No one chooses to start yo-yo dieting. It is not a particular type of diet, like keto, paleo, Atkins, or any other diet with specific parameters. It is instead the cycle of continually jumping from one diet to the next, expecting different results than the last, in turn creating a yo-yo effect on both your physical and psychological health. It is rather a dangerous hole with a slippery entrance that so many women easily fall into, only to soon find themselves deep in an abyss of no results, wondering how they can climb their way out and just get back to square one.
I truly picture it like an Alice in Wonderland experience, except you don’t end up in Wonderland, you end up in some scary diet maze with no way out. A maze with a new restriction at every turn, another nightmarish session of stepping on the scale, and the continual feeling of failure as you try to work your way out of the maze and back up through the rabbit hole.
Yo-yo dieting is for the birds. No, not even the birds, they don’t deserve that.
Defining “Yo-Yo Dieting”
According to Merriam-Webster, yo-yo dieting is defined as, “the practice of repeatedly losing weight by dieting and subsequently regaining it.” Pretty good, but let’s dig into that a little more. That definition focuses on the physical impacts of starting yet another diet this new year, only to gain the weight back a few months later, but it fails to mention anything about the psychological effects of consistent weight fluctuation. There are many, which we will dive into later in this article.
A more professional-sounding term often used to describe this same phenomenon is weight cycling. It’s the same dealio, my friends, and indicates that your weight is consistently fluctuating up and down, keeping you from sustaining a healthy weight and body fat percentage. This is often much more about achieving fast results than attaining a healthy lifestyle.
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Consider this scenario: you commit to making change in the new year and lose 10 lbs with a fairly strict, low-carb diet. You are really happy with your appearance by the end of the three month stint, but really struggle to sustain eating low-carb, so you go back to a diet more similar to how you were eating before the new year. You gain back 12 lbs over the next six months and as the holidays roll around again, you start thinking about how you can lose this extra weight.
The following year you try a new approach that your best friend has gotten great results from - you join a gym and start eating strict keto. The results don’t come easily, but you manage to lose 8 lbs over the next couple months, until… life gets crazy and you stop showing up to regular workouts along with eating a few (okay fine, more than a few) more treats than you did for the last few months. Suddenly it’s summer and you’re up another 10 lbs. As you approach the next new year you start running some quick numbers and realize that after all the loss and regain you are now up 4 lbs from when you started all this dieting shenanigans two years ago and you’re feeling quite discouraged.
This cycle can continue as long as you let it. For some people it’s decades and for others it’s a few dieting cycles to realize this pattern isn’t working. The unfortunate nature of this all is that you spend a lot of time, energy, meal preparation, workouts, thought, and planning, to only end up in a worse physical and mental state than when you began, which takes it's toll on your overall health.
Yo-yo dieting can negatively affect you, both physically and psychologically.
The Impact of the Yo-Yo Diet Cycle
The cycle of yo-yo dieting can affect much more than you realize. While it may seem like a simple new year's resolution to start yet another diet, there are negative implications both physically and psychologically when you continually cycle from diet to diet. The result is a cycle that is hard to break out of and prevents you from building positive habits. Here is a look at how the cycle often plays out:
You Desire Change
Your body weight, body fat percentage, and overall body composition is displeasing to you. Sometimes there is a health concern and other times this is conjured up in the mind.
The Diet Begins
You start a restrictive diet and initially feel a surge of energy as you make change. You likely lose a bit of water weight as you cut out carbohydrates, processed foods, sugar, and the like.
As you continue to restrict, you start to feel the physiological effects. Your energy has dipped, your workouts don't feel great, you struggle to focus at work, and you have TONS of cravings.
The Struggle Is Real
You continue to pep talk yourself through hard diet days and you're starting to see some results. You've lost some weight, but you've likely also lost a bit of muscle mass, and you're struggling to see how you can sustain this.
You Start Questioning
Sustaining the diet no longer feels possible. Your cravings are insanely strong to the point that you no longer care as much about your weight loss. You figure that one "cheat meal" won't mess things up too badly, but...
The Weight Returns
...the restricted food tastes GOOD and you never want to diet again. You go back to eating the way you did before and you gain the weight back... plus a little more because your body is still adjusted to your restricted eating pattern.
You Seek the Next Diet
You are once again dissatisfied with your body and determined to make change, so you find yet another diet regimen to try. You think, "THIS is the one that will finally work." But is it?
The Negative Physical Effects of Yo-Yo Dieting
Let’s talk about the specific effects of yo-yo dieting on your physical well being. People tend to think of these implications more quickly than they do of the psychological effects, but we will get into that topic as well.
The most obvious physical effect for people, is weight gain. The yo-yo cycle implies that you are losing and regaining weight, though it is very common to regain slightly more than you lost. Here is the reason for that… when you put yourself in a caloric deficit to lose weight, your body makes the according adjustments to stabilize weight as much as possible. This often comes in the form of slightly less movement throughout the day (non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or N.E.A.T.), slightly less energy for your workouts, a bit of muscle loss, and often a slight slump in your metabolism. When you decide to throw in the towel on your diet you are still in the same metabolic state, but often now consume significantly more calories that you were recently consuming, this leads to the sort of weight regain that is often seen in yo-yo dieting.
As foreshadowed in the explanation about weight gain, yo-yo dieting often causes diminished energy levels. While there are smarter, more strategic ways to approach a calorie deficit for better energy levels, the nature of a calorie deficit is precisely as it sounds - you are giving your body less calories than it expends throughout the day. This will affect your energy levels. Fluctuating between stretches of caloric deficit and stretches of caloric excess creates challenges not just for your weight, but also for the way you feel as you go throughout your day.
Additionally, when losing weight, it is not uncommon to lose a bit of muscle mass along with body fat. When trying to shift your body composition by eating in a caloric deficit, it is advantageous to increase your protein intake and ensure consistent resistance training, but even these measures do not guarantee that you will maintain all your muscle from pre-deficit. One of the greatest challenges of decreased muscle mass is the impact this has on your metabolism. Muscle plays an immense role in your resting metabolic rate or RMR (the amount of calories you burn at rest), which has implications for weight management or loss.
One of the most common statements you may have heard is that “yo-yo dieting ruins your metabolism.” I don’t love that statement - it’s far too extreme - and anyone’s metabolism can in fact be repaired with some intentional work, but constant weight fluctuations do take a temporary toll on your metabolism. As I explained earlier, an extended caloric deficit does have the power to slow things down. One of the most challenging dimensions of the metabolism is the role of hormones, especially the stress hormones, including cortisol. It is not uncommon that modern day diet trends with restrictive plans, especially those not centered on whole foods, can affect your hormones, and in turn your metabolism. Beyond the numerous physical implications of yo-yo dieting, I would be remiss not to talk about the psychological implications.
Amidst the numerous cycles of dieting, your weight often increases with each cycle, leaving you discouraged and exhausted after all the work you've put in.
Existing in a caloric deficit constantly can be tiring for our bodies and minds - this affects both your daily energy expenditure and your energy for workouts.
When losing body fat it is common to lose a bit of muscle mass as well. Taking the proper steps to manage protein intake + resistance training is your best preventative measure.
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The Negative Psychological Effects of Yo-Yo Dieting
I would argue that the psychological effects of yo-yo dieting are even worse than the physical. While the physical effects can be measured with a scale, tape measure, or lab testing, the psychological effects are far harder to measure and often overlooked.
To begin, yo-yo dieting puts constant strain on your willpower. I talk with clients all the time about “setting yourself up for success,” which most diets entirely fail to do. You commit to a stretch of highly restricted eating (whether you are cutting out certain food groups, aggressively diminishing certain macronutrients, doing an unrealistic amount of tracking or food preparation, etc.) and hold on, white knuckled, for as long as you can until suddenly… you just can’t handle it anymore. You entirely push your willpower to the limits until you mentally combust and throw in the towel on the whole thing. For some this looks like “letting loose” for only a meal or two, until you realize it’s time to get back on the bandwagon, but many find that this cycle starts to happen more and more frequently until you fully give up on the diet. For others, this looks like taking numerous days or weeks off of the diet and then feeling a deep sense of guilt over the choices you’ve made.
When this cycle is sustained for an extended period of time it frequently has a negative impact on your relationship with food as well. You start to view foods as either "good" or "bad," "on the plan" or "off the plan," and it distorts the fact that extreme measures are rarely what's needed to get results. If not checked and balanced, a poor relationship with food can quickly lead to disordered eating patterns that can take years to mend. If you start to sense that you have fears about consuming certain foods, abnormal patterns around eating, distorted thoughts or frequent triggers around food, or a deep fear of weight gain, please seek professional help.
No matter your specific experience, continually cycling from one diet to the next without getting the results you desire leaves you with a lack of faith in your ability to make change. Trying one diet and then the next, and then the next, leaves you feeling like you are unable to achieve your goals. It’s simply demoralizing. With every yo-yo diet cycle you are affirming to yourself that yet again you are unable to make it work. The key thing to recognize is that it’s not necessarily you, it’s the diets that constantly set you up for failure.
As your belief in yourself waxes and wanes you begin questioning if you are doomed to your current state forever. I have had so many women come to me saying that they feel like nothing will ever work for them. It’s simply not true. It’s a matter of figuring out what works for you individually. It’s a matter of setting yourself up for success with a sustainable nutrition approach, rather than setting yourself up for failure with a quick-fix diet. So let’s chat about those things.
How to Stop Yo-Yo Dieting
This all starts with your own willingness to make change and break the cycle. You need to be committed to avoiding the temptation of more quick fixes, realizing that getting truly lasting results may take a bit longer, but will be entirely worth it. A lot of this starts with a conversation with yourself. A serious conversation.
No one can convince you of the need to change more than yourself. When you are really at the end of your rope with fluctuating body weight, poor energy levels, and the mental games of dieting, you will know.
If you’re there, it’s time to start seeking a long-term solution for your health. It’s time to start understanding your body holistically rather than just as something in need of weight loss. Consider that your mindset, your nutrition, and your movement all play a role in how all of your bodily systems function.
As you commit to make time to understand your own tendencies and preferences in accordance with all your health habits, you will learn things about yourself that no diet or exercise plan can tell you. This is about garnering the self-knowledge to build habits that make sense for YOU so you can achieve healthy weight loss!
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Yo-Yo Diet FAQs
You may have questions. Check out the answers below!
Yo-yo dieting is the cycle of continually jumping from one diet to the next, expecting different results than the last, in turn creating a yo-yo effect on both your physical and psychological health.
Cycling from diet to diet has both physical and psychological implications. Specific to your physical body, it can cause weight gain, diminished energy levels, loss of muscle mass, and have negative affects on your metabolism. Psychologically, it can strain your willpower, lead to a negative relationship with food, impact your faith in your ability to make change, and leave you feeling doomed to your current state forever.
Weight cycling is the act of losing weight and then regaining it again. It is often an undesirable result of yo-yo dieting.
To prevent weight cycling you need to build healthy habits that you can sustain. This includes healthy habits for managing stress, getting quality sleep, enough hydration, proper nutrition, and remaining active.
The steps are: you desire change, the diet begins, the cravings start, you struggle to stick with the diet, you begin to question the diet, you regain the weight, and then you seek the next diet.
Yes, the negative physical affects include weight gain, diminished energy levels, loss of muscle mass, and temporary metabolic damage.
Yes, the negative psychological affects include battling your willpower, developing a negative relationship with food, losing faith in your ability to make change, and feeling stuck in your current state.
There are no real benefits to yo-yo dieting. One could argue that the "rush" and excitement of starting a new diet is a positive, but this experience is short-lived and if the diet is not resulting in success, then the initial excitement is quickly negated by poor results.