Is Yo-Yo Dieting Damaging to Your Healthy?

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Is Yo-Yo Dieting Damaging to Your Healthy?

A yo-yo slides up and down a string in a rhythmic fashion – and there’s a form of dieting that behaves similarly. It’s called yo-yo dieting. Like a yo-yo, yo-yo dieting, or weight cycling, is a cycle of losing weight and regaining, often over and over again. For some women, yo-yo dieting is a way of life. When a “yo-yo’er” wants to lose weight, they adopt extreme measures to do so – very low calorie diets, exhaustive exercise, and even diet pills. The weight comes off but not permanently. Like a spring pressed down by force, once it’s released, it catapults back to its starting point. However, with yo-yo dieting, once the extreme weight loss measures stop, a dieter may end up weighing more than they did before they started. It’s a vicious cycle and one that’s all too common. The question is: What effect does this type of weight cycling have on health?

We already know that yo-yo dieting isn’t good for your metabolism and may impact your body composition as well. It’s not surprising that yo-yoing slows resting metabolism since it’s built around extreme measures like excessive calorie restriction, skipped meals, and excessive exercise. When you deprive your body of energy, it makes adjustments to maintain homeostasis. One way it does this is by slowing your resting metabolic rate. Another way is by altering appetite hormones in such a way that you feel hungrier.

Does science support this idea? A study published in the International Journal of Obesity showed dieting slows metabolism, but not all research concurs. Some studies don’t show a consistent slow-down in metabolism in response to dieting – so the verdict is still out. However, in extreme cases, the decline in metabolic rate may be long lasting. This study looked at long-term changes in metabolic rate among participants in the Biggest Loser competition. Although the participants lost significant amounts of weight through dieting and exercise, their metabolic rate slowed and remained slower for six years after their weight loss.

With the adaptations that take place with weight cycling and the extreme nature of the practice, it’s inevitable that yo-yo diets fall back into old habits – and that’s when the weight comes back on.

Is Weight Cycling Bad for Your Heart?

Beyond changes in body composition and metabolism, weight cycling may be harmful in other ways. In a study, researchers followed 160,000 post-menopausal women as part of the Women’s Health Initiative. What they found was women of normal weight whose weight fluctuated by more than 10 pounds were at 66% greater risk of dying from sudden cardiac death over the following decade. Although this study doesn’t show cause and effect, it raises concerns about the practice of gaining and losing significant amounts of weight.

Another study found that more frequent weight fluctuations were linked with a higher risk of heart problems. Again, this is correlational and doesn’t necessarily show cause and effect. Another limitation is the study only looked at post-menopausal women.

You might wonder why weight fluctuations are linked with heart disease. One theory is that weight cycling damages the cells that line the inside of blood vessels called endothelial cells. These cells, by producing chemicals like nitric oxide, play a key role in blood pressure control and blood clotting. Research shows when these cells are damaged, the risk of heart attack and stroke go up.

Other studies show a link between weight cycling and high blood pressure as well as a greater risk of gallbladder disease. What’s less appreciated is the effect yo-yo dieting has on mental health. When you adopt a drastic, weight loss diet, it places stress on your body. In response, the stress hormone cortisol goes up. In some people, this causes anxiety. Plus, weight cycling can have a negative effect on your self-esteem. Not to mention, eating a very low calorie diet is bound to affect your energy level and stamina. You simply won’t feel as good or perform well when you exercise if you’re calorie restricted.

Just as disturbing is a study published in the European Journal of Epidemiology. It showed that among overweight and obese middle-aged and older men, fluctuations in body were linked greater higher mortality, even more so than being obese with a stable weight.

Losing Weight Releases Stored Toxins

One way your body segregates the toxins you’re exposed to every day is by storing them in fat tissue. When you lose body fat, these toxins are released into the bloodstream where they can potentially impact your health. In one study, researchers tested the blood of dieters who had lost a large amount of weight. The toxins in their bloodstream were 5 times higher than what would be expected. If you’re a yo-yo dieter, you potentially store and re-release these toxins many times. Who knows what type of damage this could cause to the cells and tissues in your body over time?

How Can You Break the Dieting Cycle?

Maybe it’s time to break the cycle. Ditch the fad diets and make permanent and sustainable changes to how you eat – more whole foods, fewer processed foods and sugar. It’s not as sexy as diets that promise drastic weight loss but it works and won’t place your health at risk. Why choose a short-term solution that can harm your health as opposed to one that you can live with for a lifetime?  There really are no shortcuts to reaching your ideal weight and maintaining it, just as there are no magical secrets to staying healthy. It comes down to the basics – a whole food diet, regular physical activity, enough sleep, stress management, and mindfulness. You don’t have to tackle all of these challenges at once. Small steps, over time, add up to big changes. The key is to start making those small changes – and do it consistently.

Yo-Yo dieting is a dietary practice to avoid. Now you know why. Take a longer term approach to losing weight and learn healthy eating and exercise habits so you can maintain a healthy body weight. Repeatedly gaining and losing weight is self-defeating and may be harmful to your mental and physical health.

Huffington Post. “Yo-Yo Dieting Is Dangerous, Especially for Normal Weight Women”

Int J Obes (Lond) 2015, 39:1188-1196.

Obesity. Volume 24, Issue 8. August 2016. Pages 1612–1619.

Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88:906–912.

Eur J Epidemiol. 2007;22(10):665-73. Epub 2007 Aug 4.

Endocrinology Advisor. “Yo-Yo Dieting Hikes Risk for Sudden Cardiac Death, CHD Mortality in Women”

The New York Times. “The Dangers of Yo-Yo Dieting”