Last December, Stephen Snowder, a 37-year-old communications staffer at a white-shoe law firm in New York, Googled “pandemic weight gain.” He’d stopped jogging and had indulged in comforting Grubhub meals while quarantining. He wanted to fit into his 2019 clothes again.
As he found himself sifting through information about various weight-loss companies and programs online, one slogan caught his eye: “Stop Dieting. Get Lifelong Results.” An app—called Noom—promised to use psychology to help “build new habits to crush your goals.” The company’s website described how he’d be paired with a wellness coach and receive short lessons and quizzes based on cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. Crucially, the app said he could eat anything he wanted. Noom ads soon flooded Snowder’s Instagram feed. He signed on.
The American Psychological Association reports that the 42% of Americans who gained weight between March 2020 and February 2021 added an average of 29 pounds to their frames. People are now looking to shed that weight. The market for weight-loss products is expanding, estimated to grow from nearly $255 billion globally this year to $377 billion by 2026, according to analytics firm Research and Markets. Perhaps no company is capitalizing on this better than Noom, which is valued at $4 billion and has raised more than $650 million from investors, such as Sequoia Capital and Silver Lake. Launched in 2016, the company’s app has been downloaded some 45 million times; Noom says it nearly doubled annual revenue between 2019 and 2020, reaching $400 million.
With its emphasis on wellness over weight loss—a message that it disseminates through social media ads and influencer marketing—Noom has been riding the wave of body positivity to appeal to people looking for a more holistic way to shed pounds. It’s not alone: In 2018, Weight Watchers rebranded to WW, in part to broaden its appeal. “There’s much more to it than just weight loss,” says Debra Benovitz, WW’s senior vice president of “human truths and community impacts.” “We hear a lot that [people] come for weight loss, but find wellness.” (The rebranding hasn’t been entirely successful. Though WW is gaining ground with digital subscribers, the company’s revenue dropped 10% year over year in the second quarter of 2021.) Newer entrants include weight-care startup Found, which just came out of stealth and is backed by venture capital firms GV and Atomic. It offers digital coaching and support groups, as well as telemedicine consultations with physicians who can prescribe weight-loss medication.
But even as they champion a psychosocial approach to healthier habits, Noom and other online coaching programs are still focused on getting people to drop pounds by cutting food consumption—the same technique that’s defined weight loss since counting calories came into vogue in the 1920s. “Intuitive eating and the anti-diet movement have become popular,” says Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist, eating-disorder specialist, and author of The Diet-Free Revolution. “Weight-loss companies are trying to get on that bandwagon by claiming that they are not diet companies, when they are.”
Noom’s ascendancy comes at a time when celebrities and companies alike are spreading the message of body positivity and weight inclusivity—of loving yourself the way you are. Today’s weight-loss companies have figured that out. Gone are fat-shaming ads featuring people holding their pre-weight-loss pair of jeans. Noom’s marketing talks of daily doses of self-care and being the boss of your own life. The app encourages users to change their relationship with food by setting goals, identifying emotional triggers related to eating, and (yes) holding themselves accountable by logging what they eat and weigh each day.
WW is taking a similar approach. Last fall, it introduced myWW+, a personalized app-based program that combines meal-planning tools with features that tackle weight loss by looking at sleep, mindset, and physical activity. “We’re a behavior-change company, and weight is an end point,” chief scientific officer Gary Foster is fond of saying. Found tries to thread the needle the same way. “This is holistic. It’s not just about what you lose, it’s what you find along the way,” says cofounder and chief operating officer Swathy Prithivi. In other words, by promising to transform users’ lifestyles (rather than just their bodies), companies remain on the right side of the body-positivity movement.
Customers, meanwhile, have to pay—regularly. Noom’s subscriptions start at a monthly price of around $65, while WW’s digital membership starts at $21.95 a month. Found costs an average of $100 a month, including medications. Each year, nearly half of all American adults diet. Only 5% of them successfully keep the weight off. Weight-loss businesses profit regardless.
As much as these companies try to distance themselves from the idea of imposing calorie restrictions, that’s ultimately what they’re selling. When Snowder started using Noom, he was told he could eat any food he wanted—as long as he stayed within a limit of 1,400 calories a day, or a little more than half the recommended calorie intake for a grown man, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Over at WW, users are no longer asked to count calories specifically, but they are given daily-point goals, with each food portion assigned a number based on calorie count and nutritional value. Found and Calibrate, another telehealth startup, both offer doctor consultations and prescription medications. But even they end up at the same place: meal logging and restrictive diets (albeit ones overseen by physicians).
The problem is not that these companies rely on dieting to get people to meet their goals. It’s that the wellness-centric marketing that they’ve embraced can be misleading—and worse. Conason and other eating-disorder experts note that Noom has co-opted the language of eating-disorder recovery, using terms like “mindful eating” and “anti-diet.”
“That marketing sucks people in who might be looking for something different than a traditional diet,” says Christy Harrison, a dietitian, certified eating-disorder specialist, and author of Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating. “People get seduced when they’re vulnerable and often don’t realize how bad it is until it’s too late.”
At the same time, Noom’s recommended practices, such as calorie counting, food restriction, and weighing yourself, can encourage eating disorders. “Apps like Noom and WW’s tend to center around diet culture, and that can be really harmful for those at risk of an eating disorder,” says Lauren Smolar, senior director of programs at the National Eating Disorders Association. (Noom says it screens out people with unhealthy weight goals or signs of eating disorders.) “It’s calorie counting, daily weighing…it’s dieting. They can call it whatever they want but ultimately it’s still a diet,” says Shira Rosenbluth, a social worker who specializes in working with people with disordered eating and body image issues. “The way they market and the way Noom works is incredibly dangerous and harmful for anyone trying to have a relationship with food and their body,” she adds.
Though Noom entices customers with the promise of using a goal-oriented psychotherapy program, the company’s coaches aren’t certified therapists or nutritionists. Instead, they go through 75 hours of “Noomiversity,” which offers health classes as well as motivational training. Coaches reportedly may then be assigned hundreds of clients at a time. Conason says there are elements of this approach that could be helpful, but the potential for harm “far outweighs the benefit.” Noom, however, is just getting started. In October, the company launched Noom Mood, a program to help people cope with stress and anxiety by using mood-logging tools similar to its food-logging ones.
Five months into his Noom diet, Snowder found himself constantly hungry. He reached out to his coach for advice after eating more than his allotted calories. “She suggested that what was missing in my life was vitality,” he recalls. “She also said that I shouldn’t feel discouraged when I look in the mirror and I don’t like what I see.” The thing is: He had never mentioned feeling upset by his appearance.
Weeks later, she sent him a GIF of Brad Pitt cheering, from the movie Burn After Reading, to congratulate him on completing 20 lessons. Shortly afterward, Snowder went to visit his in-laws. He stopped logging his meals, not wanting to ask them about every ingredient in every dish. Then he quit Noom altogether. He decided to enjoy the family time, and savor the food.