Yo-yo dieting: Do frequent ups and downs make it harder to lose weight each time? Even if your weight has gone up and down like a yo-yo, a new study says it doesn’t interfere with your ability to lose weight.
Here’s something I’ve heard more times than I can count: “I’ve been on every diet imaginable, and they all work, but I can’t keep the weight off! I’m sure that all these ups and downs are making it harder and harder for me to lose.” It’s a common concern for many of my clients whose weight goes up and down like a yo-yo, that each failed attempt makes it more difficult to lose weight next time around. When you think your metabolism is shot, it’s easy to convince yourself that there’s no point in even trying at all. But a recent study1 found that even if your weight has had a lot of ups and downs in the past, it doesn’t affect your ability to lose weight long term.
The study enrolled over 400 overweight, sedentary women who were randomly placed into one of four groups. In one group, the subjects only reduced their calorie intake, in another they only increased their activity. A third group cut calories and increased their exercise, and the fourth group served as the so-called control group—they didn’t make any changes at all. One of the things the researchers wanted to know, over the course of the one-year study, was whether women who had a history of yo-yo dieting (also known as ‘weight cycling’) would have a harder time losing weight than non-weight cyclers—people who haven’t yo-yo dieted.
About a quarter of the women were considered ‘severe’ weight cyclers (they had lost 20 pounds or more at least three times). An additional 18% were considered ‘moderate’ cyclers (they’d lost 10 pounds or more at least three times). The rest had no history of ups and downs with their weight.
In the end, those with a history of yo-yo dieting were no less likely to succeed at making lifestyle changes. Weight cyclers stuck with their diet and/or exercise programs just as well as the non-cyclers. And there were no differences seen between those who had ‘yo-yo’d’ and those who hadn’t, in terms of their ability to lose weight or the percent changes in body fat and lean body mass after one year.
This should be welcome news for those who struggle to keep their weight down. While more studies are warranted, this one does suggest, for the first time, that just because you’ve tried and failed in your efforts in the past, it shouldn’t interfere with your ability to lose weight in the future.
That said, if you do have a history of ups and downs with your weight, you might want to examine what it is that makes it so difficult for you to keep your weight stable. Here are a few things to consider.
Sometimes people have trouble because they’re trying to maintain a weight that’s too low for them. Maybe you want to see a certain number on a scale or fit into a particular clothing size, but your body just isn’t destined to be that size. If you can, get your body composition checked. Muscle is denser and takes up less space than body fat. This means that if you are carrying more muscle than the average person, you might weigh more than you’d like but you’re not carrying too much body fat. If that’s the case, you may not have much, if any, additional weight to lose. And if you do try to lose more, you risk losing precious lean body mass.
I’ve known plenty of people who strive to eat perfectly during the weight loss phase. Some even stop eating out and socializing in order to stick to the diet like glue. But once they reach their goal weight, they loosen the reins a bit and go back to leading a normal life—and the weight creeps back up. Weight maintenance is about finding a balance: eating a healthy diet and maintaining an active lifestyle without sacrificing an occasional meal out or socializing with friends and family.
Similar to being too strict with your diet, maybe you’ve adopted an overly aggressive exercise program during the weight loss phase that you just can’t sustain. Again, finding the balance is key. If you eat well and exercise regularly, let your weight find its natural place.
Keeping a food and exercise journal and tracking your weight are great tools when you’re in the weight loss phase. But too often people stop keeping a journal once they’ve hit their goal weight. Self-monitoring is key to weight maintenance. You’re more likely to be successful if you continue to keep track. Keep in mind, too, that when it comes right down to it, what you do in order to lose weight and what you need to do to keep it off are pretty much one and the same.
1Mason C et al. Metab. Clin. Exper. 62 :127 ;2013