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5 Things You Didn’t Know About The Yo-Yo Diet

  • February 5, 2019

Thin thighs by Thanksgiving? Chiselled core by Christmas? Or how about your annual New Year’s weight loss resolution that you set every January 1st? If you are like the majority of people, these goals are likely to top the list each year. While there is nothing wrong with having a particular goal in mind (in fact, it is better that your goal be specific and set within a well-defined timeline to increase accountability and boost motivation), we also need to take into account our individual boundaries, limitations and circumstances—many of which will determine our long-term success. 

The issue with the goals stated above is that we usually set them with strict deadlines, often dictated by a special event or end date. With today’s fast-paced lifestyle and quick-fix mentality, we don’t provide ourselves with enough time to healthfully reach these goals, setting the stage for an unsustainable lifestyle. Sure, it would be awesome to drop 10 lbs the first week of our new diet and training plan, BUT is it realistic? You must ask yourself, “is what I am currently doing sustainable for me?” “Am I willing to put in the physical, mental and emotional work to get to where I want to be in my desired timeline?” And “once I achieve my goal, am I going to continue my new regimen, or do I simply believe that I am “done” and can revert back to my former lifestyle habits?” The unfortunate reality is that if we do revert back to our old habits, the changes we made to our new physique will often follow suit. 

Only focusing on the immediate future makes us more susceptible to weight cycling, also known as “yo-yo dieting”. Weight cycling is when a large amount of weight (usually 20+ lbs OR 5%+ of body weight) is dramatically lostand then regained within a short periodof time for at least 3 times or “cycles”. 

Studies suggest that the average individual who loses weight can only sustain their weight loss for 1-2 years afterward.Within the first year alone, 1/3 to 2/3 of weight is regained, while almost all of it regained in 5 years. In fact, 60% of individuals often will regain more than they have lost. With that being said, a small percentage of individuals (about 20%) can maintain their weight loss efforts past the 1 year mark.   

So, while many people can make progress as they embark on a new health and fitness journey, it appears that the odds of sticking through are low despite continuously setting the same goals each year. Even more worrisome, with each episode of weight cycling, disease risk is significantly increased. 

But what exactly happens to our bodies when we engage in “yo-yo” dieting

Here are 5 things you may not have known about the yo-yo diet: 

  1. Effects on normal physiological/bodily processes

Given that individuals will typically drop calories and increase exercise (especially cardio) dramatically, they will often experience a significant dip in energy levels. This is actually counter-productive since they will subconsciously engage in less physical activity resulting in a decreased energy expenditure (the calories used by the body). This is compounded by yet another safety mechanism of our body to preserve energy, which is to decrease our basal metabolic rate (the number of calories we burn at rest). Finally, feelings of hunger and cravings will increase as the body tries to signal to us that we need more energy from food, making it even more difficult to stick to any diet plan. 

2. Effects on body composition 

In terms of fat distribution, many studies show increased android (central body) fat distribution in women who have weight cycled when compared to their normal weight or non-weight cycling obese counterparts. With each successive weight regain, the amount of fat mass is increased with typically no increase in muscle mass. And when this weight is lost again, it is primarily lean muscle mass that is lost as opposed to fat mass. Additionally, visceral fat(the fat that accumulates around organs and is implicated in chronic disease) is also more prominent in weight cyclers. 

3. Effects on inflammation 

Adipose/fat tissue itself produces small cell signalling, proinflammatory molecules called cytokines. Increased inflammation in the body is a known contributor to several diseases related to obesity, including insulin resistance as seen in Type 2 Diabetes and metabolic syndrome, stroke, hypertension, and elevated levels of triglycerides and cholesterol. Even normal weight individuals with a history of weight cycling have been found to have these commonly obesity-related health conditions. Studies also suggest that the effects of repeated weight cycling extend to impaired cardiovascular health and increased risk for heart attacks due to the fact that the various hormones that regulate the inflammatory processes in the body are involved in plaque formation.

4. Effects on mental health, well-being & behavior 

Chronic dieters who engage in weight cycling have been found to report lower self-esteem, more bingeing episodes, as well as more visits to the doctor. Continuously seeing dramatic fluctuations in weight can wreak havoc on your mental sanity leading to an unhealthy relationship with food and exercise. 

5. Effects on overall health and longevity 

Studies have shown that physical activity and fitness are better predictors of health and longevity than being thin or having an average body weight. In fact, obese individuals who are “metabolically healthy” (those who are physically fit yet also have a BMI classifying them as “obese”), are actually less likely to suffer from a heart attack compared to those classified as “normal” body weight/BMI but do not engage in physical activity. This is because the positive effects of engaging in regular exercise results in direct improvements in insulin sensitivity, cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and triglycerides, which are far more beneficial to overall health than simply losing weight through crash dieting.  

Ultimately, these findings tell us that weight cycling or “yo-yo dieting” (rather than obesity itself) may be responsible for poor health outcomes. This has led researchers to believe that, in terms of disease risk and mortality, a chronic dieter’s continuous fluctuations in weight may actually be more detrimental than just being overweight or obese. Unfortunately, yo-yo dieting is one of the most common quick-fix weight loss approaches people take. Instead, a better approach to your fitness goals may be to start a small caloric deficit and gradually increase exercise intensity and/or duration each week.

We cannot solely focus on weight as an indication of progress, rather we need to look at other indicators of success. We need to place greater value on things like increased energy levels, strength in the gym, muscle tone, body composition, how our clothing fits, mental clarity, flexibility, sense of life satisfaction and confidence. Let’s start setting goals and forming habits that make us feel and lookour best… and weight loss will follow!

Written By: Kelly Chen


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