Weight cycling, also called "yo-yo dieting," is the repeated loss and regain of body weight due to dieting. Anyone who has ever dieted more than once has experienced weight cycling because for a large percent of the population dieting ends the same way:
The Diet Cycle:
We start a new diet. Excitement and motivation are high. In the beginning, we lose some weight, maybe a lot, maybe a little, but either way, this motivates us to continue because it looks like success. Which it kind of is because diets are great at helping us lose weight for a short time. However, after 3-6 months (sometimes even less time) we either “fall off” because the diet wasn’t realistic for life or we hit a plateau. The “plateau” is actually our metabolisms down-regulating to maintain our weight because of our decreased food intake, and often increased exercising. And because weight loss is the motivating factor, decreased weight loss means no more motivation. Often dieting and exercising feel pointless and people “go off” their diet. We start eating normally after a period of eating less and our bodies put all of the weight we lost back on and often store a little extra so we have a surplus for the next diet (or famine state). After gaining the weight back, we decided to diet again, pick a new diet (often), and start the entire cycle again.
Weight cycling, while very common, isn’t completely without risks and these risks are never discussed when dieting is promoted. While I am not here to shame anyone who wants to diet or anyone who has dieted (I did perpetually for 15 years), I believe in informed consent and I want everyone to know the risks of weight cycling.
Metabolic Changes: With each weight loss attempt, especially with very low-calorie diets, the body might reduce its metabolic rate, making it harder to lose weight in successive attempts.
Increased Visceral Fat: There is some evidence to suggest that after weight cycling, fat may be redistributed. Regained weight might be more in the form of visceral fat, which is stored around the organs and is more dangerous for metabolic health.
Increased Risk for Certain Diseases: Some studies suggest that weight cycling might be associated with an increased risk of certain diseases such as hypertension, insulin resistance, and heart disease.
Decreased Muscle Mass: With each diet cycle, one may not just lose fat but also muscle, especially if the diet isn’t combined with exercise.
Psychological Effects: Weight cycling can have psychological and emotional consequences, including reduced self-esteem, increased stress, and a higher risk of eating disorders.
Nutritional Deficiencies: Repeatedly going on and off diets might lead to nutritional imbalances and deficiencies.
While reading through these risks, you might have noticed that some of these risks overlap with reported risks of being fat or “ob*se”. However, due to weight stigma in the medical industry, it is hard to know if the risks associated with being fat are due to the fact that fat people are more likely to attempt intentional weight loss repeatedly or if it is from actually being fat alone. There are insufficient studies to determine the distinction, but the studies around the harms of weight cycling are clear.
So, at the very least we know that weight cycling and being fat have similar health risks, but the science is very clear that people can decrease their health risks by increasing their health-promoting behaviors, regardless of weight loss. So, we should skip the diets and just increase our movement, eat a variety of foods, manage stress, get plenty of sleep, and connect with loved ones. This means making slow sustainable changes to support your relationship to movement and food is truly health-promoting, more so than attempting dieting.
If you need help making these changes, this is why trainers and coaches like me exist! Reach out for support and book a discovery call!
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