Despite the fact that Americans spend over $60 billion per year trying to lose weight in the U.S., obesity in the United States has reached epidemic levels.
According to a late 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 40 percent of American adults and nearly 20 percent of adolescents are obese — the highest rates in U.S. recorded history. And while the problem is everywhere, it is growing faster in some places than others. Rural areas tend to have both higher obesity rates and much greater rates of what medical researchers term “severe obesity," which is a BMI of 40 or more.
"If you look at the trends in men, severe obesity more than tripled in rural areas," senior CDC Researcher Cynthia Ogden told CBS News. "In women, severe obesity more than doubled."
Severe obesity has also been on the rise over the last decade-and-a-half in urban areas. Urban men’s severe obesity rate has climbed from 2.4 percent to 4 percent since 2001-2004; severe obesity has expanded from 6 percent of urban females to 8 percent. In rural areas, the severe obesity rate among men was a little under 3 percent as of 15 years ago; today, it is a little over 10 percent. In women, a 6 percent rate has more than doubled to 14 percent.
"It's difficult to be optimistic at this point," Dr. Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, told NBC. "The trend of obesity has been steadily increasing in both children and adults, despite many public health efforts to improve nutrition and physical activity."
And while his pessimism on the topic sounds a bit defeatist, Dr. Hu makes a valid point: Despite many efforts at eradication, obesity is a very persistent problem.
About 45 million Americans go on a diet each year – usually in early January – and by early March, all but 30 percent have given up on the new diet and workout regimen they swore on New Year's Eve that they were going to embrace.
Even among those who do successfully stick with their diet and reduce their weight by 10 percent or more usually don’t keep the weight off. About 80 percent of dieters will regain all the weight they lost, and in some cases will even put on new weight.
Standing against that lasting sense of pessimism, however, is the fact that Americans continue to invest time and treasure in at least trying to get into shape, despite an admittedly dismal success rate so far.
And working to capture a piece of that $60 billion market – and hopefully help to boost its success rate to somewhere north of 20 percent – is Noom.
The Personal Touch to Weight Loss
Noom is often compared to the ranking 800 lb. gorilla in the weight loss program space: Weight Watchers. The brand is frequently billed as the Weight Watchers for millennials – in fact, the two share some similarities: Users set a weight loss goal, and then undertake a customized diet and exercise plan to attack that goal over 16 weeks, during which time they log their food consumption and activity, which is pretty standard for any weight-loss app.
What is less standard about the app, according to Noom, is the degree and variety of interactions. There is a communal aspect to Noom, with frequent updating and photo posting a big part of the community interaction. Users also have access to both individual coaching with a human health expert and the use of a “virtual coach.”
That virtual coach is powered by a learning AU that scans users' input and directs it against the aggregated training data of all users, and then provides custom messaging and access to educational resources to help keep customers engaged with their fitness plans.
Log a brownie sundae in a nutrition journal? The Noom virtual coach will likely send along a series of articles about how to best recover from falling off the diet wagon.
"By analyzing all types of user attitudes and behavior patterns, we help consumers embark on a weight loss journey that maximizes their chances for finding weight loss resolution success," said Dr. Andreas Michaelides, Noom's chief of psychology. "We already know past behaviors and attitudes are strong indicators of what will happen in the future. Using Big Data, we are now able to quantify the past in novel ways and help users change patterns to avoid the unique pitfalls that have prevented them from finding success."
And while some might wonder if an AI bot constantly messaging a user about how to stay on their diet – or interesting educational articles on how one might best enhance their daily 30-minute workout – might get annoying, NYU Medical Center’s Dr. Sue Decotiis told Women’s Health that this approach might actually be the digital future of helping people keep weight off.
Because, she noted, the app essentially fills out two requisites that are often hard to meet when people are trying to lose weight: It keeps them engaged enough in the process to actually make long-term lifestyle changes, and it actually keeps them on track with what they are supposed to be doing.
“These app-based weight-loss programs work by educating users to make more informed decisions,” Decotiis said. “The accountability aspect — inputting data such as caloric intake, sleep, exercise, etc. — tends to be very effective in terms of behavior modification. And the visual rewards enforce positive behaviors.”
Noom struggles with the problem that nearly every app, program and plan for long-term behavior modification faces: Changing behavior long-term is extremely difficult for all but the very most committed. Noom can use AI, social engagement and game theory to make the process more rewarding and engaging – but at the end of the day, consumers have to be willing to be engaged, according to Dr. Decotiis.
And while nutrition and health value is playing a bigger role in consumers' selection when it comes to choosing what they eat for dinner, the vast majority still list convenience as their No. 1 priority in making the choice.
Today, Noom claims 45 million active users worldwide – 20 million in the U.S. – who pay $50 a month to work with and through the platform to change their lifestyles. The goal, according to Co-founder and President Artem Petakov, is to have reached 60 million users by the end of the year.
"Noom Coach is not a quick fix or a diet. Our behavioral program ignites long-term changes that help consumers get healthier and stay healthier over time," said Petakov. "Together, our human coaches and artificial intelligence platform are changing the way consumers get healthy in the next generation."