As frustrating as it sounds, most people who lose a significant amount of weight gain it all back and, often, more. In fact, the percentage of people who regain the pounds they struggled to lose is around 80%.
What happens after the pounds come back on? A significant number try to lose it again, only to be met with a similar outcome. For some folks, the desire to achieve a certain weight becomes an endless, exasperating cycle of weight loss and weight regain. Up and down and up and down again. This type of weight cycling is sometimes referred to as yo-yo dieting. Like a yo-yo bounces back up after it spins toward the ground, for yo-yo dieters, the weight does the same. For some people, the cycle is a repeated exercise in frustration.
It may be frustrating, but what harm is there in weight cycling or yo-yo dieting? It may be riskier than you think. A recent study, the Korean Genome and Epidemiology Study, looked at the issue. In this study, researchers followed 3,678 women and men for 16 years. The news isn’t good. The researchers found that yo-yo dieting was linked with a higher risk of death overall. However, there was a bright spot. For those who are obese, yo-yo dieting was correlated with a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. We know that excess body fat is a contributor to the risk of type 2 diabetes, the most common kind.
This isn’t the first study to show weight cycling is an unhealthy practice. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine raised similar concerns about yo-yo dieting. This study focused on 10,000 women and men with coronary artery disease found that people who repeated to lose and gain weight developed more strokes and heart attacks than those who maintained a relatively stable weight. Other studies have linked yo-yo dieting with an increase in blood pressure, blood sugar, and undesirable changes in blood lipid levels.
How Yo-Yo Dieting Impacts Body Composition
As if an increased mortality risk isn’t bad enough, weight cycling can also have a negative effect on your body composition. When you lose weight, you shed body fat AND muscle. The former you want, the latter you don’t. After losing weight, it’s easier to regain body fat than it is muscle. So, you end up with an unhealthy body fat percentage irrespective of your weight. Plus, older people can develop sarcopenia from losing too much muscle. That’s why it’s so important to get enough protein and to strength train when trying to lose weight. You need to shift the weight loss as much toward fat and away from muscle loss as possible. Aggressive weight loss and weight cycling are particularly detrimental to older people who are already battling to retain muscle mass.
Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
Although the Korean Genome and Epidemiology Study found a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes among yo-yo dieters, other studies suggest the opposite. In fact, repeated weight cycling may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes in some people. One reason is yo-yo dieters tend to regain fat around the waist and tummy. Weight gain here is often visceral fat, a type of fat linked with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Whether or not weight cycling increases the risk of type 2 diabetes may depend on where dieters regain the weight. If it increases belly fat, it bodes poorly for metabolic health and insulin sensitivity.
Weight Cycling May Be Harmful to Your Immune System
In one study, researchers looked at the activity of natural killer cells, cells that protect against viruses and other invaders, in people who yo-yo dieted. Compared to women who didn’t weight cycle, those who yo-yo dieted up and down at least 5 times over a 20-year period had a 30% drop in natural killer cell activity. What’s more, the suppression of natural killer cells persisted for up to 15 years after the women stopped yo-yo dieting. So, weight cycling could have longer-term health consequences.
Yo-Yo Dieting is Often Linked with Unhealthy Practices
Most people who perpetually weight cycle do so because they aren’t trying to lose weight in a healthy, sustainable manner. The only goal is to get the weight off and get it off fast! So, they practice extreme calorie restriction or fad diets to lose the weight. Calorie restriction often backfires. Any time you drastically reduce calories, your body retaliates by slowing down resting metabolism and by making it easier to store fat. Then, there’s the issue of hunger. If you scale back calories too aggressively, you fight hunger and the tendency to binge. It can turn into a vicious cycle that’s hard to break. With yo-yo dieting, you’re constantly fighting your body and people who do that are rarely successful long term.
Break the Cycle
Yo-yo dieting is counterproductive and, based on some research, even harmful. At the very least, it’s an exercise in frustration. The point? Let get of the concept of dieting and, instead, switch your focus toward eating healthy, whole foods and eating them in a mindful and undistracted manner. Otherwise, you run the risk that dieting and food, in general, will dictate your life. Yo-yo dieting is bad for your mental health and self-esteem too! Who wants to deal with ups and downs and constant obsession with the scale? Eat for health, not just to achieve a specific body weight. Unless you break the cycle, you’ll never have a permanent solution to weight control. Even worse, you may harm your health.
The Bottom Line
Now, you know some of the potential harms of weight cycling. Not all studies show these negative effects but there are enough studies showing harms to raise a red flag. So, adopt healthy, sustainable weight control practices and don’t think in terms of a diet! It’s a lifestyle.
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