Yoyo dieting or yoyo effect, also known as weight cycling is a term conceived by Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., at Yale University, in metaphoric reference to the cyclical up-down motion of a yo-yo. In this process, the dieter is initially successful in the pursuit of weight loss but is unsuccessful in maintaining the loss long-term and begins to gain the weight back (and usually plus extra). The dieter then seeks to lose the regained weight, and the cycle begins again. This is also really bad for health.
This phenomenon is one of the resulting problems of people looking for quick fixes and ignoring the timeless advice of “eat less and exercise more”.
How does it work? For example, prior to chronic dieting your body may have had a daily calorie need of 2000 calories per day to maintain your weight. However, after a few weeks on a severely reduced calorie “starvation diet” without regular exercise, your metabolic rate naturally falls. When you return to regular eating again (as most cannot follow a starvation type diet for too long) you may now have a daily metabolic rate of 1850 calories per day or a 150 calorie per day loss. This now translates into a weight gain of one pound every 24 days (3600 calories in excess = 1 pound weight gain) if you eat the way you ate prior to dieting.
The yo-yo diet cycle
In a nutshell, here’s how it generally works:
1. You start a quick weight loss diet (as a result of a drastic food deprivation) and don’t exercise, which results in a lowered metabolic rate (your body now burns less calories each day than it did before).
2. You quit your diet (because you have reached a satisfying result and yet you can’t keep up with the unhealthy, tough diet you’re following).
3. Now, you return to eating as much food (or more—because of a sense of deprivation) as you did before your diet.
4. As a result, you gain weight gain beyond what you previously weighed due to your lowered metabolic rate (and/or because you are binging on previously “forbidden foods”).
5. Frustrated with your weight gain (plus extra), you go back on a diet.
6. Your metabolic rate lowers further. You regain lost pounds and add more weight in the process.
7. The cycle continues as the health is severely altered.
Why does yo-yo dieting occur?
Briefly: The reasons for yo-yo dieting are varied but often include embarking upon a hypocaloric diet that was initially too extreme. At first the dieter may experience elation at the thought of loss and pride of their rejection of food. Over time, however, the limits imposed by such extreme diets cause effects such as depression or fatigue that make the diet impossible to sustain. Ultimately, the dieter reverts to their old eating habits, now with the added emotional effects of failing to lose weight by restrictive diet. Such an emotional state leads many people to eating more than they would have before dieting, causing them to rapidly regain weight.
There has been a lot of research to help us understand why weight cycling occurs. When we diet, our body still requires a set number of calories to function each day. If we do not get it from food, our body will break down its own energy stores in fat and muscle to survive. It has long been established that a diet that promotes more than a two-pound per week weight loss will break down muscle tissue for energy at a more rapid rate than it will break down fat stores for energy. Whereas, the slower one loses weight, the less our body uses lean muscle tissue for energy and the more it uses our fat stores. Lean muscle is the last thing a dieter wants to lose. Why? Muscle tissue is the source of our metabolic rate. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn each day. The less you have, the less you burn each day. Thus, even slow weight loss diets will burn some muscle tissue for energy, particularly when unaccompanied by exercise. Choosing to lose weight fast without exercising is a no-win combination that is a strong predictor of weight cycling.
How to Break the Yo-Yo Diet
So how can you avoid the phenomenon of weight cycling and, more importantly, maintain or increase metabolic rate while dieting? Just follow these simple guidelines and you’ll be well on your way to a healthy, fit, metabolically active body:
1. Stay away from diets that promise quick fixes.
2. Strive for a weight loss of no more than 2-3 pounds per week, preferably less.
3. Exercise regularly using your large muscles (i.e. the buttocks and the legs) doing activities such as walking, running, cycling and weight lifting. You will burn 50 more calories each day for every pound of muscle you gain. Unlike fat, one pound of muscle is tiny and will not produce a noticeable increase in body size like fat gain does. Muscle has a strong lean appearance, fat does not! Get rid of the fat and add some muscle and your body will appear sleek, lean and strong.
4. Have small snacks throughout the day rather than large meals. Each time you eat, your body experiences an increase in metabolic rate. You will also stave off extreme hunger by eating throughout the day.
5. Eat proper portions of meat! Don’t allow yourself to eat too much meat. Instead, make sure you eat a proper portion size and then fill the rest of your plate with fruits or vegetables. You don’t have to become a vegetarian, just eat meat in proper portions.
6. Make sure that you take a healthy quantity of water every day.
7. Do not starve yourself!
Effects on health
This kind of diet is associated with extreme food deprivation as a substitute for good diet and exercise techniques. As a result, the dieter may experience loss of both muscle and body fat during the initial weight-loss phase (weight-bearing exercise is required to maintain muscle). After completing the diet, the dieter is likely to experience the body’s famine response, leading to rapid weight gain of only fat. This is a cycle that changes the body’s fat-to-muscle ratio, one of the more important factors in health. One study in rats showed those made to yo-yo diet were more efficient at gaining weight. However, as of 1994, the research compiled by Atkinson (1994) showed that there are “no adverse effects of weight cycling on body composition, resting metabolic rate, body fat distribution, or future successful weight loss,” and that there is not enough evidence to show risk factors for cardiovascular disease being directly dependent on cyclical dieting patterns. Yo-yo dieting can have extreme emotional and physical ramifications due to the stress that someone puts on themselves to lose weight quickly. The instant gratification of losing the weight eventually gives way to old eating habits that cause weight gain and emotional distress.