Why Yo-Yo Dieting Is Wrecking Our Bodies

heavy and thin versions of a woman

If you want to lose weight, you’re not alone. A whopping 60% of Americans say they’d love to lose at least 20 pounds. Millions of people from all demographics give it a shot every year, mostly through some form of diet or another. Diets and lifestyle changes emphasizing weight loss are encouraged by media, family, friends, health professionals, coaches, and co-workers. It seems like anyone you ask has an opinion about what works and why: they’ll advise you to go gluten-free, detox, paleo, Atkins, count calories, choose vegan, try Weight Watchers, or commit to a 30-day jump start. And those are just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of diets and lifestyle plans out there claiming to be the best way to lose weight.

Here’s the kicker: losing weight is not the hardest part—the real challenge is keeping it off. People can lose weight many different ways, but more often than not they end up gaining it right back. As a result, they get stuck in an unhappy pattern informally known as yo-yo dieting and formally known as weight cycling. I’m not talking about going up and down by five pounds over the course of a few months. Weight cycling is more extreme than seasonal fluctuations. I’m talking about losing and regaining the same 10, 20, or 30 pounds over and over again, year after year. There is no clear definition of weight cycling, yet many of us have direct, experiential knowledge of what it means. Simply stated, weight cycling is repeated bouts of weight loss followed by the opposite—weight gain.

Research shows conflicting and unclear data regarding the impact of weight cycling on overall long-term health. While some studies find no measurable statistical impact, others reveal yo-yo dieting results in a wide array of negative physiological and psychological consequences.

Though the final word is not in and there’s much work to be done, the following four phenomenon have been identified by researchers as direct consequences of weight cycling.

Change in size and function of fat cells

Regaining weight after an initial weight loss appears to induce rapid growth in fat cells. In a 2009, a comprehensive review published by Strohacker, et al. examined the available literature on weight cycling, with a specific focus on whether or not weight cycling leads to an elevated risk of disease. One controlled study using laboratory rats revealed that 40% of weight lost—primarily fat mass—was regained within one week of relapse. Explanations for this rapid regain included both a stronger drive to eat and metabolic changes that boosted the body’s ability to store fat. A 30% increase in adipocyte concentration per fat pad was also identified, meaning weight cycling causes fat cells to get bigger.

Chronic inflammation

Due to fat’s metabolically active characteristics, it produces pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines. When cytokines are produced by a rapid increase in fat cells, they create low-grade systemic inflammation. This is a problem because low-grade systemic inflammation has been linked to serious health issues such as cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes.

Think about it this way. The word cytokine is derived from two words: cyto meaning cell and kinos meaning movement. Put these two words together and you have cell movement, which is what cytokines do: they circulate through immune system eliciting pro-inflammatory responses from other immune cells—even when there is no real emergency in the body that will benefit from a sustained immune response. If the immune response is never turned off, problems such as digestive issues, unstable blood sugar levels, damage to joints, and damage to arteries and heart tissue can occur. All this happens under the radar, without us knowing what’s really going on.

If you’re a weight-cycler or a yo-yo dieter, then the next time you go to the doctor you can find out if your up-and-down patterns are undermining your overall health. Request blood work to evaluate C-Reactive Protein, homocysteine, blood sugar, and monocytes.

The emotional roller coaster

Psychological research shows people who weight cycle have lower levels of self-esteem and less body satisfaction than those who don’t. A 2011 study targeting African-American women seeking treatment for weight loss found that 67% of 167 subjects had a history of weight cycling. Those that were designated as weight cyclers had higher current and peak weights, higher driver for thinness, and poorer measures for psychological health than those who were not designated as weight cyclers.

Based on my professional experience, individuals I’ve met with a history of yo-yoing are emotionally exhausted and often distraught. They say things like, “I’ve tried everything, tell me what to do and I’ll do it. If this doesn’t work, I’m throwing in the towel.” Though there are no studies directly linking weight cycling to psychological health indicators for depression and anxiety, there is ample evidence that weight cycling correlates strongly to issues such as binge eating, negative body image, and excessive drive for thinness.

Cardiac stress

Yo-yo dieting has been linked to heart disease, the number one killer in America. Even among people who currently enjoy a healthy weight, a history and prevalence of yo-yo dieting indicates an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. In various cross-sectional and prospective studies, fluctuations in blood pressure, heart rate, insulin, blood glucose, and blood lipid levels have been identified. All these problems are the result of weight cycling, and all of them put unnecessary stress on the heart.

My Story

I have personal experience with the negative effects of weight cycling on heart health. Years ago, I was at an all-time weight low of 106 pounds. I had a very scary moment in my doctor’s office. My heart rate was all over the place. It was 47 bpm (beats per minute) lying down, then after just one minute standing, it shot up to 88 bpm. That’s when I knew I had a serious problem. My eating disorder had stressed my heart to the point that it was no longer strong enough to do the things I loved—play soccer, walk, or participate in any of my favorite outdoor activities.

I knew I had to break the cycle, and I’m glad to say I did.

We need to understand that weight cycling/yo-yo dieting is not good for us. The assumption it won’t have a lasting impact on our health is to willfully ignore a growing set of scientific data. To consciously put ourselves through the demoralizing rollercoaster of weight loss and gain borders on the absurd. Granted, the research is not 100% iron-clad. Some studies do not find significant negative implications on our health, but both my personal and professional experience lead me to disagree enough to say it publicly: even if there are not significant risks, there certainly are risks.

If you’re reading this article and you’re nodding your head, saying to yourself, “Yes, yes, this is me…” then I recommend getting your blood work done. Don’t freak out, but do find out what’s going on internally. Get to know yourself. Perhaps this personal information can spark a positive and sustainable change in your life.

If you’re anything like me, it will give you the motivation to make a serious change. A change that’s not just the peak of an unhealthy up-and-down cycle, but one that sticks for the long haul.