noom was founded in 2008 by Seaju Joeng and Artem Petakov, and in May 2021, the company was valued at $4.2 billion, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal

The company reportedly considered an IPO for early 2022, with a prospective valuation of $10 billion. Such figures demonstrate the rising popularity of Noom, perhaps showing that people believe in its promise of lasting weight loss. 

Weight loss apps and schemes come and go as quickly as the seasons change as users learn of their long-term ineffectiveness. Could Noom’s longevity mean that it’s one of the rare weight-loss regimens that really works? Let’s find out. 

Key Takeaways

  • Published research suggests that Noom helps over 75% of its users lose weight and maintain a healthy weight. 
  • Some Noom users fail to lose weight due to chronic illnesses or food disorders that the app fails to cure or diagnose. 
  • Noom’s color-based food classification can lead to unhealthy relationships with food and cause users to shun foods that might aid their weight loss venture. 
  • Most health coaches provided by Noom aren’t licensed dietitians and are often overworked, leading to inaccurate and delayed responses to users. 

Noom works by setting a calorie target and educating you on the fundamentals of weight loss

Before we interrogate Noom’s effectiveness, let’s find out how it works. The Noom app is free to download. After downloading, the app asks you to fill out a questionnaire that allows the algorithm to formulate an ideal weight loss plan for you. 

You fill in details about your weight, age, height, illness history, and past weight loss struggles. The app then asks how much weight you want to lose (up to 40 pounds) and sets how long it’ll take to achieve your target weight. 

An experiment by Parade found that the time set by the app only depends on the weight you want to shed. For instance, the publication found that a healthy, active 20-something and an ailing, restaurant food-eating 70-year-old would take the same time to lose 20 pounds when using the Noom app. 

After formulating a plan, Noom connects you with a support group and a personal coach. It asks you to track your weight, meals, and activity. The program also involves daily nutrition and health articles with quizzes to change users’ mindsets about food and health. 

The programs are broken down into stages with a basic two-tier structure: a core phase where you work with a personal coach to build baseline skills and a maintenance phase where you integrate those skills into your daily routine. 

Noom sets a calorie target depending on your plan. The minimum daily calorie budget is 1,320 for females and 1,400 for males. 

The app uses colors to categorize foods based on their calorie content:

  • Green foods: These have low calorie content and high concentrations of healthy nutrients. They include sweet potatoes, bananas, watermelon, spinach, cucumbers, cashew, and soy milk. 
  • Yellow foods: They have more calories and fewer healthy nutrients. They include seafood, low-fat milk, chicken, lean meat, beer, white rice, chickpeas, and avocado. 
  • Red foods: They have the most calories and least healthy nutrients. They include wine, processed foods, red meats, bacon, butter, and french fries. 

The app recommends a set percentage of foods from each category – 30% red, 45% yellow, and 25% red. 

Studies have found that Noom can be an effective weight-loss tool

Several published studies suggest that Noom is the real deal. Per Everyday Health, researchers found 104 participants aged 20 to 60 were more successful at losing weight when logging their meals and activities on Noom. 

The participants lost 7.5% of their body weight in fifteen weeks and, after 52 weeks, had maintained about 5.2% of body weight loss. Researchers also found that participants improved their blood sugar control over that period. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognized Noom as a diabetes-prevention program.

Emily Gonzalez, a nurse in LA, told Vox that she lost 190 pounds and alleviated her Type 2 diabetes using Noom. The outlet cited two studies suggesting that a low-calorie diet can improve diabetes control and possibly reverse Type 2 diabetes in some patients.

Another study on 384 app users found that food logging and group participation promoted weight loss, especially for goal-oriented characters. Social support proved to be a significant weight loss motivator. 

A 15-month study found that participants who completed their Noom courses and adhered to logging, group activities, and read articles provided by the app tended to lose more weight. Researchers found that after 24 weeks, participants shed an average of 16.8 pounds. 

A study of about 36,000 Noom users reinforced the notion that commitment to the app led to faster and greater weight loss. It suggested that 78% of Noom’s over 45 million users lost weight via the app.

The studies highlighted above portray Noom as a near-guaranteed way of losing weight. However, most of the studies were authored by Andreas Michaelides, Noom’s psychology officer. This fact doesn’t invalidate the findings, but the conflict of interests raises some doubts. 

Noom’s regimen doesn’t work for all people looking to lose weight

Noom has received widespread support for not only helping people lose weight but also educating them on how to make healthy choices when the program ends. Bonnie Balk, a registered dietitian, told Parade:

“Instead of spoon-feeding users with a list of do’s and don’ts, this program encourages them to understand their healthy choices. This helps people build sustainable, healthy eating habits.”

“They teach you the why,” Emily Gonzales, a happy Noom user, told Vox. “I’m never hungry. I eat tons of veggies, tons of fruit.” Gonzalez told the publication that before Noom, she’d tried weight-loss diets that worked temporarily. 

By educating her about making healthy choices, Noom helped her maintain her weight loss long after the program ended. Heather Atherton, another happy Noom user, talked to Parade about Noom’s positive influence on her life:

“It completely changed how I eat, how frequently I want to exercise. And it has helped me have the clarity and focus to follow some new goals and dreams I never would probably have pursued before.”

Atherton said that she lost 21 pounds and 10 inches thanks to Noom. Heather and Emily are among the 78% percent of users that experience success with Noom. The 22% of Noom users who fail are either non-committal to the regimen or experience health issues preventing them from losing weight.

Despite Noom asking about a user’s health history, it doesn’t always factor in that information when creating a weight loss regimen for the user. Sara Davis, a marketing and communications writer with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, found Noom’s program to be too restrictive. 

Hashimoto’s causes one to gain weight, among other symptoms. When Sara started Noom, her daily calorie intake was 1,500; the app brought her down to 1,200 (Noom has since increased the minimum for women to 1,320). She told Vox:

“On 1,200 calories I was very tired. I could not think. Very achy. And then it made me mean. I was so irritable. I was snapping at people. I was impatient. I had kept having to apologize for things that I said. I was not myself during that period.”

Many people with chronic illness or disordered eating get frustrated by the Noom app as it doesn’t cure or diagnose them. Therefore, you should consult a health professional before starting the Noom program. 


Dietitians found that Noom’s classification of food is flawed

Noom labels itself a ‘no diet’ plan, but in truth, it is a diet plan: it tells you which foods to avoid and which to consume, which is the definition of a diet plan. “Technically it’s a diet program, but food was one of the least emphasized areas,” Carolyn Williams, a dietitian, told Everyday Health

Most dietitians opine that Noom’s classification of food into colors is flawed. It creates a notion that some foods are ‘bad’ (red and yellow) and others are ‘good’ (green). The information on the app reads:

“It’s important to remember that ‘red’ doesn’t mean bad and ‘green’ doesn’t mean good. We like to think of our color system as a portion guide.”

Despite Noom’s assertion, it’s easy for users to develop poor relationships with foods on the red and yellow sides. Dietitians speaking to Good Housekeeping found that some of the foods listed in green were not the most health-promoting. 

Some foods in red and yellow – avocados, chickpeas, and chia seeds – are highly nutritious and assist in weight loss. These foods help lower the inflammatory process, reducing the risk of disease. 

Furthermore, healthy eating patterns involving such foods have been linked to weight loss. NBC News points out that it’s easier to enjoy vegetables served with avocado or nuts. Amy Gorin, a dietician, told Everyday Health:

“I’m a believer that most foods in moderation can fit into a healthy diet plan. I wouldn’t want a client to feel bad about having, say, an occasional cappuccino made with whole-fat milk if it fits into an overall balanced diet for that individual.”

The app doesn’t restrict a person on what to eat – it provides the number of calories you should draw from each type of food. Counting calories in each meal one consumes might prove daunting for some users. 

“As a consumer, if I truly had significant weight to lose I’d want a little more guidance on what to eat,” Carolyn Williams added. Angela Lemond, a dietitian based in Texas, found that Noom’s food system fails because it focuses only on the caloric content of foods:

“Calories and quality (nutrient density plus wholesomeness) all play a part in determining if a food is an ‘always’ or a ‘sometimes’ choice.”

Noom’s weight loss coaches aren’t registered dietitians and often provide generic responses

“Consider Noom like a dietitian in your pocket,” Bonnie Balk, a dietitian, told Parade. “This personalized care adds to the app’s accountability factor, as users know there is someone monitoring them.”

Noom states that coaching helps you ‘gain specific knowledge, tools and skills that will help you change your habits, lose weight and make progress far beyond the scale.’ “Coaches trained in behavior change psychology help translate how those skills relate to everyday life,” Andreas Michaelides, the chief of psychology at Noom, said. 

Most of Noom’s ‘goal specialists’ aren’t dietitians. Dietitians must have formal nutrition education, complete a yearlong internship, and pass a national exam. Noom’s specialists undergo training at the company’s ‘Noomiversity,’ where they learn lessons based on cognitive behavioral therapy. Meghan Wood, the senior director of coaching for Noom, told Everyday Health:

“By learning to identify the behavior chains (trigger, thought, action, consequence) behind their unhealthy habits, users gain a better understanding of where they struggle and where they can make positive change.”

Noom’s coaches have faced criticism for their lack of knowledge on dietary issues and the provision of generic feedback. Heidi wrote on Consumer Affairs:

“My weekly coach gives me such automated boilerplate feedback I can’t even tell if they’re real or a robot. The counseling doesn’t feel that individualized.”

Amy started working as a health coach for Noom in March 2018, filled with optimism about the opportunity, but she gradually lost faith in the company. She told Vox:

“I was optimistic that there would be opportunities to use intuitive eating, especially since they incorporate it in their curriculum. I think I was probably lying to myself.”

At some point, she handled 800 users a week, despite the company’s goal to have each coach working with 300 users a week. It explains why the coaches can’t provide individualized answers to users: they are overworked. Amy told Vox that some of her users failed to lose weight or suffered from starvation:

“They were starting to see that they’d lost some weight but now they were gaining some back. They were having a lot of difficulties. They were having a lot of food preoccupation. They were having all these really classic signs of starvation.”