I am mostly focused on NOOM for this article just because it’s the biggest and was one of the first using the survey model to acquire customer information. Even if you don’t give them your email and pay them at the end of the survey they still have enough of your data to stay in front of you for what seems like forever. Their ads are clever-ish, they clearly are pretty savvy with digital marketing but the themes are as old as dieting itself. So let’s dive in.
It’s very difficult to jump on social media these days without being hit from someone dieting or an ad selling some version of dieting. The newest trend with virtually every single form of dieting is simply an interactive version of a Total Daily Energy Expenditure calculator. Here is the general gist, you get some image or video about some amazing transformation, often in the way someone thinks or eats and when you click “learn more” you are brought to something that is similar to a survey. Now almost everyone gets that there is probably some cost at the end of the survey but there is just something inside our brain that makes us want to answer these questions. The first to really start accumulating customer data this way was NOOM, what is NOOM? If you are familiar with MyFitnessPal and their calorie recommendations NOOM is VERY similar. The best way to describe it is that NOOM is a food logger, the calories suggested are super low and their are habit suggestions built into the app. NOOM is also similar to Weight Watchers in this respect. What NOOM is proving is that if you eat a lot less you lose weight in the short term (I think we all kind knew that right). Many of their habit suggestions teeter on the line of dysfunctional, while drinking water each day doesn’t seem like a bad idea using it as an appetite suppressant would be.
It’s important not to gloss over the similarities to Weight Watchers because there is an important piece to NOOM that is being ignored.
What happens when you stop under eating?
NOOM doesn’t have a real good answer for that and frankly I don’t think they care. It’s like creating an app where you assume that the big problem that people have is JUST over eating. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a lot worse “survey based” programs, I will talk about that more here in a bit. But what NOOM is essentially doing is building in the same model Weight Watchers built. When you under eat you have success but most people don’t tend to want slow and sustainable progress so they opt for the most aggressive plans and yes, if they were over consuming they will lose weight (once again, in the beginning).
Until they try to eat normal, that’s when things start to get real messed up. Let me explain why:
(Let me also say that the people most susceptible to buying a simplistic program like this also are the people most likely to be harmed by it. Seasoned dieters know that JUST under eating isn’t the answer)
Recently someone reached out and said they were 5’9” and 195 pounds and they were trying to lose weight. Noom gave them a calorie number of 1,100 calories with no support. That’s the key to their business model, both in the beginning and also later on. 1,100 calories for that person would be very difficult right out the gate, NOOM knows this and so inevitably they also know that people are going to buy the support. The logic for the user being that if they pay 19.95 there is some secret answer that will help them being compliant with essentially starving. Let me also say that you rarely hear from the people that fail because dieting is one of those things that people view as a “them” problem. If you had never lifted a weight in your life and a trainer suggested you squat 500 pounds you would think that person has lost his mind. Yet dieting doesn’t work this way, it’s rare that the user sees fault in the program and often this starts a cycle of guilt.
So what happens when someone that size eats like that? Well in the short term they lose a lot of weight because the plan is essentially starvation calories. The “support” really focuses on a lot of techniques that help you suffer easier.
Let me stop there, any plan you do, including what our live coaches teach you, you will likely have some level of discomfort but 1,100 calories is borderline abusive for this individual. It’s basically setting people up to be non-compliant and that is putting it mildly. So what happens when you are non-compliant and you eat because you are hungry? Well, you are more prone to store fat as a self preservation mechanism within your body. That’s the easiest non-super science-y way to say it.
“The business model is failure”-Traci Mann from the book “Secrets from the eating lab”
This was her criticism of the diets at that time like Weight Watchers and Slimfast but that list has expanded. In the Minnesota Starvation Study (done in the 1940’s) participants were starved using around 1,500 calories a day and things were closely monitored. It’s routine now for diets to prescribe less than this with no real end in site for the participant other than the participant wanting to lose “X number of pounds” and X is usually much lower than the person reaches. So the cycle of failure can lead to depression, anxiety or eating disorders and that’s the short list.
Let me also be clear, the survey model is popping up everywhere, it’s not the surveys that are the problem. Any food intervention that you do is going to include some level of intake, including ours and I get the want for simple, I really do. We have been at this for over 6 years telling the truth about the harm of non-specific dieting that doesn’t evolve but we have barely made a dent. The new kid on the block is NOOM and all the survey derivatives. As an example there are two diets using the model now with the exact same graphics and wording, one is targeted to runners and the other is targeted to fasting.
As a nation we are consumed with all forms of quick answer diets without any real education on the harms and with virtually no indication on how to move back to eating normal. Nothing I say will stop people from buying these $19.95 programs that lead them on a path to nowhere (but that won’t stop me from trying).
At this point I am resigned to the reality that is dieting in the social media era. The new thing is always the hot thing and frankly I am not sure that’s any different from 50 years ago.
Every day I look at the thousands of people we have helped and I feel great about that but I also know there are a lot of others that overwhelmed and confused. While sad, it’s a product of their own creation putting immediate wants ahead of overall needs with almost no logic at all. Sadly NOOM is contributing to that problem and not solving it like they are suggesting.