At the end of 2019, months before anyone would be talking about their #Quarantine15, I was partaking in my favorite coping mechanism of the Trump presidency: rage-baking cookies while listening to politics on NPR.
I had gained a few pounds; exhausted from decades of diet culture messaging being shoved in my face, I had also sworn off diets. I was trying to cultivate a deeper understanding of my sometimes fraught relationship with food and my body. Right on cue, I heard a Noom ad play over NPR’s airwaves.
Touting phrases like “stop dieting,” “behavioral science,” and, perhaps most intriguing of all, “psychology-based,” the ad made the platform seem like, frankly, the evolved person’s answer to weight loss: No points to track, frozen meals to microwave, or powders that would make me shit my pants. So I signed up for a two-week trial. Looking back, I feel what I imagine most people who purchased “Cuomosexual” merchandise do: deep regret.
As a firm believer in the tenets of body positivity, it makes me deeply uncomfortable to admit that I also feel a rush of confidence when I can fit into those jeans—or that I feel pangs of guilt when I can’t stop eating the goddamn guacamole. For many, this struggle might be familiar. We aim to be fully self-actualized beings who love our bodies as they are. But it’s almost impossible to escape the influences—whether IRL, through media, or just the ones inside our head—that reinforce the age-old status quo: Thinner is better.
Sure, there’s been some progress. Over the years, women’s magazines have broadened the scope of body shapes and sizes they feature; social media accounts like I Weigh and YrFatFriend doggedly call out the dangers of diet culture on the reg. Even companies that profit from the weight-loss industrial complex have found new ways to position themselves to consumers. After nearly 60 years on the market, Weight Watchers rebranded itself (somewhat puzzlingly) as WW, declaring a “commitment to becoming the world’s partner in wellness.”
But beneath the rhetoric and repositioning, it’s the same old shtick. These new—and new-and-improved—“wellness” apps are often inextricably bound up with the pursuit of slimming down. The slogans might be about loving your body. Still, the not-so-subliminal message is that losing weight will make that more possible.
Early on, Noom seemed refreshingly health-centric, designed with my well-being in mind. The program asked me lots of questions about my life, my hobbies, my goals—the “ultimate why” behind my reason for joining. The personalization and nutritional information focused on satiety (as in, feeling full). The problem is that, in practice, this innovative “psychological” approach still operates on traditional diet doctrines like limiting intake, categorizing foods (in Noom’s case, into red, yellow, and green buckets), and earning calories for exercise.
Buying into Noom came at a high cost for me. Both literally—a monthly subscription is $66.35 (the price goes down the longer you sign on for)—and mentally. Over a matter of months, my ability to consume food or move my body in a way that wasn’t motivated by making myself smaller was all but ruined.
Almost two years later, I’m still in recovery from the app, trying to undo damaging behaviors I developed as a direct result of its programming. But the evangelism of hard-core “Noomers” (not to mention the ubiquity of its advertising) made me question whether my experience was an exception.
Then, earlier this year, I started noticing nutrition experts posting about the company’s duplicitous marketing and the fact that its “personalized plan” tends to recommend 1,200 calories per day, despite individual needs. (Think: packing your diet with high-water-content foods, lean proteins, and limiting “red”—i.e., calorically dense—items.) Personally, I found it impossible to hit the target without skipping meals or trying to fill up on low-cal picks that tricked my body into feeling fuller. (Relatedly, Noom loves grapes.) It was also socially isolating. I fretted over food constantly, declining dates with friends because the idea of not being able to calculate exact calories made me anxious.
Another thing about 1,200 calories a day? A 2- or 3-year-old can live on that, sure, but consuming so little can actually lower metabolism for an adult woman over time. It goes like this: You cut calories and lose weight. But, of course, surviving on less than you need is impossible to maintain long-term. So when you “indulge,” the weight comes back, fast.
Surviving on less than you need is impossible to maintain long-term.
You try again because it worked the first time. Only it’s even harder because now your metabolism is wrecked. Dieting companies know this, explains Claudia Thompson, a registered dietitian with a PhD in physical activity, nutrition, and wellness: It’s part of the reason they’re so successful. They create return customers by selling a bill of goods designed not only to make you fail but also to conclude it’s your fault…which keeps some folks coming back for more.
“This era of diet marketing is [about] hijacking non-diet language to sell a diet,” she says. “It is manipulation: They promise you the world and give you the same things already seen in a million other diets.” After she posted about Noom on social media, Thompson received tons of heartbreaking DMs from women who have struggled with disordered eating and thought the app would help them. “These women were almost out of the woods of disordered behavior with food and their body but were propelled so much deeper into it by using this app. It’s harmful.” It took me a while to realize I was one of them myself.
The first time I became aware of my body as a vessel for shame, I was 6 years old. Family acquaintances were visiting from out of state, and the night before I started first grade, the husband molested me as the rest of the house, including his wife and son, slept in the bedroom a few feet away. I never looked at myself the same way again. Whether consciously or not, I dealt with this by eating.
For me, weight was protection, a buffer between the traumatized child hiding inside and the terrifying world outside of her control. I didn’t know until recently that research suggests women who’ve experienced interpersonal trauma may be more at risk for disordered eating. I suppose that’s why I find these companies masquerading as “health and wellness” not only deceptive but also malevolent: They garner trust by claiming to be based in science and psychology but overwhelmingly ignore the root issues that lead many people to struggle with food, and body image, in the first place.
Rewind to 2019, when my two-week free Noom trial turned into a year-long psychological spiral, during which I cycled through levels of unhealthy dependency on the app. At the time, I rationalized calorie restriction as a way to better understand why I might want more food. In reality, I literally wasn’t getting my caloric needs met.
On the surface, the app’s daily “lessons” seemed like the fundamentals of intuitive eating. Ultimately, though, it was more like gaslighting my gastrointestinal system and warping my thoughts about what constituted a “healthy” habit. For instance, daily weigh-ins were encouraged, the idea being that I would get accustomed to (and therefore not freaked out by) natural fluctuations in the number while also charting my progress. In practice, it quickly turned into an obsession. I started panicking when I couldn’t weigh myself. So much so that when I went out of town for a work trip, the first thing I did after landing was buy a scale—not once but twice.
It’s been more than a year since I deleted the app, a decision that wasn’t spurred by a singular aha moment—more like an ever-sharpening awareness that something wasn’t right. I have come so far from that young girl who used food to comfort herself. And yet, upon reflection, the speed at which I lost myself all over again while I was using Noom is dizzying.
Recently, I received an email offering me discounts to rejoin the program. The subject read, “Still thinking about Noom?” Frankly…yes. That’s the thing about diet culture. Even when you’re trying to break the cycle, it’s designed to pull you right back in.
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