Limbo: No calorie-counting, just gentle nudges into healthier eating habits

This weight-loss programme combines AI and human feedback to monitor your glucose levels, helping you make better diet choices

Officially, Limbo began as a lockdown project. The Irish-developed weight loss programme takes existing knowledge on blood glucose, mixes it with data and delivers a coaching programme aimed at helping people to get their health under control.

The programme edges you towards weight loss through a combination of artificial intelligence and human feedback. It nudges you into changing your habits, so you learn as you go. And there is no calorie-counting in sight.

The ultimate goal is that people leave the programme taking the new knowledge they have and continue on their new, healthier lifestyle.

The success stories have been piling up: Gemma and Mary, who both lost 25kg in six months; Ray who shed 22kg in five; Donal, who has lost 43kg in 13 months on Limbo. And entrepreneur Pat Phelan, who put his money behind the company, who lost 36kg in nine months and reversed his pre-diabetes diagnosis – a condition where the amount of glucose or sugar in the blood is higher than normal, but is not high enough for you to have a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes.


Limbo was originally the idea of Tony Martin, a personal trainer in Cork, who has been using blood glucose monitoring to help his clients manage their body weight since the 1990s.

Phelan thought there could be a better way to implement Martin’s programme, providing continuous blood glucose monitoring through new technology and the eventual Limbo app. The company started as VIV (Vitals in View), with Phelan as the tester for it.

He was joined by chief executive Rurik Bradbury, who previously worked with Phelan on tech company Trustev, and they started building a team. A small number of beta testers began the programme, before Limbo began accepting applications from the general public.

The company last year raised $6 million in funding to further develop the platform, with basketball star Shaquille O’Neal coming on board both as a backer and a Limbo user. Other investors include Web Summit co-founder Paddy Cosgrave, PCH’s Liam Casey and Voxpro co-founder Dan Kiely.

Earlier this summer, the company got rid of the wait list and opened up Limbo Revolution to more customers. More than 400 members are now active on the system, with a surge in applications seen after the wait list was retired.

Obesity and weight management is an increasingly lucrative industry. From miracle plans and fad diets to supplements and drugs that promise to reduce fat, there are plenty of ways you can part with your money in the pursuit of weight loss.

According to the HSE, Ireland has one of the highest levels of obesity in Europe. It says some 60 per cent of adults and more than one in five children and young people are overweight or obese.

And until recently, I would have been considered among those numbers, at least according to my body mass index (BMI). If there is a diet or life-changing programme out there, there’s a good chance that I’ve tried it at some point. Few have stuck too long and, two pregnancies and almost 10 years later, the scales kept creeping higher.

Limbo is different. There is no calorie-counting – a recipe for misery for most people – or banned food groups. The idea is that you figure out what food works for you and your body, based on how your blood glucose reacts to different foods at different times of the day.

The technology that Limbo depends on was originally developed for the management of diabetes. The small glucose monitors provide continuous data on your interstitial glucose levels in almost real time, transmitting the data to the Limbo app and allowing you to see how that burger you just ate is impacting on your body. It also sends nudges to you, feedback to help guide you to better choices.

The system has several components: the blood glucose monitor that you wear constantly, and change every 15 days; the rechargeable transmitter that relays the data to your smartphone; the Limbo band that monitors your activity, heart rate, body temperature and sleep; and a smart scales that keeps track of your weight, muscle and body fat. The continuous glucose monitor is currently Abbott’s Libre, although that is set to change to one with a built-in transmitter.

Throughout the day you log your food, exercise, stress and other activity into the Limbo app, and Limbo’s system – a mixture of AI and human analysts – will give you feedback.

All those elements connect into the Limbo app. The key metric here is the “Limbo line”, the measurement of your blood glucose that you are aiming to keep as stable as possible. Keep it in the blue band – the Limbo zone – and you should start to see weight loss fairly quickly. Cravings should also start to dissipate as you get off the rollercoaster of spikes and crashes in your blood glucose levels. The easiest way to do this, in my experience, is through a low-carb diet, with lots of protein and fibrous vegetable to fill the bread-shaped gap in your life.

The nudges can become increasingly insistent if you ignore them repeatedly but, likewise, there is praise for taking a walk, or for making better food choices that fit in with your plan, that give you the praise high.

Limbo’s Liton Ali says the friction in the system is deliberate, even if it makes you bristle a little when you get a bit of a telling-off.

“Over three years, we have discussed the ‘running conversation’ with Limbo as a coach and decided time and again to stay with the ‘tough love’ approach. But we have always remembered the ‘love’ bit – research shows – and our data backs up – that a true feedback loop is what makes people change their habits. That means validating people as well as course-correcting them,” he explains. “We’re like a sat nav to weight loss but we don’t just nag you to turn back to the correct road, we praise you gently when you just stay on the road.”

It is also interesting to see the foods that you wouldn’t expect to see impact on your blood sugar causing a spike. Some heavily marketed protein bars, for example, put me into the red zone on the app, as did starchy vegetables such as sweet potato.

A few adjustments and the Limbo line was back to a more stable state. A few snacks led to some warnings about carbs; fruit created a nudge about not eating it by itself, as it could raise blood glucose.

So does it work? After 50 days on Limbo, I’ve lost more than 9kg, the weight I’ve struggled to lose for about six years. Clothes that still had labels on them, hanging in my wardrobe, have been worn. The Spanx have been relegated to the back of the wardrobe for now.

I’ve changed how I eat – and when. No more late-night snacking, no more blowouts with the promise that I’ll start over tomorrow. You can’t hide from Limbo, with the data there in front of you.

More importantly, I have more energy than I’ve had in a while, something I wasn’t expecting to happen. And my sleep has also improved – at least according to the wearables that monitor my rest.

If you’ve done any sort of low-carb diet before, there isn’t a huge amount of new knowledge in terms of how we should eat; Limbo doesn’t make suggestions about what food you should be consuming but just steers you towards alternatives that work better for you.

It is the data – the real-time impact on the Limbo line as you eat each food – that has been the biggest change. The fear of the Limbo tap on the shoulder kept me on the straight and narrow, and while the sweet tooth is dormant rather than extinct, it has been severely curtailed, as the leftover children’s party sweets will attest to.

It starts easily enough. Shortly after I slap on the first sensor and set up the band and scales, the first nudge comes: a welcome message that emphasises that tiny changes can add up to big changes. Unfortunately, it was just before a planned brunch that included banana bread French toast, a meal choice that triggered a warning about reducing sugar content in meals. Dinner – protein heavy – fared better, as did the water intake for the day. The next day, the choice of eggs for breakfast gets me the thumbs-up and, according to the Limbo app, barely moves my blood sugar. A morning coffee (black, with sweetener instead of sugar) meets with similar approval.

By the end of the first month, the scales show I’ve lost more than 8kg since starting the programme. There has been no deprivation, no suffering, no complicated calculations or meal plans to follow.

The fact that all this has been achieved without diving headfirst into a strict exercise regime is even more appealing. I dislike running, although I have tried to get on board with it. I’ve never had the runner’s high, unless you count the feeling of relief when I can finally stop. And with two children, a full-time job and a hectic schedule of activities for the aforementioned children, there is very little time left for gyms or punishing exercise classes.

A walk before breakfast and a walk in the evening – Limbo’s recommendation – is doable, though.

Limbo doesn’t have the whole market to itself. Supersapiens offers training programmes for athletes based on continuous blood glucose monitoring, but the emphasis seems to be firmly on bettering your performance. Helsinki-based Veri, meanwhile, offers blood glucose monitoring with food and lifestyle recommendations.

At the current cost – halved this week to €100 as a once-off charge for the equipment and a lower recurring subscription of €180 a month down from €220 – it isn’t a cheap plan but costs have come down significantly from its initial launch and may well reduce further.

Limbo’s programme won’t be suitable for everyone either. It’s not just a case of signing up, paying the money and starting on your Limbo life; you have to apply for the programme and complete a questionnaire. It’s not suitable for Type 1 diabetics, for example, or those with an eating disorder.

Ultimately though, the goal is to tackle the continuing obesity crisis before it leads to health complications, rather than simply treating the health issues it can cause.