Health and fitness apps are booming and the market is forecast to reach $US14.64 billion by 2027.
One app that's growing in popularity is Noom, which markets itself as "the last weight-loss app you'll ever need".
The Noom website says its "Healthy Weight program empowers participants to achieve and maintain a healthy weight through lifestyle intervention".
But is it a diet? Does it work? And is it worth it? Two CHOICE staffers share their experiences.
Marg before starting Noom (left) and after losing 15kg.
Marg: 'It worked for me'
I'm as fond of a chocolate biscuit or a hot chip as the next woman, but I realised I'd taken it a little far when my doctor warned me that if I didn't get my weight under control I'd be putting my health at risk.
In all honesty, it wasn't the first time I'd heard such warnings, but my problem was that I didn't actually know where to start. Sure, I knew the theory – eat less, move more – but putting it into practice felt more difficult than it should have. I made vague attempts to eat better, but without a clear plan my resolve failed again and again.
My doctor warned me that if I didn't get my weight under control I'd be putting my health at risk
Then I found Noom (or rather, they found me, via targeted Facebook advertising, which accurately picked me as a prime candidate). With a sense that I could at least give it a try – and encouraged by the 2016 University of Sydney study that ranked it first among the weight-loss apps it reviewed – I signed up.
Does Noom work?
For me, yes, so far so good. I'm six months in and about 15kg down.
How much does it cost?
I paid $159 for four months after my 14-day trial, then cancelled. The cost of the trial is variable – Noom tells you how much it costs them to support you during the two weeks but you can choose to pay less (the minimum amount I could choose was $1).
The pricing overall is not easy to come by – users have to answer a series of questions about their age, where they live, various health issues, their eating patterns, how active they are and so on, before being given a price that you're told is only for a limited time.
I found this opaque pricing to be a little disturbing and would have preferred to know up front what the price was so I could be sure my data wasn't being used to determine that I might be willing to pay more than other users. However, I was willing to give it a try so signed up despite these misgivings.
I found this opaque pricing to be a little disturbing
Since cancelling I've continued to use the free version of the app to track my weight and log my food. Cancelling was less straightforward than simply clicking a button – I needed to send a message saying CANCEL to my coach then click on a link I was sent automatically, but there were no other barriers to opting out once I made the decision.
How does it work?
The app encourages you to weigh-in every day and to log all your food and drink to be sure you don't exceed your daily calorie budget, which is determined by your weight and height, your age and how fast you want to lose weight.
The app will also set a daily step target (or you can set it manually) and you can link Noom to your fitness wearable or other apps on your smartphone in order to capture that information. Noom also lets you log other exercise, either manually or through the connection to your wearable.
The food you log is categorised as being either green (eat lots), orange (eat moderately) or red (eat sparingly), with the more calorie-dense foods in the red zone.
Marg's weight-loss chart.
Using the app
The way you use the app – logging foods and weigh-ins being the primary functions – was simple enough. The food library you could choose from was lacking in Australian products, which was somewhat annoying at times. I make most of my meals from scratch so this wasn't a huge issue, but I'd imagine if you bought a lot of processed foods it might be more of an irritation.
Noom also features a daily curriculum of articles to help you understand the patterns of behaviour that lead to weight gain and weight loss and you're encouraged to give the reading 10 minutes a day. There are also quizzes and other activities (journalling, for example) linked to the reading.
It's one of the things that sets Noom apart from other food logging apps but Noom's big sell is that it provides personalised coaching. This is promoted as an important point of difference and your coach – aka, goal specialist – is assigned to you to help keep you motivated and working towards your "big picture" goal, something you set early on in the process.
My coach was most useful to me in providing reassurance when I experienced frustration with the inevitable ups and downs of weight loss. They also asked some interesting questions that made me think about what I was learning and answered questions I had about some of the things I noticed about the process. I found their input to be a useful balance of the practical and more abstract.
Paying users are also assigned a group where you can talk to other Noom users who are at a similar point in their subscription. The benefit of this feature was a bit hit and miss for me, as I felt I was already getting lots of support from family and my coach.
Noom is a tool and like any tool it will only work if you use it. A shiny new spanner won't fix a leaky tap if it just sits in the tool box and Noom is the same – you still need to do the work.
Noom is a tool and like any tool it will only work if you use it
Having said that, it certainly helped me and while it might not be the right fit for everyone, I think it's worth a go. I've not only lost weight, I've also begun exercising and gone from being horrifyingly sedentary to running and working out several times a week.
If nothing else was achieved, the health benefits I get just from that are significant.
Rachel: 'Noom wasn't for me'
I'd become so overwhelmed by conflicting information about what was a healthy way of eating – keto, paleo, low carb, high protein, low sugar, Mediterranean, intermittent fasting – that I was looking for something to clear up my confusion.
What really appealed to me about the program is that it was marketed as not a diet, but a lifestyle, and you had real life coaches to help you along. But both of these claims I found somewhat dubious.
I don't know what their definition of a diet is, but Noom asks you to track calories and weigh yourself. That tastes like a diet to me.
What really appealed to me about the program is that it was marketed as not a diet, but a lifestyle
Noom's colour-coded food categories were initially helpful, and the kind of re-education I needed. By recording my food I could see how much of my calorie intake was taken up by 'green' (eat plenty), 'yellow' (eat moderately) or 'red' (eat little of).
In hindsight, and as I've read more about diet culture, I now wonder if food should really be triggering a red flag alert. Is that the type of relationship I want to have with food?
I was so excited to have access to a real live person who would help support me. But something felt a little lifeless about her. Her questions, comments and responses were all so perfectly composed, and so devoid of typos, regular human imperfections and personality that I googled "Are Noom coaches real?"
I do believe Noom users are assigned a real person as their coach, but I also believe there's a liberal dose of artificial intelligence being employed to automate a good part of their job.
The coach's comments and responses were all so perfectly composed, and so devoid of typos, regular human imperfections and personality that I googled "Are Noom coaches real?"
I understood why a tech company would create a system that would 'scale' easily and not rely purely on human power, but a little bit of love for it died the day I began to wonder how real my coach was.
What really made Noom stand apart was its daily reading material. It probably only took around 10–15 minutes, but as time went on, it began to feel like a burden. It was a lot of information, with references to scientific studies and quizzes at every stage to make sure you understood.
I was impressed with the section where they attempted to educate you on how to critically assess a 'scientific' claim, which included considering who paid for the study. It was 'very CHOICE', as we say around these parts. And while all this may sound incredibly dry, they've put in a lot of effort to make it entertaining. Maybe too much effort. The style they've gone for is irreverence on steroids, and I found myself rolling my eyes after the second week. Maybe I'm just a grumpy Gen Xer, but it seriously grated. I began by diligently consuming every piece of information, transitioned to scanning by about week four, and then started skipping the reading altogether.
There was a fair amount of Noom lingo that confused me at times. The coaches were called Goal Specialists, and early on I had to create what they called "Your Big Picture (YBP)", and a "Super Goal". I recall not fully understanding what these were supposed to be, entering something to fulfil the task, but then there was no record of what those were anywhere in the app. Weeks later Noom would refer to my YBP and my Super Goal, and ask me to reflect on how I was working towards them, but I couldn't remember what they were.
Using the app
The app had a Daily Tasks list that helped you keep track of your tasks and see at a glance what you had completed – log your meals; weigh in; walk X thousand steps (you set your own target); and more. You'd think this was a good thing, and helpful. And it was – initially. But after a while it started to weigh on me (no pun intended) when I hadn't completed something. I already had a home 'to do' list, and a work 'to do' list, and now I had a Noom 'to do' list. It started to become YET ANOTHER THING I had to attend to. Just another example of all the things I wasn't completing.
The most surprising thing about Noom was how easy it was to leave. I fully expected the gym membership treatment. You know... "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave". Not so. I wrote to my coach to let them know that the program didn't suit me and I'd like to cancel when the initial period is over. I'm thinking the AI picked up on the word "cancel", and I got a System Generated Message: "Looks like you no longer want to continue with your recurring Noom subscription – we're sorry to see you go! Just click on this link and you'll be able to turn off auto-renew on the program yourself." Easiest experience quitting something I've ever had.
After just two and a half months on Noom, I decided I was done. I don't recall if I lost weight, which suggests I probably didn't. But granted, I was not a dedicated student.
If you're looking to lose weight without severely restricting one food group or type, the hours you eat, or your calories, I believe Noom has a lot to offer. It will probably be a slow burn, but that's more sustainable and better for you than rapid weight loss anyway. But you'll need to have the time, interest and energy for a lot of reading, quizzes, and interaction with the community. One might argue you could do Noom without all that, but then you'd just be logging food and weighing in, which is no different to so many other free apps out there. Noom wasn't for me, but to be fair, I'm beginning to think dieting isn't for me.