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Diets Debunked: The Noom Program

Why Intuitive Eating Wins Out Over Counting Calories

Key Takeaways:

  • The Noom program emphasizes a healthy mindset and relationship with your food, with nutritional advice that is built around calorie density and calorie tracking.
  • Limited research suggests that Noom is effective for weight loss and may be beneficial for cardiometabolic health, but evidence is lacking for other health concerns.
  • This eating plan emphasizes low-calorie density foods like grapes, cucumbers, tomatoes, egg whites, sweet potatoes, rice, and non-fat yogurt.
  • A great deal of attention is placed on daily calorie limits, and foods are categorized by calorie density, making calorie counting (not well-rounded nutrition) the main goal.
  • Noom limits eating many proteins and fats which may lead to frequent snacking, fatigue, and foggy thinking.
  • Noom may be for you if you come from a primarily processed diet, low in fruits and vegetables, are new to healthy eating, and/or have a hard time getting dietary changes to last.
  • It may not be the best diet if you are more experienced with healthy eating, are looking for advanced/specialized nutritional advice, and/or have a history of disordered eating or excessive calorie counting.
  • Even if you don’t choose to try Noom, most of us can benefit from the principles of intuitive eating and building healthy habits with our food.

The term “diet” is deeply embedded in Western culture, especially due to the endless presence of extremist diets and weight loss trends. Most of us have personal experience (and beliefs) with this polarizing word, and whether we like it or not, switching up our diet no longer means just physical change — it’s psychological change.

For many, simply telling yourself to “eat healthier” or “consume fewer calories” no longer cuts it, and ignoring the behavioral component of change can be a fast track to “diet burnout”. This is where the Noom app comes in.

As I’ll explore today on Diets Debunked: Noom, It’s not just about what and when we eat, but why we eat it. Our food choices are a habit, and building or breaking a habit asks you to go a little deeper than the nutrient labels on the back of the box. Though originally developed to be a weight loss program, the biggest take-home of the Noom program is building an intuitive and sustainable relationship with our food — one that can be integrated into any dietary plan.

Noom’s nutritional advice might suit you if you’re coming from a primarily processed diet that’s low in fruits and vegetables, and high in unhealthy fats. Same goes if you haven’t had a chance to cultivate a mindful relationship with your food. And if weight loss is your main goal, research shows that Noom holds up to that promise.

However, too much emphasis on calorie counting (which can be counterproductive with intuitive eating) and consuming “empty calories” are of concern with this meal plan. People with a history of disordered eating or an uhealthy relationship with calories might want to stear clear of this program. Additonally, the restriction of protiens and fats can affect your muscular and hormonal health, and lead to blood sugar spikes and dips.It’s also possible to quickly outgrow this program, and those experienced with healthy eating may find some of its concepts to be a little too rudimentary.

But even if the nutritional aspect of Noom isn’t for you, you likely will still benefit from cultivating a balanced and positive mindset toward food — especially if you have a hard time getting changes to stick. Any single diet isn’t meant to be “forever”, and as our dietary needs and preferences evolve (as they should), so does our diet. Let’s see what we can take away from the Noom diet plan to help kick-start or improve your evolution to better health.

A Snapshot of Noom

Today I’ll get into the pros and cons of this popular diet — here’s a quick look at what our research team found:

What Noom gets right:

  • Research-backed weight loss
  • Can help you build a more mindful relationship with food
  • A good starting point if new to healthy eating
  • Elimination of processed food and sugar
  • Professional support and daily reminders for accountability

What Noom gets wrong:

  • Excessive focus on calorie counting (not intuitive eating)
  • Calorie density is prioritized over well-rounded nutrition
  • Can be more restrictive than other therapeutic diets, but still contains possible food allergens like dairy
  • Lack of research for other health concerns
  • A high potential for fat and protein deficiency
  • Possible blood sugar fluctuations

I’ll break these topics down in a moment, but first, what is the Noom program?

What is the Noom Diet?

The Noom diet* was created as a weight loss or “weight maintaining” program that helps you understand how our attitudes around food influence our food. Because of this, Noom claims to be a behaviorally-driven diet program. Its nutritional advice has a premise of eating as much as you want, whenever you want, by prioritizing nutrient-dense, low-calorie foods [1]. 

*While Noom rejects the use of the word “diet” in their approach to distinguish themselves from traditional dieting, I’ll be using it throughout this article when context and clarity are needed.

Noom appears to have two overarching goals: stay away from overly restrictive dieting by not completely eliminating food groups, and build a healthy, lifelong relationship with food. The emphasis on gradual progress, self-monitoring, and building healthy habits aligns with research-proven strategies for long-term success (more on that in a minute).

How It Works

Noom is fairly transparent about what this weight management plan entails. It is personalized around your current weight, weight-loss goals, and past experiences with diets. Once you complete the onboarding questionnaires you will receive [1]:

  1. A target daily calorie budget, calculated to meet your goal weight, for an average of 16 weeks.
  2. Daily lessons to change your mindset around food. These range from 5 to 15 minutes in length and incorporate cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), tasks and exercises, and quizzes. 
  3. A weight-loss app to track the calorie density of the foods you eat and your weight (daily), with the option to also track exercise, water intake, and blood pressure.
  4. Unlimited support from a personal coach and online support group to help keep you motivated and troubleshoot any issues that may pop up.

Noom encourages you to eat nutrient-dense, calorie-light whole foods to create a nutritionally rewarding and satisfying diet [2]. The app guides you to choose and track foods from three different lists, based on calorie density:

  • Green foods (eat as much as you want): Veggies (cucumber, asparagus, broccoli, etc.), fruits ( grapes, pineapple, mangos, etc.), some grains (whole grain, quinoa, brown rice), and lean seafood.
  • Yellow foods (choose selectively): Fruits (avocados, dried apricots, olives, etc.), legumes, seeds, dairy (low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, and milk), hummus, grains (English muffin, whole wheat bagel, tortilla), lean red meat, chicken, and fish.
  • Orange/ Red foods (limit your intake): Nuts and nut butter, popcorn, tortilla chips, protein shakes and bars, bacon, sausage, olive oil, butter, whole-fat cheeses, desserts, and most alcohol.

The goal is to prioritize eating “green foods” to curb your hunger before turning to yellow foods (red/orange should be avoided as much as possible). By filling up on low-calorie dense foods you can curb hunger and eat fewer calories. 

The program tries to prevent you from feeling deprived due to straight calorie restriction by allowing you to strategically choose foods from each list that add up to your daily calorie target [2]. In this way, Noom attempts to steer clear of restrictive diet culture while remaining a weight loss program.

The Health Benefits of Noom

As Noom is primarily a weight loss program, the research on it is geared toward weight and cardiometabolic health. An observational study with over 8,000 Noom users showed that, on average, they experienced a 13 lb loss when using the app for at least one year [3]. 

Its approach outperforms other weight loss methods like standard medical care, self-monitoring of food, diet education, and motivational interviewing [4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]. As the above large-scale study shows, the more the app was used to track food intake and exercise, the more effective it was [3]. 

However, most of the research consists of small clinical trials conducted by various employees of Noom. This potential for bias aside, the study results are promising, and show that:

  • One year on the Noom app led to reduced weight and improved blood sugar control in 202 type 2 diabetics when compared to standard care [4].
  • Six months on the app (with free coaching) helped those with metabolic disease lose weight and body fat but failed to improve most markers of cardiometabolic health [10].
  • Those with colorectal polyps lost weight and became more physically active on Noom [8]
  • Noom helped participants with fatty liver lose a minimum of 5% of their body weight, meeting the gold standard for first-line treatment of NASH, in a small clinical trial [6]
  • It might help with weight loss prep prior to bariatric surgery [5].

While there is a need for additional, unbiased research, it’s pretty clear that this clean, calorie-cutting diet is likely effective for losing weight, if that’s your goal. 

A 2023 observational study looked at 840 Noom users who had successfully lost 10% of thier body weight in the prior 2 years while using the app. The researchers found that nearly half maintained thier weight loss, and 75% were able to keep off 5% of their original weight [11]. Engaging in healthy snacking and exercise were found to be the biggest factors, meaning that it might be healthy habits, not one specific program, that leads to healthy and long lasting weight loss. 

Otherwise, it’s likely that Noom’s physical health benefits primarily come from the elimination of processed foods and sugar, and emphasis on nutrient-dense foods like certain fruits and vegetables. Many of their green-coded foods are also high in fiber (which can be great for gut health), but you won’t find many healthy fat or protein sources on this list.

Noom can be a great tool to use early on in your journey, especially if you’re just starting to move away from a standard American diet, and/or have little prior experience with a healthy diet and lifestyle. Users (especially younger people) tend to be more successful when regularly engaing with the app [12, 13], which means that accountability might be playing a big role in Noom’s success.   

But, if you’re already pretty knowledeable with how to implement a healthy diet and are engaged in regular physical activity, you may not reap as many benefits and can quickly outgrow it.

The Psychological Impact of Noom’s Approach

Importantly, the evidence does suggest that there is a psychological benefit to Noom’s healthy eating principles. An observational study found that, after 4 months, those who lost an average of 9 lbs on Noom had a significant increase in body appreciation, body image flexibility, and self-compassion, and a decrease in body-focused rumination [14]

Another small randomized clinical trial (RCT), found that along with improvements in cardiometabolic levels and weight, participants experienced a decrease in emotional eating [7]

The purported long-lasting benefits of the diet may be partially due to its CBT-styled support. As one trial found, the exercises helped participants plan ahead, stop unhelpful behaviors, and monitor their mental progress when it comes to their food [9].

Despite the heavy industry-funded presence in these studies, these findings are a welcomed reprieve from the harmful psychological impact that dieting can have on our health. As I’ll discuss later, Noom isn’t perfect in this department, but its overall attempt to step away from diet culture is refreshing and appears to have a positive influence on health in the literature. 

So what is there to learn about Noom’s healthy eating philosophy?

Intuitive Eating is the Key to Any Diet

In true form, intuitive eating isn’t a diet, but rather a healthy lifestyle that helps you get in tune with your body so you can eat what you want, when you want it, and stop when you’re full. As many of us with a history of dieting already know, we tend to benefit more from behavior change regarding our eating habits, rather than just telling ourselves to “eat healthier”.

Research has found that a healthy mindset can have a big impact on achieving healthy weight loss, and the more you restrict your diet, the more likely you might be influenced by your mindset when deciding what to eat [15]. This means that having a healthy mindset around your food is essential, especially if you are on a diet that cuts certain foods.

Switching your mindset from the pleasure or fullness you’ll get from your food to the health effects it will bring can help you reduce your portions at mealtime [16]. 

A 2020 study had 36 adults undergo an MRI while sustaining a mindset that focused on the health effects of food, the pleasure they will get from food, or the intention to stay full through dinner [16]. Participants from every weight category who engaged in the health-based mindset had an increase in activity in the prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain involved in self-control — and chose smaller portion sizes. Participants who focused on pleasure or fullness had mixed results with a tendency to increase portion sizes.

Along with this health-based approach to eating, we can build healthy habits that lead to lifelong health improvements and weight loss maintenance through our behaviors [17, 18]. We can engage in this by:

  • Keeping a food and physical activity record if it makes sense for you. To take a body-guided approach, consider recording how your food makes you feel rather than macro or calorie count.
  • Challenging negative thoughts around food by catching yourself when they crop up, and using cognitive reframing (like CBT) to heal them. Journaling or talking it through with someone who is knowledgeable of food-based behaviors is a great way to discover these beliefs.
  • Reinforcing healthy habits by acknowledging your accomplishments and remaining patient with yourself. On a more practical level, if a certain food makes your body feel good, eat more. If you are left with symptoms or feeling generally uncomfortable, try to be cognizant of what foods are contributing.

Intuitive eating appears to be a “gold standard” add-on to any diet plan, and Noom makes a considerable effort in this area. With cognitive exercises, progress monitoring, and external support to help keep you on track, this diet has taken a huge step in bringing intuitive eating into mainstream dieting.

However, while generally healthy and effective for weight loss, the dietary guidelines of this plan don’t quite meet the requirements for mindful eating and may cause some nutritional deficits.

The Common Pitfall of Empty Calories

As a diet that promotes a healthy relationship with food through the concept of there being no “good” or bad” foods, using an red/yellow/green color-coded system to restrict or promote different foods based on calorie density can be seen as somewhat contradictory. But that issue aside, Noom prioritizes calorie density over nutrient density, which can run you into the issue of over-consuming “empty calories”, as I discussed in my breakdown of the Volumetrics diet

This nutritional approach can make you miss out on all of the health benefits of high protein and fat foods and lead to unstable blood sugar levels that may present as mindless snacking, fatigue, and lightheadedness. While the high-fiber foods in this diet can help combat this issue, protein and fat are what really help stabilize blood sugar and keep you feeling full for longer.

Most people are consuming far less protein than what is needed to feel energized, build muscle, and help with healthy aging. And since hardly any proteins fall into the “eat freely” category of the Noom diet, there is a really high chance you will fall short of the 30–50 grams per meal that’s recommended for good health.

Healthy fats like fatty fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds contain essential fatty acids that are essential for many aspects of our health, including cognition and hormone production [19]. To avoid any issues further down the road, consider keeping healthy fats in your diet long-term. 

Food is More Than Its Calorie Count

If you are overweight and dealing with related health concerns, cutting your calories can be an easy and effective way to help meet your health goals. As we saw above, research supports that diets that cut calories can be great for weight loss, though it’s certainly not the whole picture. It’s hard for a diet to claim a truly intuitive eating stance when calorie counting and food tracking are the core of its nutritional advice. 

The true heart of nutrition lies in eating whole, nutrient-dense foods (that means all nutrients) to help you feel the best you can. When used in a targeted manner, diet can become therapeutic, and start to work for you, not against you.

Calorie tracking can quickly lead to food obsession and even disordered eating. When setting daily calorie goals is taken a step further through the classifying of foods into a system based on calories, some can get caught up in a slippery slope of forming an unhealthy relationship with food. 

And for others who don’t easily fall into these patterns, excessive food tracking and restriction can just unnecessarily complicate your diet. For a diet that boasts a non-restrictive approach, it’s significantly more restrictive than other diets that eliminate processed foods, such as the Mediterranean diet.

If you do well with calorie tracking for weight loss, take it slow and take your time. This will help you maintain your results in the long run. If you have a history of an unhealthy relationship with food and/or aren’t trying to actively lose weight, the risk of counting your calories and logging your foods is probably greater than the benefit. Consider placing your time into developing the many healthy components of intuitive eating.

Eat What Makes You Feel Good

Diets built around weight loss run the risk of becoming overly focused on that one aspect of our health. Unfortunately, this can easily come at the cost of consuming foods that just plain don’t make us feel good and set us up for diet burnout. 

As stated above, the right foods for your body can be therapeutic and shift your mindset around food from tracking numbers to listening to your body and seeing how certain foods make you feel. Living and eating in tune with your body’s needs can be transformative for your overall health. 

Combined with other components of intuitive eating, focusing on (truly) nutrient-dense diets full of anti-inflammatory foods can help you get in touch with yourself, heal your body from the inside out, and set you up for long-term weight loss.

How an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Can Help

Restricting or allowing food based on calorie density can not only lead to symptoms resulting from too many empty calories but can actually make you unknowingly consume foods that are initiating an inflammatory response in your body. Many foods that fall into the green and yellow lists of the Noom diet are common culprits of inflammation in the digestive tract, which can lead to a host of symptoms. 

Gluten-containing grains, rice, corn, and dairy are just a few of the allowed foods that may be contributing to persistent health symptoms that may not resolve with the Noom diet. If you suspect that an unhealthy gut is behind your health concerns (and it’s behind a lot), a simple elimination-based diet might be a better place to invest your time and energy. Even if weight loss is still your primary concern, a diet that fights inflammation can lead to better energy and motivation to tackle physical exercise.

I recommend my patients start with the Paleo diet, which is one of the least restrictive elimination diets, then, if needed, move up in complexity from there. This ancestral-inspired diet is great for calming inflammation in the gut, balancing blood sugar, and reducing body weight [20, 21, 22, 23, 24]. The best part about a therapeutic elimination diet is that by giving your body time to heal, you will be able to reintroduce many of the eliminated foods back into your diet and have mental freedom from tracking everything you eat.

The Modified Noom Diet You Can Try for Free

If you are considering Noom, I recommend implementing it with a more relaxed approach that goes beyond the “stoplight” color coding of foods. Try to listen to your body to see what foods make you feel good or not so good, and place less emphasis on consuming the latter. If a ton of grapes are leaving you dizzy and fatigued, try reaching for a high-protein bar or healthy fat (like avocado or almonds). 

On a more practical level, using the idea of eating less calorie-dense foods to “fill up” can be a good way to increase your veggie intake and cut back on other foods. Consider having a salad before your main course to prevent overeating or ordering dessert. The following are other helpful ideas for following a modified Noom diet:

  • Eat what makes you feel good (a body-based approach): Rather than thinking about when you can eat or even what you can eat, adopt a mindset that focuses on the health effects of food. Pay attention to how certain foods make you feel, and consider an elimination diet if you have symptoms.
  • Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full: Noom is spot on with its principle of listening to your body to eat when you notice your hunger cues and not starving yourself. Be mindful while eating your food, and take it slow while paying attention to at what point you start to feel full.
  • Eat more nutrient-dense foods: Like Noom, prioritize fruits and vegetables while limiting high-calorie foods that offer little nutritional value, like sugar, trans fats, and alcohol. 
  • Add in fats and protein: To prevent blood sugar swings, excess snacking, and low energy levels, breaking away from Noom’s overemphasis on carbs and adding in healthy fats and proteins is likely a healthy choice.

If you really like the concept of focusing on calorie-light, nutrient-dense foods, but find the Noom diet too restrictive, you may want to look at the Volumetrics diet. While you still run the risk of consuming too few healthy proteins and fat, they have four separate categories for calorie density that allow a little more leeway for “allowed” foods.

Integrate Noom’s Healthy Habits Into any Diet 

We applaud Noom’s efforts to emphasize a healthy mindset with food, and its focus on prioritizing nutrient-dense foods. And limited research shows that it does hold up to its promises of weight loss. 

However, the lack of dietary protein and healthy fat, overemphasis on food tracking and calorie counting, and inclusion of many potentially inflammatory foods might be a problem for those who try out this diet. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of elimination diets that can help with chronic health issues and weight loss. My book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You, can help you discover what therapeutic-grade diet makes sense for you. For personalized help, reach out to see if you will benefit from becoming a patient at The Ruscio Institute.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References
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