Weight Cycling & Yo-Yo Dieting – Is it Bad for You?

Scale and yo yo

If you’ve tried to lose weight in the past, you may be familiar with the concepts of weight cycling and yo-yo dieting. While yo-yo dieting (repeatedly going on and off of a diet in an effort to lose weight) can lead to weight cycling (losing weight and regaining it), weight cycling is not always a result of  to yo-yo dieting. In this article we’ll talk more about why yo-yo dieting is bad for you, why weight cycling occurs, and what you can do to prevent it from happening so you can maintain your weight loss for good. 

What is Yo-Yo Dieting?

Consider the following scenario: You want to lose weight so you go online and find a diet that claims to help you do just that. The first month is going great – you’re following the recommended plan and the weight is coming off as expected. But then life happens. You get busy with work and kid activities make for hectic evenings and the next thing you know, you’re having trouble sticking to the diet and your weight is going back up. You try again a few months later. This time with a different approach that has you cutting out what feels like nearly all the foods you typically eat. This time, you feel hungry all the time and find it impossible to stick to the plan. Two weeks later, you’re off the diet and regaining weight. This is yo-yo dieting – going on a diet, losing weight, going off a diet, and regaining the weight. But it’s not your fault! Everything we hear about losing weight suggests that you need to go on a diet to be successful, but the research has actually shown that diets don’t work. That’s not to say that you don’t need to change the way you eat in order to lose weight, because you absolutely do, but the diet mindset leads us to believe that if we change the way we eat for a short period of time (often in a significant, very restrictive way), we will lose weight and keep it off. Unfortunately this approach tends to lead to weight cycling and it can be detrimental to your health. 

What are the Health Risks Associated with Yo-Yo Dieting? 

Concerns about long-term health risks associated with yo-yo dieting and weight cycling have been a topic in scientific literature since the 1990’s.The research has been mixed with some studies showing that weight cycling increases the risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, while others show no such association. However, one study from 2022 is pretty convincing. It looked at weight cycling and the risk of type 2 diabetes and hypertension in over 6 million people. Results of this study suggest that weight cycling does increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and hypertension, especially with multiple weight cycling events (versus just a single episode of weight loss and regain). 

It’s also important to consider the emotional impact that yo-yo dieting and weight cycling can have on a person. Trying to lose weight can be hard. It usually takes a significant effort to change behaviors; especially those that you’ve been doing for years. To overcome these challenges and have short term success, but then gain it all back, is understandably frustrating and disheartening. Research suggests that weight cycling can even lead to an increase in symptoms of depression. The more that someone loses and regains weight, the more that they internalize negative beliefs about themself resulting in heightened feelings of depression. 

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Why Does Weight Cycling Occur?

Weight cycling can occur for a few reasons. One of these is yo-yo dieting as described above. Trying to follow a diet that is too restrictive or doesn’t fit with your lifestyle is unlikely to give you lasting results. Additionally, the concept of “dieting” implies that you will at some point stop. Unfortunately, when you stop following the changes that have produced weight loss, you will likely experience weight regain. That’s why we need to get out of the dieting mindset altogether and focus on behaviors that both promote weight loss and feel sustainable. What these behaviors are will vary from person-to-person depending on factors such as what foods you prefer to eat, your work and home obligations, and your health history, just to name a few. 

Another reason that weight cycling occurs is a concept known as metabolic adaptation. 

We’ve explained metabolic adaptation in more detail here if you’re interested, but basically, it is your body’s response to weight loss that can make weight loss maintenance difficult. When you lose weight, your metabolic rate decreases and your appetite hormones increase, meaning you are burning fewer calories and at the same time, feeling more hungry or thinking about food more often. This combination of biological factors can promote weight regain and therefore, weight cycling. 

How to Prevent Weight Cycling and Maintain your Weight Loss

While weight regain is a common occurrence after a weight loss effort, it doesn’t have to be the outcome. There are a number of strategies that have been proven to prevent weight cycling and help you to maintain your weight loss.

Shift your mindset. A shift in mindset is important from the start. If you are ready to lose weight, consider how you can change your behaviors in a sustainable way rather than looking for the next best diet. Weight loss is not an assessment of your willpower or how well you can follow the diet rules, it’s about making small changes that add up over time to help you lose weight and keep it off. These changes could be things like mindful snacking, fitting in a 20 minute walk mid-day, or drinking more water throughout the day.  

Build a support system. There can be a lot of feelings to work through while trying to lose weight and having a support system to help you along the way can help you stay motivated. Support can come from friends, family, health professionals, or online groups that you feel comfortable sharing your journey with. 

Avoid strict diets. Diets that require cutting out a whole food group, or that give demanding criteria to follow are most likely to be the type of diets that will lead to a yo-yo dieting cycle. Having so many rules to follow makes it more difficult to implement into your daily life and will not be something most people can stick to over the  long term. Instead, eat a nutritionally balanced diet that is suited for you to lose weight and keep it off. 

Looking beyond the scale. At the end of the day, it is important to remember that weight loss is a journey full of ups and downs. Do not let your mind get clouded by the number you read on the scale on any one day, instead think about how far you have come and that you are making progress which is something to be proud of!

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About the Author

Julia Axelbaum, RD, Director of Clinical Nutrition, CSOWM, LDN

Julia Axelbaum is a Registered Dietitian board certified in obesity and weight management at Form Health. She studied Nutrition and Public Health at New York University and completed her clinical training at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Julia worked as a bariatric dietitian at NewStart Bariatrics in St. Louis, MO and went on to become the Bariatric Program Coordinator where she fully launched the center’s first non-surgical, medical weight loss program. Julia is passionate about helping her patients learn how to take control of emotional eating, develop a more balanced mindset and improve their relationship with food.

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