Yo-yo dieting – you know the pattern – lose weight, gain it back. Lose, gain. Lose, gain. Over and over again. When your weight swings up and down like that, you might wonder… is this yo-yo dieting making me fatter?
It’s a common concern, and many people worry that repeated bouts of weight gain and loss – also called “weight cycling” – might make them fatter with each regain. Another common fear is that yo-yo dieting will slow your metabolic rate so severely that you’ll be hard-pressed to ever lose weight again.
The Effects of Yo-Yo Dieting
Repeated dieting can make it more difficult for you to lose weight over time – but not for the reasons you may think.
The logic behind the belief that “yo-yo dieting makes you fatter” goes something like this: if weight loss causes the loss of fat and muscle, but you only gain fat when you regain the weight, you’ll just get fatter each time you yo-yo. But there is no evidence that this is true – even with repeated bouts of dieting, body composition doesn’t really change that much in people who are overweight or obese. In other words, they don’t get fatter and fatter.
There’s also no convincing evidence that yo-yo dieting causes your metabolic rate to take a permanent nosedive.2 Your metabolic rate does drop slightly when you begin a diet – with fewer calories coming in, your body’s natural response is to slow the engine a bit to conserve energy.
But this drop in metabolic rate when you begin a diet is relatively small – and is not permanent, especially if efforts are made to maintain muscle mass. The addition of exercise to a weight loss program – as well as the inclusion of adequate protein in the diet – can help you do just that.
What all this means is that losing weight shouldn’t be any more difficult for someone who is doing it for the fifteenth time, compared to someone who is attempting weight loss for the very first time.
The Downside to Yo-yo Dieting
Does this mean that you should let your weight go up and down with every new diet fad?
Here’s my take on it. I just said that losing weight for the fifteenth time shouldn’t be any more difficult for you than it was the first time you tried. And, from a purely metabolic standpoint, that’s true. If you don’t get fatter each time you regain your weight, and if you don’t alter your resting metabolic rate each time your weight bounces back, then each attempt at weight loss has an equally good chance of giving you results.
But I think that your attitude towards dieting is a lot different the fifteenth time around than it is the first time. And that can have a huge impact on the outcome.
For many people, the first time they go on weight loss diet can be kind of exciting. With goals in place, you’re geared up and motivated, and driven by a positive attitude. Expectations are high, and you’re certain you’ll succeed – after all, with no prior experience, there’s no reason to assume you won’t reach your goals.
But when the dieting attempt fails, those heady emotions are replaced by feelings of defeat. Unable to successfully manage your own weight, you might feel like a failure – discouraged and depressed. Your future attempts at weight loss aren’t quite as thrilling as the first time, when everything was new. And, your heart just may not be in it, especially if you’ve convinced yourself – before you’ve even started to diet again – that you’re bound to fail.
Why Does Your Weight Go Up and Down?
If you find it harder and harder to lose weight each time you try, maybe it’s because you’re making it more difficult for yourself.
Maybe you’re trying to tackle too many changes at once. Maybe you’re trying to follow a diet that’s too strict. Maybe you’re choking down foods you don’t like, or you’ve stopped socializing because you don’t know how to have a meal out with friends and stick to your plan. With restrictions like that, is it any wonder you can’t keep your weight off for long?
Life provides enough ups and downs as it is. Breaking the yo-yo cycle means finding a plan that works for you– not just for a few days or a few weeks, but for a lifetime. And if it takes you a little longer to lose the weight, so what?
When you are able to lose weight and keep it off, it says that you’ve established a healthy eating and exercise pattern that works for you – and one that you can sustain for life.
Susan Bowerman is Director of Nutrition Training at Herbalife. Susan is a Registered Dietitian and a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics.
1Grattan BJ Jr, Connolly-Schoonen J. ISTN Obes. Oct 15;:567530, 2012.
Nutrition expert Susan Bowerman
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