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There are all types of fad diets out there—Atkins, keto, and the carnivore diet, to name a few—that make big claims about weight loss, usually followed by fleeting results. Fad diets pose their own health hazards, but they can also lead to a potentially more dangerous weight loss pattern known as yo-yo dieting.
Compared to conscious eating choices like intermittent fasting, which early research has found to yield health benefits like weight loss, reducing inflammation, and improving brain health, yo-yo dieting is an unintended consequence of a series of failed short-term diets (de Cabo, 2019).
Here’s what you need to know about yo-yo dieting, how it may be harmful to your health, and how to break the cycle.
What is yo-yo dieting?
Many people looking to lose weight—and lose it fast—go on short-term diets and then quit once they’ve achieved their desired results. But if that weight loss isn’t maintained, most experience an unintentional weight gain back, which inevitably pushes them to diet again. Research shows that 80% of people who lose substantial weight will gain it back within a year (Mehta, 2015).
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This cycle of weight loss and regain is known as yo-yo dieting, named for the way the body’s weight goes up and down like a yo-yo.
Also known as weight cycling, yo-yo dieting is a key factor in preventing people from maintaining weight loss long-term.
Why? Diets, especially fad diets, involve restricting calories or certain food groups. When you don’t give your body enough energy, it goes into a type of survival mode. The body releases hormones that make you feel hungrier and increase fat storage—a recipe for weight gain (Contreras, 2019).
Short-term diets also don’t advertise the ingredients actually needed for maintaining weight loss long-term: regular exercise, healthy eating, and stress reduction.
Studies have found that those who can avoid yo-yo dieting in the first year following an intentional weight loss were 50% less likely to regain that weight. In contrast, those who ended up yo-yo dieting started gaining weight back within the first year (Contreras, 2019). This may be because those who can keep weight off for a year have successfully developed skills to maintain long-term weight loss.
6 strategies to stop yo-yo dieting
Stopping the cycle of yo-yo dieting can be much more difficult than starting. Some people don’t even know they’re weight cycling or that it might cause health issues down the road. Like the promise of fad diets (and why those don’t last), there’s no magic pill that can ensure long-term weight loss. The old saying goes: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
But there are lifestyle changes you can make to help achieve your goals and prevent yourself from regaining weight after losing it. Here’s what the research says about what you can do to stop yo-yo dieting:
1. Avoid quick fixes or temporary solutions
When you’re struggling with excess weight, the promise of losing it fast with a fad diet is tempting. But our bodies aren’t designed to drop a bunch of weight at the snap of a finger.
To lose weight safely, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends aiming to lose 1–2 pounds a week over six months (NIH, n.d.). Taking small steps towards weight loss may feel frustrating—especially if you want drastic results fast. But the slow and steady method will make it easier for your body to acclimate to change and make incorporating other healthy habits into your life less intimidating.
2. Create a healthy eating plan
As we know, some foods are not the best for us. Limit foods with added or artificial sugars, sugary drinks, and foods high in trans or saturated fats like fried food and red meat. But this doesn’t mean cutting out carbs or fat altogether. Fruits and vegetables are full of complex carbs that give us energy. Food like fish, nuts, and olive oil supply us with healthy or unsaturated fats.
Studies suggest it’s better to focus on the quality of what you eat (aka, a proper balance of carbs, protein, and healthy fats) rather than restricting food groups entirely (Gardner, 2018). For example, the CDC recommends a healthy eating plan that includes a diverse diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat products (CDC, 2020).
On top of getting the nutrients you need, eating a balanced diet can help you feel full longer, which also helps with maintaining a healthy, stable weight.
3. Not sure where to start? Talk to a dietitian
Weight loss, in general, is difficult, and breaking a pattern of weight cycling is even more challenging. Seek help when you need it. Dietitians can provide support and nutritional information. They’ll work directly with you to develop a personalized (and realistic) plan to achieve your weight loss goals.
4. Exercise regularly
Physical activity not only burns off unwanted calories but is crucial for your overall health. Cutting calories can result in weight loss. However, the CDC notes that regular exercise coupled with a healthy diet is the best way to prevent gaining any weight you’ve lost back (CDC, 2015). You can also enlist a personal trainer who can create a tailored exercise routine and help you stick to it.
5. Get adequate rest and sleep
Lack of sleep not only depletes you of the energy needed to make healthy decisions (who hasn’t chugged an extra-large coffee loaded with cream and sugar after a restless night?), but it could also contribute to weight gain. Sleep deprivation can affect hormones that control hunger, as well as reduce physical activity. While a direct correlation between sleep and weight is yet to be established, research suggests that getting proper sleep and rest may aid in preventing obesity (Beccuti, 2011).
6. Manage your stress
Everyone handles stress differently, but many people turn to food in times of turmoil. There isn’t enough evidence yet to tie stress directly to yo-yo dieting. Still, finding ways to reduce stress levels can help keep your head clear and prevent you from binge eating or making choices that hinder your overall weight loss goals. If you’re struggling with stress, you can also seek support from friends, family, and mental health professionals who can teach you stress reduction techniques.
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What are the potential dangers of yo-yo dieting?
The issue with yo-yo dieting is our bodies just aren’t designed for it. Like a boat bobbing on rough seas, consistent fluctuations in weight disrupt the balance in the body, which makes it harder to maintain long-term weight loss. Along with short-term health effects during the diet phase—such as dizziness, fatigue, and dehydration—weight cycling can also lead to more severe problems down the road.
The debate on whether yo-yo dieting is worse for you than remaining overweight or obese (without trying to lose weight) is ongoing in the scientific community.
Some studies have found that weight cycling may pose similar health impacts to obesity. These health impacts include an increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes (Rhee, 2017). Other research concludes that adverse outcomes associated with obesity, like early mortality rates, are not associated with yo-yo dieting (Mehta, 2015). Here’s what we know so far about the risk factors for yo-yo dieting:
Increased risk for heart disease
Disruptions in weight throw things like blood pressure and cholesterol out of whack, putting people at higher risk for more serious problems, including heart disease and stroke (Kim, 2018).
Patients already living with heart disease who yo-yo diet are at an even higher risk. One study found that these individuals were more likely to have a serious event like a heart attack or death (Bangalore, 2017). But other studies found no link between weight fluctuations and cardiovascular disease (Oh, 2018). This ambiguity is not the same for obesity, which is considered a strong risk factor for heart disease (Carbone, 2019).
Increased risk for diabetes
Excess weight is a known risk factor for chronic diseases like diabetes, but how weight cycling contributes is a bit murkier.
One study found that while frequent changes in body weight increased the risk of type 2 diabetes in healthy or lean individuals, in people with obesity, it had a protective effect (Oh, 2018). There isn’t enough conclusive evidence to determine how yo-yo dieting may affect a person’s risk for developing diabetes. Obesity, on the other hand, increases the risk for type 2 diabetes by up to eight times, regardless of genetics (Schnurr, 2020).
May increase blood pressure
Fluctuations in weight seen in yo-yo dieting can lead to changes in blood pressure, cholesterol, and sugar levels in the body. The more irregular your blood pressure is, the more likely you will suffer serious problems like a heart attack or stroke.
Studies have also found that those who had more variability in body mass index (BMI) (a measure of body fat based on a person’s weight and height) had more than double the odds of dying from any cause compared to those with more stable numbers (Kim, 2018).
That being said, no direct link has been found yet between yo-yo dieting and high blood pressure, as intentional weight loss has also been shown to reduce blood pressure. We can, however, see a direct connection between obesity and high blood pressure, with research finding that individuals with obesity are 60–70% more likely to develop hypertension (Kotchen, 2010).
Increased risk of fatty liver disease from weight gain
Fatty liver disease happens when too much fat accumulates in the liver because it cannot break fat down properly. It can be caused by excessive alcohol use, inflammation, and chronic conditions like diabetes. Lifestyle and diet play a huge role in the prevention and management of fatty liver disease. Since obesity is a leading risk factor for fatty liver disease, any potential weight gains resulting from yo-yo dieting can increase your risk further (Petta, 2016).
Increased appetite may lead to more weight gain
Most diets involve cutting some type of food group out. If you’re eating less, why do many people notice an increase in appetite? It has to do with a hormone called leptin, which plays a crucial role in regulating body weight and fat mass (Izadi, 2014).
Fat and leptin levels are proportional, so losing fat during a diet also means a drop in your leptin levels, which signals your appetite to increase. While this happens in all types of dieting, the repeated cycle of weight loss in yo-yo dieting signals the body to start storing fat in preparation for the next “down” in the weight cycle. That signal is why some people regain even more weight than when they first started dieting.
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May lead to increases in body fat
One study found that women with excess weight who yo-yo dieted put on more weight than women who didn’t weight cycle. In this case, those who yo-yo dieted had cycled at least three times in losing and regaining 11 or more pounds (Madigan, 2018). However, the same study discovered that women living with obesity gained and lost weight in the same way as women who didn’t yo-yo diet.
While this study doesn’t illustrate how weight cycling increases body fat, animal studies have found that regaining weight after stopping a diet causes fat tissue to grow more rapidly—possibly because of the increased fat storage as the body prepares for the next cycle of dieting (Strohacker, 2009).
May lead to muscle loss, especially if you don’t exercise
No matter what your weight loss strategy is, it’s impossible to shed fat without shedding a little muscle as well. When coupled with exercise, safe methods for weight loss (like incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet) mean you can lose fat while toning and building muscle. However, yo-yo dieting and a lack of physical activity mean losing both muscle and fat; since fat is easier to gain back than muscle, weight cycling can leave you with muscle loss and a higher body fat percentage than when you started dieting. Obesity also leads to muscle loss, as those living with it may be less inclined to exercise (Zhu, 2019).
May contribute to depression
Compared to obesity, which is likely to increase the risk of developing depression, yo-yo dieting hasn’t been shown to directly trigger depression (Tyrrell, 2018). But, in general, nutrition plays a vital role in mental health.
One study found that those who consumed diets that lack nutrients or cut out food groups were more likely to suffer mental distress. While this particular study found that women who lacked a healthy diet and lifestyle were more likely to struggle with mental health issues, both men and women who experienced nutritional deficiencies had a harder time regulating their emotions (Begdache, 2018).
Increased mortality rate
The research on this is conflicting, but one study following a Korean population of 3,678 people found that weight cycling was associated with a higher mortality rate (Oh, 2018). Other reports have found no evidence of a higher death rate due to yo-yo dieting (Mehta, 2015). The evidence is still out on whether weight cycling can lead to an early death. We know for sure, though, that studies have found that the negative health impacts of obesity increase mortality rates (Abdelaal, 2017).
Emphasize healthy and sustainable weight loss
If you have excess weight or obesity and need to shed some pounds, there are healthy and sustainable ways to do that, without entering into a cycle of yo-yo dieting. Your weight loss will likely be slower by prioritizing a healthy diet and exercise, but it will be much more sustainable in the long term.
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Dr. Mike is a licensed physician and the Director, Medical Content & Education at Ro.