How Noom and WW Sell Mindfulness as a Way to Lose Weight

Last December, Stephen Snowder, a 37-year-old communications worker at a white-shoe law firm in New York, Googled “pandemic weight gain.” He’d stopped jogging and indulged in calming Grubhub meals during the quarantine. He wanted to fit into his 2019 clothes again.

As he scoured online information about various weight loss companies and programs, a catchphrase caught his eye: “Stop the diet. Get lifelong results. ”An app called Noom promised to use psychology to“ build new habits to destroy your goals ”. The company’s website described how he worked with a wellness coach and received brief lessons and quizzes on cognitive behavioral therapy techniques. Crucially, the app said he could eat anything he wanted. Noom ads soon flooded Snowder’s Instagram feed. He’s signed up.

The American Psychological Association reports that the 42% of Americans who put on weight between March 2020 and February 2021 gained an average of 29 pounds. People are now trying to lose that weight. The weight loss product market is growing and will grow from nearly $ 255 billion worldwide this year to $ 377 billion by 2026, according to analyst Research and Markets. Perhaps no company gets better off this than Noom, which is valued at $ 4 billion and has raised more than $ 650 million from investors like Sequoia Capital and Silver Lake. The company’s app, launched in 2016, has been downloaded around 45 million times; Noom says it nearly doubled annual sales between 2019 and 2020, reaching $ 400 million.

With its focus on wellness rather than weight loss – a message spread through social media advertising and influencer marketing – Noom has ridden the wave of body positivity to appeal to people looking for a more holistic way to lose weight. It’s not alone: ​​in 2018, Weight Watchers was renamed WW, in part to increase its appeal. “There’s a lot more to it than just losing weight,” said Debra Benovitz, senior vice president of Human Truths and Community Impacts at WW. “We hear a lot about that [people] Come on for weight loss but find wellness. ”(The rebranding wasn’t entirely successful. Although WW is gaining ground with digital subscribers, the company’s revenue declined 10% year over year in the second quarter of 2021.) One of the market participants is the weight care startup Found, which is just out of Stealth and is supported by the venture capital firms GV and Atomic. It offers digital coaching and self-help groups as well as telemedical consultations with doctors who can prescribe drugs for weight loss.

But while advocating a psychosocial approach to healthier habits, Noom and other online coaching programs still focus on getting people to lose pounds by reducing food consumption – the same technique that has defined weight loss since calorie counting became fashionable in the 1920s. “Intuitive eating and the anti-diet movement have become popular,” says Alexis Conason, clinical psychologist, eating disorders specialist and author of The diet-free revolution. “Weight loss companies are trying to get on this bandwagon by claiming that they aren’t diet companies when they are.”

Noom’s rise comes at a time when celebrities and corporations alike are spreading the message of body positivity and weight inclusivity – loving yourself for who you are. Today’s weight loss companies have figured that out. Gone are the fat ads with people holding their jeans in their hands before taking them off. Noom’s Marketing talks about daily doses of self-care and being the boss of your own life. The app encourages users to change their relationship with food by setting goals, identifying emotional triggers related to food, and (yes) holding themselves accountable by logging what they eat and weigh each day.

WW takes a similar approach. Last fall, myWW + was launched, a personalized app-based program that combines meal planning tools with features that address weight loss by taking into account sleep, mindset and physical activity. “We’re a behavior change company and weight is an endpoint,” says Chief Scientific Officer Gary Foster. Found tries to thread the needle the same way. “It’s holistic. It’s not just about what you lose, it’s what you find along the way, ”says Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer Swathy Prithivi. In other words, by promising to change the lifestyle of users (and not just their bodies), companies stay on the right side of the body positivity movement.

Customers have to pay – regularly. Noom’s subscriptions start at around $ 65 per month, while WW’s digital membership starts at $ 21.95 per month. Found costs an average of $ 100 a month, including medication. Each year, nearly half of all American adults are on a diet. Only 5% of them successfully keep the weight off. Weight loss companies benefit anyway.

As much as these companies try to distance themselves from the idea of ​​imposing calorie restrictions, it is ultimately what they sell. When Snowder started using Noom, he was told he could eat anything he wanted – as long as he was within a limit of 1,400 calories a day, or just over half the recommended calorie intake for an adult male, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. With WW, users are no longer prompted to specifically count calories, but are given daily points goals, with each serving being assigned a number based on the number of calories and nutritional value. Found and Calibrate, another telemedicine startup, offer doctor consultations and prescription drugs. But they too end up in the same place: meal logging and restrictive diets (albeit supervised by doctors).

The problem isn’t that these companies rely on diets to get people to achieve their goals. The truth is, the wellness-centric marketing they have put in place can be misleading – and worse. Conason and other eating disorders experts note that Noom has adopted the language of eating disorder recovery, using terms such as “mindful eating” and “anti-dieting.”

“This marketing attracts people who might be looking for something other than traditional nutrition,” says Christy Harrison, nutritionist, certified eating disorders specialist, and author of Anti-diet: regain time, money, well-being and happiness through intuitive eating. “People let themselves be seduced when they are vulnerable and often only realize how bad it is until it’s too late.”

At the same time, Noom recommended practices like calorie counting, food restriction, and weighing can encourage eating disorders. “Apps like Noom and WW tend to focus on food culture, and that can be really harmful for those at risk of an eating disorder,” said Lauren Smolar, senior director of programs at the National Eating Disorders Association. (Noom says it weed out people with unhealthy weight goals or signs of eating disorders.) “This is calorie counting, daily weighing … it’s a diet. You can call it what you want, but in the end it’s still a diet, ”says Shira Rosenbluth, a social worker who specializes in working with people with eating disorders and body image issues. “The way Noom markets and operates is incredibly dangerous and harmful to anyone trying to relate to food and their body,” she adds.

Although Noom lures clients with the promise of a goal-oriented psychotherapy program, the company’s coaches are not certified therapists or nutritionists. Instead, they go through 75 hours of “noomiversity”, which not only offers health courses but also motivational training. According to reports, coaches can then be assigned hundreds of clients at the same time. According to Conason, there are elements of this approach that might be helpful, but the potential for harm far outweighs the benefits. However, Noom is just getting started. In October, the company launched Noom Mood, a program to help people cope with stress and anxiety by using mood recording tools similar to those used by food tracking.

After five months of his noom diet, Snowder found himself constantly hungry. He sought advice from his trainer after eating more than his allotted calories. “She suggested that my life was lacking vitality,” he recalls. “She also said that if I look in the mirror and I don’t like what I see, I shouldn’t be discouraged.” The thing is, he never mentioned feeling excited about the way he looked.

Weeks later, she sent him a GIF from the movie cheering Brad Pitt Burn after readingto congratulate him on completing 20 lessons. Shortly afterwards, Snowder visited his in-laws. He stopped logging his meals because he didn’t want to ask her about every ingredient in every dish. Then he left Naom entirely. He decided to enjoy family time and enjoy the food.

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