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Calling Bullshit

Noom: Helping us live healthier lives? Or just starving for growth?

Calling Bullsh!t November 2, 2022 2263 2


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Our guests

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Jane Ogden

Author and Professor of Health Psychology

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Eling Tsai

Registered dietitian and eating disorder specialist

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Taylor Majewski

Freelance writer, reporter, and editor

Is Noom really helping people have a healthier relationship with their bodies or a fad diet in a healthier looking wrapper?

Stated purpose: To help as many people as possible live healthier lives through behavior change. 

Noom claims to be is a digital health platform – their flagship product is an app that promises a long term approach to weight loss, one based on psychology and personalization.

So, have they created an app that truly focuses on long term health? Or are they just luring users into a vicious cycle of failure in the name of wellness? 

There’s a fine line between eating mindfully and becoming obsessed with what you’re eating. 

– Dr. Jane Ogden

Noom’s BS score is

Show notes

Episode Transcript

Noom

 

SFX: Diary sound

 

HALEY PASKALIDES

 

It’s Friday, June 24th. I’m about to do my first weigh-in. I’m a little nervous because my friend and I got dinner last night, but it was mostly vegetables. But I did have a drink… 

TY MONTAGUE (VO)

Associate producer on the Calling Bullshit podcast, Haley Paskalides.  

 

HALEY PASKALIDES

 

…and I’ll probably go for a run this morning because I don’t have any meetings. But I usually like to weigh myself after I run if I run in the morning, cuz then I weigh less. But Noom is telling me I need to weigh myself first thing in the morning.

TY MONTAGUE (VO)

Noom is a digital health platform – their flagship product is an app that promises a long-term approach to weight loss, one based on psychology and personalization. To help us understand if they’re living up to that promise, Haley volunteered to try it for 30 days and document her experience. 

 

HALEY PASKALIDES

So I just got back from my run and I logged it in Noom, so I don’t know if that makes my calorie allowance for today, go up, but I listened to some of the lessons about, um, the different foods that, like it was saying like a cheeseburger and arugula are a pound of arugula are the same calorie density. And they’ll both fill you up the same, but you obviously won’t gain weight or gain as much weight if you’re eating a pound of arugula, which like who is eating a pound of arugula versus eating a cheeseburger. 

But anyways, I’m a little nervous to start tracking my calories. Like, I feel like this is gonna be difficult, but let’s see how it goes.

 

SFX: Diary sound out

 

TY MONTAGUE (VO) 

 

Welcome to Calling Bullshit, the podcast about purpose-washing…the gap between what companies say they stand for and what they actually do — and what they would need to change to practice what they preach. 

I’m your host, Ty Montague. I’ve spent over a decade helping companies define what they stand for —  their purpose — and helped them to use that purpose to drive transformation throughout their business.

Unfortunately, at a lot of organizations today, there’s still a pretty wide gap between word and deed. That gap has a name: we call it Bullshit. 

But — and this is important — we believe that Bullshit is a treatable condition. So when the BS detector lights up, we’re going to explore things that a company should do to fix it. 

TY MONTAGUE (VO)

Noom is popular. It has 250 million downloads, ads that pop up everywhere from podcasts to the Superbowl, and a valuation of $3.7 billion. And, as they explain in this promo video, Noom has claimed to be purpose-led from the start. 

[SOT: Nooms promo video] 13 years ago, Seaju Jeung and Artem Petakov founded Noom with one mission. To help as many people as possible live healthier lives. Noom was created because healthcare has really become sick care. An inefficient system designed to treat patients after they’re already sick. Today Noom is a trusted consumer-led digital health platform. Helping people around the world live healthier lives, guided by principles of proven behavioral science. We’ve discovered the right combination of psychology technology and human coaching that empowers people to change their habits and take control of their health. 

I can fit in clothes that I’ve never been able to wear before. I lost 80 pounds on Noom. There’s a much bigger connection with my mind and body now with Noom that I didn’t have before. And I think that’s the biggest difference.  

By pairing the power of the individual with proven science and psychology we’re building products that change behaviors for good and create transformational health outcomes. At Noom, we believe that better health begins with you, and behavior change starts with us.

TY MONTAGUE (VO)

Co-founders who spent years working towards their goal. Check. 

Tackling a real problem. Double check.

At a glance, Noom looks fairly low BS. 

But – digging in deeper, I learned that health is incredibly complex. And equating weight with health? This puts Noom in murky territory, where they risk harming the very people they say they exist to help. 

So, have founders Artem and Saeju created an app that truly focuses on long-term health? Or is Noom just another one size fits all diet that promises unattainable and lure users into a vicious cycle of failure, all in the name of wellness?  

Get out your BS Detectors folks, and join me as we weigh Noom on the bullshit scale.

 

SFX: Diary sound

HALEY PASKALIDES

All right. I see Noom healthy weight loss. It has 700,000 reviews, five-star reviews. So, well, it has a 4.7 out of five. So…sounds great. Okay.

It’s downloading. It’s like a little orange glow.. So it says Noom creates long-term results through habit and behavior change, not restrictive dieting.

HALEY PASKALIDES

 [Do you have an important event coming up? I mean, one of the events is just summer So I’ll choose that… How confident are you in reaching 1, 112 pounds by August 23rd? I believe I can do it. I’m uncertain. I’m really unsure. Um, I’m uncertain. Why are you uncertain? I haven’t had success in the past. Previous plans were too restrictive. There’s a bunch. Um, I’m gonna say I haven’t had success in the past….]

And I will try to stick with it for a month.

 

SFX: Diary out

TY MONTAGUE

Noom, I believe, considers itself to be a wellness app, not a diet app. Why do you think our culture has moved away from the word diet and toward wellness?

JANE OGDEN

I think there’s two reasons. The less cynical reason. Is the, the positive let’s be generous to people reason is because diet is a negative thing that people now think about. Diet means eating less. It’s stigmatizing people who are overweight. And it’s telling you to impose, you know, unreasonable, unhealthy restrictions on your eating behavior, that aren’t going to be good for you.

So we are moving away from a diet culture because we are recognizing that dieting is problematic. And we’re using another term, to try and capture something which is more positive. And that’s, you know, that’s a good thing.

TY MONTAGUE

Yeah, that sounds like it’s at least the right idea.

JANE OGDEN

Yeah, it’s the right idea. Behind that, Anything which is about changing your diet or eating less in your diet to lose weight is still really a dieting culture. So I think my more cynical hat says that it’s actually still the same old, same old thing. It’s just been slightly rebranded.

TY MONTAGUE (VO)

Dr. JANE OGDEN is a Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Surrey in the UK. She’s spent the last 30 years teaching, researching, and writing about the intersection of psychology, food, and health. Her six books include “Health Psychology”, “The Psychology of Eating”, and “Fat Chance: The Myth of Dieting Explained.”

JANE OGDEN

My key area is to look at how psychology in terms of the perception of hunger, the meaning of food, the lives that we lead the childhoods that we have, um, the experiences we have in the world that we live in, shape our relationship with food, and make it very hard for us to actually eat less and to stay well.

TY MONTAGUE

So can you talk about some examples of, you know, some of the unhealthy diet fads, either past or current? Just to give us a little context on the…

JANE OGDEN

Wow. I mean, There’s endless slimming products, which are just, you know, drinks really that you have as meal substitutes. There was the Beverly Hills diet, which said you just eat fruit, you eat lots and lots and lots of fruit. You have constant diarrhea, and there was a quote from it, which said something like the more time you spend on the toilet, the better. Um, there was the cabbage soup diet where you just drink and eat cabbage soup, which gives you the most horrendous wind, you spend a lot of your time bloated. It’s very unsociable. but

TY MONTAGUE

No friends anymore. You have no

JANE OGDEN

No one ever wants to be near you, but eventually, you lose a lot of weight because you are just eating cabbage soup. I mean, that’s the thing. You know, if you eat cabbage soup for six weeks, you will lose weight. If you have diarrhea for six weeks, you will lose weight.

And that’s, you know, that is the problem with the diet industry and always has been, is that anyone can invent anything to get you to lose weight, but you cannot maintain that for any length of time. So all weight pretty much goes back on again.

That’s also the money-making fabulousness of the diet industry if it’s designed to fail. So if you design a product, which fails people keep coming back and buying more of the product.

TY MONTAGUE

So we’re here to talk about Noom the weight loss app that, seems to be sweeping the world. And it’s an app that promises to “help as many people as possible live healthier lives through behavior change” and their flagship product, as best I can tell, is essentially a diet and psychology app rolled into one and I understand that you’ve actually downloaded Noom in the past and, and taken a look at it. What were your initial thoughts or, or impressions of Noom?

JANE OGDEN

I mean, I, I like the idea that they’re trying to bring psychology into it. I think that they’re trying to take a holistic view of the individual, which is also a really good thing. My feeling when I’ve had a look at it, is that it probably hasn’t got as much psychology in it as I would like.

And also it’s not as careful about not doing harm as I think it probably should be. So anybody can go on it unless you’ve got a BMI under 18.5, which includes an awful lot of people, that don’t need to lose weight.  I would say if your BMI is between 20 and 25, don’t try and lose weight. Why would you try and lose weight? Because you’re fine as you are.

 

SFX: Diary sound

HALEY PASKALIDES

Growing up, like I remember. We’d get US weekly and, um, Cosmopolitan Magazine and like just the women in there like yeah. And celebrities were just so thin. Like, we were obsessed with celebrity culture when I was growing up. I’m not so much anymore, but, um, we would just like inspect these magazines and like say how good these women looked. And we always talked about like, we wanna look like them. Like, how do we look like them? 

I feel like the way I look is the most important thing sometimes. like I used to have a certain body that I don’t have anymore, and I’m always trying to get back to that body.

Like I’ve stayed the same weight for like the past two years. And I’ve been trying to like, lose the same five pounds for that, that time. but I’m also wondering, like, maybe I’m just getting older and my metabolism slowing down, and this is just what I weigh now. And this is just what I look like now, which I might just have to come to terms with. But um.. yeah.

 

SFX: Diary sound out

TY MONTAGUE

So I’d love to hear you talk about the connections between physical health, mental health, and emotional wellbeing, when it comes to food.

JANE OGDEN

So for me, it’s very, very clear that the mind and body are related absolutely interrelated. So the, how we think, our emotions, our childhoods, our learning have a direct impact upon our physical bodies and our physical health. Um, and our physical health has a direct relationship on how we think and how we feel and our emotional well-being. 

So those two things are very clearly interrelated. Everybody has a very personal relationship with food. A personal relationship with their physical bodies and also a meaning around the body size that they have. So that is why trying to change somebody’s eating behavior is so incredibly difficult, because food means something to each person in a very different way. And what you need to do to get someone to change their eating behavior is to first understand the role that food plays in their lives and then help them see that role of, of food, and then help them change that. And that’s a very difficult thing to do.

TY MONTAGUE

So, can dieting- lest we just curse the darkness- can dieting ever actually benefit a person’s health? Like, is there such a thing as a, a beneficial diet?

JANE OGDEN

Absolutely, and that’s where the word diet, has so much negativity around it. 

TY MONTAGUE

Sort of ruined. 

JANE OGDEN

There’s nothing wrong with deciding to eat more healthily, um, to change your diet, uh, and to make healthier choices and that’s got to be a good thing for you.

And if that involves reducing your calorie intake, you know, eating fewer snacks, um, making sure that you have more fruit and vegetables or that you have brown bread rather than white bread or that you don’t deep fry your foods. Those are all dietary choices and those are sustainable. And if that’s called a diet, so be it, but that’s sustainable and that can work.

 

SFX: Diary sound

HALEY PASKALIDES

I started on Friday. It’s been good. I don’t hate it. Um, There’s like these little mini lessons that I have to complete every day. and it starts out like noom 1 0 1. So it’s kind of just trying to tell you about like the psychology of what you’re eating.

One of the first lessons was like, start eating less dense. So basically like Noom really wants you to eat. The green foods are fruits and veggies. Um, and you can, it like encourages you to eat as many fruits and veggies as you want. Um, so it categorizes like fruits and veggies are green. It encourages you to eat as many fruits and veggies as you want. Then there’s like a yellow category, which are things that you are supposed to eat in moderation.

And then there’s an orange category, which are things that you’re not supposed to eat a lot of. So it hasn’t been as hard as I thought to track calories. There’s a weight loss zone. So if you’re in the zone, you’re good,

 

SFX: Diary sound out

TY MONTAGUE

I’d love your take on, on some of the more technical aspects of the program. So first of all, Noom employs a traffic light system for categorizing all foods. What is your perspective just on that kind of categorization?

JANE OGDEN

I think actually that’s quite effective. Um, you’re not saying these are good or bad foods, so I think sometimes that kind of dichotomized, demonizing a food can be quite problematic, but you’re giving people fairly simple information, saying these are the foods to go for, fill your plate up with these. So it’s a fairly simple way of doing that. When you drill down into the nitty gritty of that, it can become a little bit problematic because things like nuts, which are good for you, are also really high fat. So, you know, where do they belong?

It’s not like smoking where you can say don’t smoke. Cigarettes are bad for you. There’s very few just bad foods.

 

TY MONTAGUE

I’d love to get perspective on a couple of other Noom strategies here. So, one is to weigh yourself every day. 

JANE OGDEN

Well, it’s, theoretically, it’s a good motivational strategy because you get instant feedback. So the thing about behavior change is quite often, the goals are in the short term, but the rewards are in the long term.

So, you know, you, you want to lose weight now, but the reward is that you won’t have a attack when you’re 60 or that you will not get diabetes in the future years. And that feels such a long way in the future that people will just ignore that. And they really want immediate benefits. 

JANE OGDEN

The problem with weighing yourself every day is that weight naturally fluctuates. And from our studies, weighing yourself every day was good and reinforcing if your weight went down, but if your weight goes up because of whatever else is happening in your life, then that can lead to kind of catastrophizing and thinking, oh God, it’s hopeless. All that effort I put in yesterday.

TY MONTAGUE

Why bother.

JANE OGDEN

Why bother? And I still didn’t lose weight. So you’re far better off getting the reinforcement, not on the body weight, but the reinforcement on the behavior. 

 

SFX: Diary sound

HALEY PASKALIDES 

So it’s Monday, July 4th, and yesterday. And today I weighed in at 115.6. Which is the lowest I’ve been in a long time. I’m happy about it.

 

SFX: Diary sound out

TY MONTAGUE

Another thing that the Noom app, asks for actually is for you to enter a goal weight, and in some cases with a timeline attached, so a goal weight for an upcoming event, a wedding or a vacation, something like that. How, how do you feel about that?

JANE OGDEN

Well, again, it’s double-edged. Sorry, this is gonna be my answer to everything.

So, the research shows that it’s good to plan and it’s good to set goals. So it’s no good saying to yourself, I will eat well, or I will lose weight. You need to say, I will eat well tomorrow and I will eat this, this, and this. And I will lose weight by next Saturday or lose weight by June.

So goal setting is really good. If that goal setting is then based around, you know, stereotypes of having to be thin for your wedding,  or stereotypes of wanting to go to a party and looking attractive by having lost a bit of weight, or wanting to be beach ready and get onto the beach in your bikini.

That’s not great because that’s reinforcing the stereotypes that, you know, the only way to be attractive is to be thinner. And the other problem is that when goals fail, we then feel worse about ourselves. 

SFX: Diary sound

HALEY PASKALIDES 

Okay. Today I weigh one 18.4, which I’m a little disappointed in. Um, the other day I was like 116-something. So I will log that in Noom now

 

SFX: Diary sound out

TY MONTAGUE

Right. And one of the things I, I assume you’ll think this is a good thing,  but I don’t know. One of the other things the app asks you to do is 10 minutes of what they call C B T cognitive behavioral therapy per day. 

JANE OGDEN

Well, if that’s kind of encouraging mindful eating, that’s probably quite good. If it’s encouraging, being kind to yourself, that’s a good thing. And if it’s encouraging, changing the way you think about food, I think that’s a good thing. Um , The problem with that is that again, all those thoughts that we have and the role of food in our lives is so personalized, it’s quite good to have someone to help us do that, really, to, to ask you how does food feature in your life and then try and change the way that we think about foods.

So I think it’s, you know, it’s slightly easy just tossing that out as a kind of psychological bits to do a bit of CBT, you need to properly support and structure that process.

 

SFX: Diary sound

HALEY PASKALIDES 

The reason I’m making this audio diary is because I just got a new one-on-one coach. and I just was a little confused about what she said to me.

Um, She just sent me an intro message and it says, I’m your coach, Catherine, And she read my big picture survey, which is like the big thing I wanna complete at the end of Noom. And I said that I want to run 10 miles. Um, but she said. After reading your big picture survey, it sounds like you were motivated to give yourself what you know, that you deserve making yourself a priority. It can be tough to live life to the fullest when you do not feel comfortable in your body. What excites you the most about the possibility of hitting those 10 miles? Um, I thought that was a little strange, that message, because it starts with saying that I’m not comfortable in my body and that is not something I said in my big picture, running 10 miles is a fitness goal and really has nothing to do with how other people see me. I think it would just make me really proud if I could do it without walking. Yeah. I’m, I’m confused about her message.

 

SFX: Diary sound out

TY MONTAGUE (VO) 

Is this just a bump in the road that leads to a healthier life or is there something fundamentally flawed about Noom’s approach? The conclusion to Haley’s 30 days of Noom, and Noom’s final BS score – after the break. 

 

SFX: Diary sound

HALEY PASKALIDES

Definitely falling behind on the lessons. They’re feeling a little repetitive. So it’s kind of a challenge to do them.

I was frustrated this weekend because I ate pizza and ice cream on Friday and I weighed myself and I, it like went up like two pounds, like almost back to where I started. Um, and it was just. frustrating and annoying because I wanna be able to enjoy pizza and ice cream sometimes. but my weight is not really going down. I mean, I guess we’ll see, but it’s almost three weeks. 

But I do feel like healthier overall. Like, I’m definitely when I wanna snack, I’m like, oh, I’ll eat like a handful of cherries instead of a handful of chips.

But it is getting harder to do it, like it’s getting harder to track everything I eat. And Noom makes you obsessive, because I constantly have to do the lessons. I constantly have to log my food. I have to put in my exercise. Like you’re always in Noom.  

 

SFX: Diary sound out

TY MONTAGUE

One of the other things that the app asks you to do is track all of your food and count all of your calories. 

JANE OGDEN

Well, so there’s also a tension. All of this is so problematic.

TY MONTAGUE

Yes. Complicated.

JANE OGDEN

It’s all problematic because a good thing is to eat mindfully. There’s a fine line between eating mindfully. And becoming obsessed with what you’re eating.

And if you, you start recording every single tiny thing that you’re eating, the chances are, if you’re a bit that way inclined, you will slip across into food obsession, and becoming really preoccupied with what you’re actually eating. And I think that’s the problem. You know, What you really want is for food to be a bit of your life, but not everything in your life.

 

SFX: Diary sound

HALEY PASKALIDES

I got a new Phone and yeah, all my Noom progress is gone. My one-on-one coach has been super unresponsive. She only answers like every three days. So she really hasn’t been helping me much. And. I contacted support and she, they said that she’s the only one that can reset my progress. So it’s been. Like four days, four or five days that I haven’t been able to like do my lessons, which I’m realizing are big part of the motivation for me, um, to like be in the app. 

I feel like I’ve definitely had a plateau recently. I am definitely not as good about portion sizes. I’m definitely going back to some of the bad habits that I had before I started Noom. Um, I think I was so excited in the beginning and now it’s just like, this is getting old.

TY MONTAGUE

Is Noom getting it right, would you say? Or do they have some work to do?

JANE OGDEN

I think the thing about any app, including Noom, is that they are only as good as the people who carry on using them. So you have to carry on using an app in order for it to work. And any app, including Noom has got a high dropout rate.

So I think that’s the first problem is that it’s not helping as many people as it perhaps would like to do, because people are dropping out of the actual app. I think the second thing is that it’s always in danger of doing harm. So that’s always the problem with weight loss. Always the problem with food is that we can slither into doing harm very quickly.

And that’s, if it works and people feel better about themselves, if it stops working, then people feel worse about themselves. So it’s, it’s always getting that balance really.

And I think the other thing is that because it’s dealing with people who don’t necessarily, who don’t need to lose weight for their health. That’s problematic. It needs to target people who I would say, you know, BMI 30 and above, maybe 27 and above, nobody else. And then those people, um,  can benefit from it, but no one else is potentially harmed from it.

 

SFX: Diary sound

HALEY PASKALIDES 

Hello. Today is Friday, July 22nd. And I finally got in contact with someone on support that is helpful.  It’s been a week now since I lost my progress. Um, and someone at support said, why don’t you try deleting the app and reinstalling the app? So I did that and now all my progress is back to where it was. I can see my lessons. So I’m really excited to start doing lessons again. 

Um, I’m looking at my weight graph. Excited to have it back so I can see my progress and yeah, it looks like it’s mostly going down. I mean, it’s definitely fluctuated a lot. Um, started at 118.4, then a week later it went back up to 118, then it went back to 117.8 and now it’s been declining for a couple of days and I see this little red dot at the 112. It looks pretty far away, but it looks like it’s trying to get me there by like mid-August. So maybe I can do it.

 

SFX: Diary sound out

 

TY MONTAGUE

And so, if Saeju Jeong, the co-founder, and CEO of the company were here, what kind of advice would you give him about changes that he ought to consider making to the app in order to, to serve and help as many people as possible.

JANE OGDEN

I think it’s about building in as many short-term rewards as possible, really, into the system. And what I would say is that you should always focus on the behavior and the feeling, not the weight.

The problem is, is that this goes back to our initial discussion about whether it’s a diet app or a well-being app. We still live in a dieting world and a dieting world is people who want to lose weight.

So you need to find a way of saying, we’ll make you happy. We will help you develop healthier habits and have a good relationship with food and be more active. And then, oh, and by the way, you might also lose some weight. But you take weight out of that picture really?

 

TY MONTAGUE

Right, exactly. I mean, the focus of the app it puts weight right at the center and that does feel like the emphasis is wrong. If they truly believe in helping people live healthier lives.

So the ideal app would actually not address food at all in a way and make it, um, or, or at least try to deemphasize it.

 

JANE OGDEN

It would deemphasize weight. I would deemphasize weight I think. 

 

SFX: Diary sound 

HALEY PASKALIDES 

Hello, it’s Saturday, July 24th. Um, I think my 30 days is tomorrow. And I am being less restrictive than I was, um, at the beginning of this and I. My weight is not, uh, my weight is kind of plateauing because of it Um, just thinking about what I was saying about being less restrictive with my diet, uh, I think I’m, I’m pretty proud of the weight I’ve lost. And I worked out four times this week. And. Um, also feeling good about the way I’ve been eating, um, and hoping to continue to lose weight, but, but pretty happy with the, with the results so far.

 

SFX: Diary sound out 

JANE OGDEN

So, you know, with, with an app like Noom or with Noom, you’re gonna set a goal. If you meet it, you feel great. If you fail, you feel like you’ve failed. If you lose weight, you feel great. If you haven’t lost weight, then you feel rubbish about yourself. And so it only works for those people that it works for. And then it could possibly do harm for the people that it doesn’t work for, which is why they drop out.

 

SFX: Diary sound

HALEY PASKALIDES

Today, I weighed myself and I weigh 118.4, which is the same weight when I started Noom. And I dunno happened. I feel very frustrated. I’m just. I feel like I put a lot of effort into it. I put a lot of time into it. I really wanted to be. I’ve been like steadily at 115, and I wanted to end this on that note, like, oh, I had lost three pounds. I did it, but no. 

One of my big goals was to just work out more and I’ve been basically running three times a week for a month which I feel so good about and I can just tell I’m getting stronger, so I am really proud of that. 

I just find like the scale very confusing. because I like literally just jumped from one 115 to 117 yesterday, and then I jumped again today. So I’m like, did I actually lose three pounds? I don’t think I did. I think this is just like the weight I am.

And I’m just thinking that. I really don’t know what weight means and I don’t wanna put so much at pressure on losing five pounds because there are some good habits I’ve learned from Noom and yeah, and I want, I want to take that away.

 

SFX: Diary sound out

TY MONTAGUE

Okay. this is my last question for you, Jane. we have something on this show. We call the BS scale, and it goes from zero to 100 on our scale. Zero is the best. I E zero BS and a hundred is the worst total BS. So given that Noom’s mission is to help as many people as possible live healthier lives through behavior change, what score would you give Noom?

JANE OGDEN

And I’m allowed to justify this aren’t I of

TY MONTAGUE

Of course you are. Yes. No, we’re very interested in, in, in.

JANE OGDEN

Well, okay. I would give them probably a 40. I think BS

TY MONTAGUE

A 40? A 4, 0. Okay. Yep.

JANE OGDEN

Okay. So I admire some of what they’re trying to do. I admire that they are making it more psychological. I admire that they are bringing in goals.

I admire that they are trying to get people to do a bit of C B T. And I admire their, their big picture thinking. I mean, how wonderful to change as many people as possible’s relationship with food and wellbeing and health and, and all of that. I think that’s fabulous.

At the same time, I think they’re setting their sites far too high. I think they’re underestimating the possibility of doing harm to those people that they include in it, and I think they’re including too many people. I think they need to be more selective in who they collect in their little group so that they can minimize how much harm they do. But I mean, as a marketing strategy, fabulous, I mean, let’s have, you know, world health and peace and all the rest of it.

JANE OGDEN

That’s a fabulous

TY MONTAGUE

Right, right, right. Yeah. Thus the BS.

JANE OGDEN

a massive goal, isn’t it? Which, you know, isn’t, isn’t gonna be met.

TY MONTAGUE

Jane. Thank you. I’ve I’ve so enjoyed talking to you today. Thank you for coming on the show.

JANE OGDEN

You’re very welcome. You’re very welcome.

 

TY MONTAGUE (VO) 

Everyone has a complex relationship with food, and helping users to understand this relationship and ultimately make choices that will serve their health is a massive goal for any company. And a noble one too. So in some ways I understand Noom’s approach here. We do need to have some way of measuring health, but is weight or body size the right metric?  

 

Noom’s purpose is to “help as many people as possible live healthier lives through behavior change.” And there’s no doubt that the app has helped tens of thousands of people. But as Dr Jane Ogden points out they’ve set their sights too high.

 

After following Haley’s journey, I will say Noom certainly seems to pull off the behavior change part of their purpose. But, their end goal of health is at odds with their tactics. 

 

Overall, I have to say my BS detector is pegged higher than Jane’s. Noom’s approach to eating and health is definitely more similar to the diets that precede it than it is different. 

 

But Noom’s position certainly doesn’t feel hopeless. We’ll be back after the break to talk through some concrete ways that Noom can close the gap between word and deed. 

TY MONTAGUE

Okay. I am very excited to get into today’s panel. I want to ask you both to first introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about your work. Eling let’s start with you.

ELING TSAI

Sure. Um, hi everyone. My name is Elaine hi, I’m a registered dietician based in Brooklyn, New York and I currently provide nutrition counseling through a private practice. Um, I have a special interest in supporting those with eating disorders or anywhere along the spectrum of disordered eating as well as those with endocrine-related conditions like diabetes.

I practice nutrition through the lens of weight inclusivity, and I, I do my work informed by the theories of intuitive eating, mindful eating health at every size, and other non-diet approaches to nutrition.

TY MONTAGUE

Love that. Thank you. Um, okay. Taylor, your turn.

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

Hi everyone. I’m Taylor Majeski. I am a journalist based in San Francisco, California. I started my career writing about technology, but over the past couple of years have really started to cover health and science more.

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

And a lot of my work touches on those topics through a gender lens. And I’m so excited to be here.

TY MONTAGUE

Awesome. let’s jump right in. Each one of you has come prepared with an idea to help Noom better live up to their mission, which is, just to remind folks, to help as many people as possible live healthier lives through behavior change.

TY MONTAGUE

Taylor, I’m gonna let you go first this time. In two minutes or less, what’s the one thing that you would change about Noom?

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

Sure. So last year I wrote an article on Noom. I investigated them for a couple months and I think that the biggest thing that stands out for me is that Noom claims that it’s grounded in evidence-based science, and to their credit, they have published a number of scientific peer-reviewed articles.

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

But I think that none of these studies support its central marketing claim, which is that it will help you lose weight and keep it off for life. And that’s sort of the ultimate claim in the diet, weight loss world. And the study that they cite to support this was published in 2016 and that tracked users for 72 weeks.

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

And So I think that my suggestion is quite simple and it’s simply to conduct a longer and more robust scientific study because they need academic research on long-term behavior change to support their claims.

TY MONTAGUE

Great idea. And that makes a ton of sense, right? If you’re gonna say it, you gotta be able to back it up.

TY MONTAGUE

Thank you, Eling, I’m gonna ask you to go now. What’s the one thing that you would do to help Noom better do their story?

ELING TSAI

Yeah. I mean, I have so many issues just with the mission statement, just starting there, you know, in, in my opinion, it’s pretty steeped in healthism, which is this idea that health is a hundred percent within someone’s control and their responsibility is something that they have a moral obligation to fulfill.

You know, the fact that they focus just on behavior change really leaves out some of the structural systems that can really impact someone’s health, like economic status, housing status, employment, racial bias in the healthcare system- I could go on. And so I think that the mission statement itself is already, pretty faulty logic. I think once we get into the meat of the product, it’s a weight loss tool and we also know that there’s a lot of physical and mental, emotional harm that comes with intentional weight loss and weight cycling.

So my suggestion for Noom to better improve their company and just do better, in general, is to scrub all of the diet and weight-related messaging from their platform. I know it sounds extreme, but the way they’re currently conducting business is perpetuating a lot of harm, particularly for people who have vulnerable relationships with food and their body to begin with.

So I would invite them to untie the cognitive behavioral therapy part from the promise of weight loss and improved health. Maybe maintain a platform that’s educational and allows people to learn about how they each have developed their own relationship with food and body, but not make this promise that by acknowledging some of the psychological components of eating that you’ll automatically lose weight and become a healthier person.

TY MONTAGUE

Yeah, that’s a very valid idea. I submit this humbly because I, I know very little about this, but it’s fair to say that there are a lot of folks in the medical community who seem to believe that the measurement that matters more to health is your body mass index. The other relevant fact to my idea is that we have an obesity crisis in the US and all the science agrees that obesity causes a bunch of health problems.

So here’s my idea. If Noom really is a health and wellness app, then it should be guiding us to a place where getting your BMI into the healthy range is the goal. So for reference, a healthy BMI is supposedly between 18.5 and about 25. So if you’re already in the healthy range, let’s say up to 25, it should discourage you from even setting a weight loss goal, and discourage you from counting calories and maybe that functionality is actually turned off in the app below a BMI of 25 to really discourage it, because the current app’s obsession with weight goals and calorie counting feels so much more like a diet app than a health app. So that’s my idea.

I would guess that they’ve emphasized dieting because it’s the ultimate sort of business model, right? It’s super hard to lose weight and keep weight off so they know you’re gonna fail, and you keep paying and that’s kind of the special sauce. I mean, the diet industry has thrived for years on that dynamic. So I guess my question is, do we think that there is a viable business model that isn’t about, losing weight?

ELING TSAI

I would argue there is because people do have a desire to learn and have insight about their relationship with their body and food, but the only way we’ve ever talked about that is in relation to weight. And so I think neutral information would then help people make informed decisions about how they would like to eat and maybe even connecting that to how they feel when they eat different foods. So I don’t think we’re losing an opportunity to have people engage with the company if we were to eliminate weight loss as the goal.

TY MONTAGUE

Yeah. That makes sense. Taylor, do you have any, any thoughts about that?

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

Yeah, so many thoughts. like there are two things happening here. It’s a business that’s targeting your health. And I think that those things often are just in conflict with each other. You kind of maybe get roped into that education piece of, okay. I wanna kind of start to learn like how the things that I eat affect me or whatever, but then what they’re capitalizing in is, all of the different signals that are all around us all the time that are saying, be thin, lose weight.

At the end of the day, they’re, a business they’re trying to make money so they’re trying to sell you something. When I reported on them, the sort of growth-at-all-cost mentality came up all the time. And I think this is a larger problem with like health tech in general, which is that like, these are businesses, they they’re have to grow at all costs. There is venture capital dollars behind them. And so they have pressure to do so. And I think that we need to be very wary of that when it comes to like actually using these products to address health concerns that we might have because wanting to lose weight or wanting to take some control over your health is a perfectly valid thing to want to experience, like, we all care about our bodies, it’s a vessel for living. It’s so hard because health and capitalism are in conflict with each other on fundamental

TY MONTAGUE

a Yeah. I very much agree that this sort of the big like health and tech and, and capitalism, how do they work together?

ELING TSAI

So Noom is making money off of people being promised to lose weight. Not necessarily if they are, you know, um, sustainably. I think that goes back to what TAYLOR MAJEWSKI said about getting a study going. We just don’t have the evidence necessarily, Noom or otherwise that, weight loss can be sustained. But I did wanna address this thought about. Ty, your idea of BMI and

TY MONTAGUE

Great cuz I that’s where, what that’s, what I was gonna bring up is is that, is that a valid measure?

ELING TSAI

Yeah. I don’t fault you at all for thinking BMI first. Right. My background’s in public health. So all of the research we had to read, used BMI as a way to categorize people and then learn about different outcomes. But actually, there’s been a lot of dialogue, recently, and not, not just recently, but I think it’s gaining steam that really can see all of the many faults within the BMI too. So just to clarify what it is, it is just a mathematical equation of height and weight that was developed by an astronomer a long time ago. Um, to just generally understand the average man.

TY MONTAGUE

And also a Caucasian man. Right? Like it’s, it’s also very, it’s a very non-inclusive measure.

ELING TSAI

Exactly. That’s exactly right. And so the BMI does not do a good job of giving us any indication of somebody’s health, the truth is that, in my experience, counseling people in, in lots of different settings is that people can. Work through ways of changing parts of their behavior to better manage a medical condition. It doesn’t mean they’ll lose weight or that their BMI will change, but indicators of health, like their blood pressure or like their cholesterol, or like their feelings of well-being or stamina and all those things can still be improved.

ELING TSAI

So I would invite us to just think more broadly about what other ways we can define health and make sure people are defining that for themselves.

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

I have some thoughts on that. And I think this also comes back to health tech, health apps, like Noom who

TY MONTAGUE

Hmm.

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

…personalization, because health is personal. When you sign up for an app how much can a questionnaire really gather about your health when it’s trying to appeal to that large of an audience?I think actually being honest about the limitations of your technology and what you can deliver to improve people’s health can help to earn trust. To be like, you know, “we, we can’t offer this right now, but we’re working on it” or “take this information, bring it to your doctor.” There are companies that do that sort of thing. And I think it really, from a marketing perspective, at least like really helps to build that trust.

TY MONTAGUE

That’s another thing is if, if their body language as an app was, we’re constantly learning, we’re trying to improve all the time. And so for instance, to your, your idea, TAYLOR MAJEWSKI of them fielding a study to get a better grip on, you know, what works and what doesn’t in weight loss. That could be an ongoing thing. In other words, there could be a drop-down that says, these are the 10 studies that we have going right now. Would you like to participate in any of them, as a user or, and, you know, maybe they pay you to participate or maybe the app is free if you participate in studies or and so that the relationship that you forge with people is you’re both learning together. As opposed to we are the people who know everything and you are just going to count your calories and, and lose four pounds. Right.

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

Mm-hmm . Exactly.

TY MONTAGUE

I think I would like that app better maybe.

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

I think I would too.

ELING TSAI

I also think it’d be so interesting and such an opportunity for a company to talk about health in terms that are not so, so quantitative It’s not necessarily something that can be boiled down to one number, but for example, maybe there could be, encouraging someone to go to the doctor and make all their follow up appointments.I think it’d be interesting to think about actual actions that people could take that just connect them to their health without saying, and then now you’re also going to be rated or even pitted against yourself. Here’s where you were last year. Look at where you are now, that type of thing.

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

Yeah, right. I think it comes down to the value system, that they’re enacting kind of. As it stands right now, there’s a lot of value on thinness because, for example, again, even going through that onboarding today they were asking questions that I had seen before around, you know, do you wanna lose weight for an upcoming event, like a vacation or a wedding? And that’s not weight neutral, that’s valuing thinness.

TY MONTAGUE

And to be fair, they are trying a, as I understand it, right. They have cognitive behavior therapy functionality in there.

ELING TSAI

That that’s maybe a place where I’d give them credit is like they are trying to differentiate themselves as a company by saying “we’re not just weight loss, you know, you’re, you’re gaining insight into yourself.” But we, we shouldn’t be equating those two- that gaining insight into yourself means you need to lose weight and will.

TY MONTAGUE

Right, Taylor. Just, I want to delve into for a moment the comment that you made about growth that impulse seems to be a very common impulse in let’s call it Silicon Valley startups. There is a culture of rapid growth, so what would you do to address that?

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

Yeah. so it’s tricky because it’s systemic. Silicon valley is often funded by venture capital dollars And that’s where the growth at all costs come from. Because again, these are businesses. You know, it’s very common within a tech company to also call people who use your product users. Like that’s just the thing. And so I think that also like us reducing us, reducing people at the end of the line to users, also serves to abstract that there’s a harsh reality to the kind of end experience of these products.

TY MONTAGUE

Makes sense. Eling, I’d love to hear you just talk a little bit more about how, class, and income, play into health issues, for instance, it feels like inherently, there may be an unmet opportunity for Noom to reach out to a more diverse set of people to begin with, if they, you know, really want to build a, a healthier world for everybody

ELING TSAI

Yeah. I mean, what does strike me about Noom’s branding is it it’s extremely whitewashed and you can see from just from the onboarding, the graphics they use that it’s meant for a very narrow demographic. and, and that really is in conflict with their mission of a healthier world or as many people as possible, you know? but you know, in my experience, just working in a, a couple of different settings, all around New York, we ignore so many of the systems that impact people’s health and just keep laying it back onto the individual and saying, you’re just not eating well enough, when really we’re leaving out sort of,just to name a few, you know, employment status, how many people are you feeding off of your paycheck? How are you getting to work? And the other thing that comes to mind for me is just how much bias exists in, in the medical community. Um, I I’m including the dietetics field, the field that I work in, if someone is coming in, in a larger body, there’s an automatic assumption that they’re not healthy before a provider can even check a single vital. and so it, it, you know, this is, it’s all wrapped up. And I think when we talk about health, we really, really have to be including that, including racial bias too, in terms of how much we believe people are in pain, uh, when they say they are, or how much do we believe them when they say they eat vegetables? I, I think there’s just a lot of bias that gets integrated into the healthcare process, um, that we have to be really honest about.

TY MONTAGUE

Yeah. I, I agree with that, that brings up another thing for me, which I’d love to hear either of you have an opinion about you know, it’s a really hard thing as I think about it, but I, I was watching Bill Maher talk about it the other day, there’s the body positivity movement, which seems like a really good thing- just helping people feel better about where they’re at physically. At the same time. there are real implications like health implications for obesity and, we also have created a, a system where if you are lower income, it is much harder to find and be able to afford healthy food.

And so it’s like, there’s this vortex of forces all in opposition to one another. Like, where does body positivity meet the medical need to avoid obesity? You know what I mean? How do you, how do you adjudicate that?

ELING TSAI

You know, the obesity crisis it sounds scary when you talk about it, but really what we know through the research is that, we actually cannot draw a causal relationship between weight status and health outcomes.

Things are correlated. I’m not saying they aren’t. In the research, we’re always looking at correlation versus causation, cuz that’s really where we can understand true relationships and how to improve the health outcome. And, and so when we talk about the obesity epidemic, it continues to perpetuate this idea that it’s about losing weight.

When we really wanna acknowledge that there’s no single disease that someone in a larger body gets, that someone in a smaller body doesn’t get, people in smaller bodies get high blood pressure, they get cancer, they have strokes this.  So di absolutely. Exactly. So I really feel it’s important like to pull back on that.

TY MONTAGUE

But don’t, and if, forgive me if I’m wrong about this, but maybe I’ve been brainwashed. Like I have the strong impression that people who are, to use the term obese, are at higher risk for some of those things like diabetes. Is that not true? Or is that

ELING TSAI

What we do know is that they can manage their diabetes and they can, improve, um, the way their condition shows up in their body in ways that don’t necessarily lead to the weight loss that they’re told they need to achieve. You know, we could be talking about gentle movement. We could be talking about stress reduction, medication management, and eating a hundred percent. But, if we were to frame it like, “if you just were to lose 20 pounds, I’m pretty sure your blood sugars would even out,” This is not helpful language to the person who’s trying to manage their condition.

And it doesn’t really give them the tangible information to take control or feel empowered.

TY MONTAGUE

As I think about that, it maybe it’s about essentially the value exchange between Noom and its customers that feels off. It’s like Noom could be doing more to add value for people beyond just helping them count calories and lose a few pounds, right. they really could transform the relationship that people have with food and with their bodies but they’re not really doing that, yet.

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

And my hunch would be that they’re not doing that because maybe they haven’t figured out a way for that to serve their bottom line of making money and growing.

ELING TSAI

Yeah. And maybe there’s an opportunity, just to add, like for Noom to not just give information, but also offer support. As they’re attempting to do right now with their Noom coaches. Because just as many people who have attempted a diet, I’m guessing that’s the same number of people who’ve been burned by a diet and are looking for other ways to connect with food and people who have gone through similar experiences them. So perhaps it’s an opportunity to be, um, kind of like a, like a support network where you could. I don’t know, create a community in a, in a sense. Um, so it’s not just information exchange, but

TY MONTAGUE

So So they’re connected to each other.

ELING TSAI

Yeah, I think there could be value there.

TY MONTAGUE

That’s interesting. Yeah. Okay. So are there any other questions or ideas or topics that we have not touched on that you think our listeners should should know about

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

The one thing that I think when I reported on Noom that stuck out to me was the sort of tactics they were using. At least for me, felt very triggering for someone who struggled in my adolescence and beyond with an eating disorder and disordered eating. I felt a little like, oh, it must just be me when I first tried the app and then I started to report on it months later and going through the app store reviews and seeing so many, folks echo the experience that I felt when I tested it out, or even going so far as to say, like this triggered, like , this started an eating disorder I think that those app reviews are really alarming.

TY MONTAGUE

Big red flag,

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

Flag, I was really pleasantly surprised to see when I went through the onboarding today, that they now screen for, they ask you if you actively have an eating disorder. My, my other idea, and I think it’s a quick fix, is just also screening for anyone with a history of an eating disorder.

TY MONTAGUE: Agreed. Okay. So on this show, we end every, every session with a tool that we call the BS index. And the way it works is it goes from zero to a hundred, zero being the best zero BS, 100 being the wor the worst, a hundred percent BS. So on a scale of zero to a hundred. In terms of Noom, really living its purpose to help as many people as possible live healthier lives through behavior change. What BS score would we give Noom? Uh, I’ll ask you to go first.

ELING TSAI

Yeah. Oh gosh.

TY MONTAGUE

Yeah,

ELING TSAI

I, I, I know I’m gonna be pretty tough on them.

TY MONTAGUE

Know I’m

ELING TSAI

I would give them like a 95 um,uh, just because I think most of, as we’ve talked about, it just sounds like they’re trying to make money and they’ve, they have not been that creative in terms of a way to make money. I mean, I give them a couple of points credit because they do try to do it, uh, have an educational component, but I just think they actually weaponize that further into saying if you changed this, then you would just eat less. So I, I think they’re pretty full of it.

TY MONTAGUE

Okay. Taylor.

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

Yeah, I think I have to be tough too. And be somewhere in the nineties. I’ll give him like a 94. What I think about a lot with Noom is that, people wanting to take control of their health and weight is not a bad thing. I think that for many people it can improve their mental health. It can improve their actual health, like physical health so I would never fault people for using it. For certain people, it might be delivering on the promise, which is why I would give them a couple points. But I think as a company, they have a lot of things to work on.

TY MONTAGUE

Yeah, great story. They just need to do it. Right. and they’re not doing it yet. So I think those scores are, uh, I mean, they’re tough, but they’re fair. Okay, I want to thank you both for being on the show today. This was a great conversation.

TAYLOR MAJEWSKI

Thank you. It’s a lot of fun.

ELING TSAI

Really. 

 

TY MONTAGUE (VO) 

 

Alright folks – it’s time for Noom to officially step on the BS scale. On one hand, they take a holistic approach to weight loss that some people find genuinely helpful. On the other hand, we still live in a world that values thinness, and instead of changing that conversation, Noom is profiting from–and in some cases exacerbating– the insecurities of the people who use it. 

 

You heard our two panelists give Noom really high scores, while Dr. Ogden gave it a more diplomatic 40. 

 

And, there’s one more to consider…,   

 

HALEY PASKALIDES

Hi, Ty. If I were rating Noom on the BS scale, I’d say the food portion tracking of the app definitely changed my relationship to food for the worse while I was using it. But the mindfulness and the C B T portion  and the slowing down when I eat and realizing why I’m eating, what I’m eating, if it’s because I’m stressed, I really liked. So if I were giving Noom a BS score, I would give them a 65, because I did learn a lot of good things on there, but ultimately it was  detrimental for my mental health.

 

TY MONTAGUE (VO) 

 

I was really caught off guard by her reaction. Haley went into this with an open mind, but also with a healthy skepticism- we are calling bullshit, after all- and still was profoundly impacted by going through the Noom process.

 

And another factor in the final BS score?  

 

In August, Noom announced several changes. They’ve increased their calorie flexibility and done away with the red food rating – making all previously red foods orange and saying that  “changing the color signifying high-density foods to orange is just as intuitive for Noomers, but doesn’t carry the same emotional or cultural inference as the color red”. 

 

They’ve also added a new feature that allows Noom users to manually change their daily calories to meet the needs of a more diverse population. 

 

And they’ve become less rigid about daily weigh-ins, instead encouraging more flexibility around “the scale”.

 

To me, all of this says that Noom really listens to their customers and welcomes change. But the current experience still focuses too much on weight and too little on the attributes they claim to value in their purpose – health, wellness, and behavior change. 

 

So I am giving Noom a score of 64. That puts them in the red zone of the BS Index, the zone where we believe it is already harming their reputation and will eventually harm their business.

 

And Seaju Jeung and Artem Petakov – if either of you ever want to come on the show to discuss anything we’ve touched on today, please know that you both have an open invitation. 

 

TY MONTAGUE (VO)

And if you’re starting a purpose-led business or thinking about beginning the journey of transformation to become one, here are three things you can take away from today’s episode: 

 

  1. If you’re a weight loss business, say it. And if you don’t say it, don’t be it.  Noom claims its purpose is to “help as many people as possible live healthier lives through behavior change.” Great purpose. But a massive amount of the current experience is devoted to weight loss. Not great. 
  2. Once you’ve decided what your purpose is, be an advocate. Beyond passively changing the app experience there is an opportunity for Noom to get busy educating people about where real health and real happiness come from. 
  3. Money is important.  If your company is a body, then money is like blood. Without it, you won’t make it.  But when it comes to money, be long term greedy. Trying to maximize your profitability in the short term is a playbook long espoused by silicon valley VC’s that we are now discovering has some deeply toxic externalities. Noom needs to be patient and build a real health company. As an entrepreneur, you need to be patient too.  

TY MONTAGUE (VO)

I want to give a really special thank you to our very own Haley Paskalides, who was willing to thoroughly document her personal experience.

Haley- you are a shining star and we appreciate you. 

And if you’ve got a healthy appetite for detecting BS, subscribe to the Calling Bullshit podcast on the iHeart Radio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to people speak into your ears. Please take a minute to rate us on iTunes and let us know what you think of the show, more reviews help more people find us.  

Thanks to our production team. Hannah Beal, Amanda Ginsburg, DS Moss, Haley Paskalides, Parker Silzer, and Basil Soper. 

Calling Bullshit was created by Co Collective and it’s hosted by me, Ty Montague. Thanks for listening.

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  1. Donal Ruane on November 11, 2022

    Jane was very diplomatic. Your insightful panelists slammed the company . Haley’s score threw me – anything that impacts on your mental health should be scored commensurately. She’s way too nice. I’d score them at 100. Charlatans.

    • Calling Bullsh!t on November 29, 2022

      Thanks so much for listening Donald and for your thoughts! If you’re enjoying the show, please rate and review on Apple Podcasts.

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