Did you gain weight during the holidays? Or, maybe you lost a few pounds, because you’re stressed at work. Hormones, life events, dietary changes and exercise routines (or lack thereof) can cause normal fluctuations in your weight. This occasional ebb and flow is usually negligible. Where it becomes concerning is when you’re gaining and losing weight constantly. This is classic yo-yo dieting, and it can create serious health risks.
What is yo-yo dieting?
Imagine you work really hard to lose weight. You take hundreds of cardio classes, hire a personal trainer to show you around the weight floor and eat like a bird for days on end. But, six months later, it all comes right back. Next, you try a cleanse, consuming nothing but fruit juice for two weeks. Weight falls off again, but you’re tired, cranky and starving for solid food. When it’s over, you binge and regain everything – plus some. Sound familiar? This is yo-yo dieting.
Of course, the exact circumstances are unique to every person. But anytime someone is gaining and losing weight constantly, this is referred to as weight cycling. More commonly, it’s known as yo-yo dieting. Contrary to popular belief, yo-yo dieting is not only reserved for people who lose a large amount of weight at once. Weight cycling can be defined as losing and gaining as little as 10 pounds. This cycle may happen once or dozens of times.
The Dangers of Yo-Yo Dieting
You may not have given much thought to gaining and losing weight so frequently. After so many cycles, you get used to the merry go ‘round. But before you hop on again, know that some serious health complications might come along for the ride.
1. A consequence of yo-yo dieting: increased body fat
How can dieting make you gain body fat? That’s the last thing you want. Unfortunately, a weight-cycling body doesn’t care about what you want. Studies have shown that fat cells can increase during the gaining portion of a weight cycle. This causes you to gain more fat mass than lean muscle mass. Remember, lean muscle mass burns more calories at rest than fat.
The takeaway: a higher body fat composition will lead to a slower metabolism, making it harder to lose weight in the future.
2. A consequence of yo-yo dieting: increased appetite
Fat cells in the body store a hormone called leptin. This hormone tells the brain when your body is full and should stop eating. Because leptin is stored and released by fat cells, it is largely dependent on the body’s fat composition. Losing weight (aka losing fat) will, effectively, reduce leptin levels. As levels of this hormone fall, appetite increases.
The take away: dieting and losing weight can increase your appetite, making it more difficult to continue to lose weight.
3. A consequence of yo-yo dieting: poor cardiovascular health
Researchers at Columbia University observed a diverse group of 485 women, ages 20 to 76. They reported the number of times they had lost and regained at least 10 pounds in one year (not including pregnancy). The women’s heart health was then established based on the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 – a review of BMI, blood pressure, total cholesterol, glucose, physical activity, diet and smoking. According to Columbia University Irving Medical Center, “The more episodes of yo-yo dieting women reported, the worse they performed on Life’s Simple 7.”
The take away: gaining and losing weight constantly has a negative effect on heart health.
4. A consequence of yo-yo dieting: increased risk of diabetes
In a study conducted on mice, weight cycling impaired glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. While the study did not confirm a diabetes diagnosis, these are risk factors for diabetes mellitus. Several other studies have concluded weight cycling is not an independent risk factor for diabetes. However, “weight cycling during a net weight gain may pose a stronger risk of diabetes compared with non-cycling,” according to a study published in Diabetologia.
The take away: be aware that yo-yo dieting may increase your risk of diabetes due to excessive weight gain and potential insulin sensitivity.
5. A consequence of yo-yo dieting: elevated stress levels
Dieting of any kind causes mental stress, no matter how you look at it. But it also creates physiological stress. Studies show restricting calories increases cortisol levels. Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone. In addition to controlling your stress response, cortisol effects inflammation, sleep-wake cycles, blood pressure, blood sugar and metabolism. Because yo-yo dieters are often chronically stressed from gaining and losing weight constantly, their cortisol levels may stay elevated. This overproduction of cortisol can affect a number of normal body processes.
The take away: Chronic stress keeps cortisol levels constantly elevated, which can cause a range of health conditions, including depression, insomnia, heart disease and weight gain.
6. A consequence of yo-yo dieting: increased risk of gallstones
Being overweight or obese can increase your risk of gallstones. However, losing weight quickly, as you might during a cleanse or fad diet, can also increase your chances of forming gallstones. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), “When you don’t eat for a long period of time or you lose weight quickly, your liver releases extra cholesterol into the bile. Fast weight loss can also prevent the gallbladder from emptying properly.”
The take away: gaining too much weight and/or losing it too quickly, as one does with yo-yo dieting, increases your chances of painful gallstones.
7. A consequence of yo-yo dieting: imbalanced gut bacteria
Another mice study found that, after a cycle of gaining and losing weight, the mice’s body systems all returned to normal except their microbiome. In other words, they retained their obese-state microbiome, the mix of bacteria that developed when the mice gained weight. This ‘obese’ microbiome remained for about six months after the mice lost weight. The researchers conducted a number of follow-up tests and concluded the ‘obese’ microbiome was a major factor in accelerated weight gain post-dieting.
The take away: yo-yo dieting can disrupt the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut, which has a number of health implications.
Break the Cycle
Here’s the biggest takeaway of all: stop yo-yo dieting. This requires you to be patient with yourself and focused on long-term health. Start by eating a well-rounded diet, drinking plenty of water and practicing portion control. Mindful eating strategies will teach you to recognize when you’re full, helping to prevent overeating. Once you’ve conquered these good habits, add daily movement into the mix. Yo-yo dieting won’t have a chance against such a healthy and sustainable strategy.