Yo-Yo Dieting: How To Stop The Cycle And Keep The Weight Off

How to beat weight regain frustration once and for all.

Losing weight can be physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging.

You sometimes have to make sacrifices or food choices that prioritize your diet and weight loss goals in the long term rather than what you want to eat for immediate gratification.

Therefore, when you successfully lose weight, you want to keep it off once and for all.

Unfortunately, yo-yo dieting is too common, and sustained weight loss is challenging.

Yo-yo dieting is the common term for weight cycling, which refers to up-and-down fluctuations in your body weight over a period of time due to going on and off a diet.

But, why does yo-yo dieting happen, and how can you prevent it? Keep reading to find out!

We will cover: 

Let’s dive in!

A person who looks sad choosing between a salad an d a donut.

What Is Yo-Yo Dieting?

Yo-yo dieting is not a type of weight loss diet plan but rather a term used to describe a common problem that arises when people try to diet to lose weight by going on crash diets.

What often happens is someone starts a new diet, has some success losing weight, and then goes off the diet, regaining the lost weight. 

Then, the cycle starts again with a new diet or even the same diet, temporary weight loss on the diet, and then the dieter returns to their original higher weight several weeks or months after the diet has been stopped.1Hall, K. D., & Kahan, S. (2018). Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity. Medical Clinics of North America102(1), 183–197. Ncbi. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012

‌Like a yo-yo, your body weight goes up and down in accordance with whether you are “on a diet“ or “off a diet.“ 

For some people, yo-yo dieting has characterized much of their experience trying to manage their weight most of their life. This is why weight loss diets can be so frustrating; you work so hard to lose weight only to regain it all back, if not more.

A person who looks sad measuring her waistline.

Why Is Weight Loss So Difficult?

Yo-yo dieting, or weight cycling, can happen to anyone.

However, there are some common risk factors or causes of yo-yo dieting that health and nutrition professionals tend to see in clinical practice.

Most commonly, yo-yo dieting occurs when someone tries to adopt an unsustainable, crash diet or fad diet and then goes off the diet because it was either too restrictive or they lost weight too quickly.2Contreras, R. E., Schriever, S. C., & Pfluger, P. T. (2019). Physiological and Epigenetic Features of Yoyo Dieting and Weight Control. Frontiers in Genetics10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fgene.2019.01015

‌The body employs survival mechanisms when weight loss is either sustained for a long time or too rapid.

This process is known as adaptive thermogenesis,3Müller, M. J., & Bosy-Westphal, A. (2013). Adaptive thermogenesis with weight loss in humans. Obesity21(2), 218–228. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.20027 and ultimately, it means that your body tries to minimize energy expenditure by lowering your metabolic rate, becoming more efficient at burning calories, and reducing your activity/energy levels to be vigorously active.4Schwartz, A., & Doucet, É. (2009). Relative changes in resting energy expenditure during weight loss: a systematic review. Obesity Reviews11(7), 531–547. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-789x.2009.00654.x

‌Therefore, risk factors for weight cycling include trying to lose weight too quickly, losing motivation on a weight loss diet, not understanding how many calories you should be eating when trying to lose weight, and inadvertently cutting calories too significantly during the weight loss process.

A person sitting on a couch crying over weight gain.

What Are the Long-Term Consequences of Yo-Yo Dieting?

There are several problems with losing weight and gaining weight back over and over again.5Mehta, T., Smith, D. L., Muhammad, J., & Casazza, K. (2014). Impact of weight cycling on risk of morbidity and mortality. Obesity Reviews15(11), 870–881. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12222

#1: Yo-Yo Dieting Is Frustrating and Can Lead to Giving Up

One of the main problems with yo-yo dieting is that it can be extremely emotionally frustrating to regain all of the weight you have lost. 

Many people find that they lose self-esteem and motivation once their body weight creeps back up, causing feelings of shame and failure after successfully losing weight.

Over time, if you keep having this never-ending weight cycling pattern, you can lose motivation to try and reach a healthy body weight with a lifestyle weight loss diet because you’ve only ever had a history of success that was seemingly taken away from you, resulting in perceived failure.

Firstly, it is important to note that even if you regain weight that you have lost or reached your highest body weight, you are not a failure. Your value and accomplishments have nothing to do with your body weight or shape.

That said, for health reasons, it is advisable to reach your ideal body weight based on age, sex, height, and build.

Therefore, it makes sense that frustrations, anxiety, and depression can result after regaining weight that has been lost or feeling like you can never lose weight and keep it off.

A person standing on a scale.

#2: Yo-Yo Dieting Slows Down Your Metabolic Rate

The biggest health risk associated with yo-yo dieting is that it can make it more difficult to lose weight in the future.6Contreras, R. E., Schriever, S. C., & Pfluger, P. T. (2019). Physiological and Epigenetic Features of Yoyo Dieting and Weight Control. Frontiers in Genetics10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fgene.2019.01015

‌When you are on an extremely restrictive diet and cut your calories too significantly, your body metabolizes some lean body mass, or muscle tissue, which decreases your basal metabolic rate (BMR).

Essentially, your body goes into starvation mode7Martínez-Gómez, M. G., & Roberts, B. M. (2021). Metabolic Adaptations to Weight Loss. Journal of Strength and Conditioning ResearchPublish Ahead of Print. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003991 to help conserve energy, reducing energy expenditure in numerous ways.8Müller, M. J., Enderle, J., & Bosy-Westphal, A. (2016). Changes in Energy Expenditure with Weight Gain and Weight Loss in Humans. Current Obesity Reports5(4), 413–423. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-016-0237-4

‌Then, once you start eating more calories again, you have less muscle mass and your body has become more efficient at using fewer calories, causing you to gain weight easily.9Müller, M. J., Enderle, J., & Bosy-Westphal, A. (2016). Changes in Energy Expenditure with Weight Gain and Weight Loss in Humans. Current Obesity Reports5(4), 413–423. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-016-0237-4

#3: Yo-Yo Dieting Increases Abdominal Fat

Studies have found that weight cycling up and down can increase the accumulation of deep visceral fat in your abdominal area.10FX, L., SW, F., JF, N., B, P., HS, B., DR, W., DD, H., & CL, R. (2017). Factors Associated with Visceral Fat Loss in Response to a Multifaceted Weight Loss Intervention. Journal of Obesity & Weight Loss Therapy07(04). https://doi.org/10.4172/2165-7904.1000346

‌This is the type of “bad fat11Extra Weight, Extra Risk | ADA. (n.d.). Diabetes.org. https://diabetes.org/health-wellness/weight-management/extra-weight-extra-risk#:~:text=Being%20overweight%20raises%20your%20risk that poses the most significant risk for heart attack, stroke, metabolic syndrome, and other diseases associated with obesity. 12Park, K.-Y., Hwang, H.-S., Cho, K.-H., Han, K., Nam, G. E., Kim, Y. H., Kwon, Y., & Park, Y.-G. (2019). Body Weight Fluctuation as a Risk Factor for Type 2 Diabetes: Results from a Nationwide Cohort Study. Journal of Clinical Medicine8(7), 950. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm8070950

A person upset on a scale.

#4: Yo-Yo Dieting Increases the Risk Of Eating Disorders 

If your body weight is always going up and down, you can develop fears about eating and an unhealthy relationship with your body, food, and body image.

Studies suggest that weight cycling is associated with an increased risk of eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder.13Stewart, T. M., Martin, C. K., & Williamson, D. A. (2022). The Complicated Relationship between Dieting, Dietary Restraint, Caloric Restriction, and Eating Disorders: Is a Shift in Public Health Messaging Warranted? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health19(1), 491. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19010491

Plus, some studies suggest that crash dieting can do more harm than good, especially from a psychological perspective.14Memon, A. N., Gowda, A. S., Rallabhandi, B., Bidika, E., Fayyaz, H., Salib, M., & Cancarevic, I. (2020). Have Our Attempts to Curb Obesity Done More Harm Than Good? Cureus12(9). https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.10275

How Can I Avoid Yo-Yo Dieting and Achieve Sustainable Weight Loss?

Here are a few tips to help prevent yo-yo dieting so that you can lose weight until you reach your goal weight and then maintain your new ideal body weight and body composition once and for all:

The words healthy diet with healthy food surrounding them.

#1: Don’t Go On a Crash Diet

Any diet promising quick weight loss results or only has a two-week, four-week, or twelve-week diet plan likely isn’t the best weight loss diet unless you only have 5 to 10 pounds to lose.

Rather than “going on a diet,” you want to think about changing your diet habits for life or going on a lifestyle change diet. The diet mentality promotes the feeling that you will be doing this for the short term. 

But, if you revert to your old eating habits once the diet is “over,“ you will regain your lost weight.

Plus, crash diets or those that promise rapid weight loss won’t provide enough calories to keep your metabolism from slowing down.15Melby, C., Paris, H., Foright, R., & Peth, J. (2017). Attenuating the Biologic Drive for Weight Regain Following Weight Loss: Must What Goes Down Always Go Back Up? Nutrients9(5), 468. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9050468

‌The recommended rate of fat loss, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is to lose a maximum of 1 to 2 pounds of body fat loss per week.16Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, September 19). Losing Weight . Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/index.html

‌This requires a total calorie restriction of 3500 to 7000 calories per week, or a caloric deficit of 500 to 1000 calories per day at most.

A salad.

#2: Practice Moderation

Instead of labeling foods as “good“ or “bad “ or unilaterally cutting out certain foods or food groups, try to gradually reduce your portion sizes and frequencies of less healthy foods while filling up on nutrient-dense, low-calorie foods such as vegetables, lean proteins, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. 

If you don’t take any foods off the table entirely, you may crave them less because you won’t feel deprived. You can enjoy small treats after you have fueled your body with ideal nutrition.

#3: Learn Portion Sizes

Understanding proper portion sizes is often the key to losing weight and maintaining a healthy body weight.

#4: Deal With Emotions

We often turn to food for comfort, stress management, loneliness, boredom, among other feelings.

Finding other ways to work through difficult emotions can help you establish a more balanced relationship with food and find peace outside of eating.

You might need to work with a therapist to find the root of your challenges and other coping mechanisms. There’s no shame in needing mental health help.

A doctor working with a patinet.

#5: Focus On the Whole Picture

Losing weight and long-term weight loss doesn’t occur in the vacuum of just dieting.

Try to increase physical activity, get enough sleep, manage stress, and find things that bring you fulfillment in your life to support overall physical and mental health.

Remember, to stop the cycle of yo-yo dieting, rather than having a start and end date for a weight loss diet, try to establish eating and lifestyle behaviors that you can follow in perpetuity as your general approach to healthy eating, exercise habits and other supportive behaviors for overall health and weight management.

If you are looking for a diet for a healthy lifestyle, consider speaking with a nutritionist or a registered dietitian to help find which dietary plan will work best for you and your needs.

You can also take a look at our guide to the Mediterranean Diet:

References

  • 1
    Hall, K. D., & Kahan, S. (2018). Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity. Medical Clinics of North America102(1), 183–197. Ncbi. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012
  • 2
    Contreras, R. E., Schriever, S. C., & Pfluger, P. T. (2019). Physiological and Epigenetic Features of Yoyo Dieting and Weight Control. Frontiers in Genetics10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fgene.2019.01015
  • 3
    Müller, M. J., & Bosy-Westphal, A. (2013). Adaptive thermogenesis with weight loss in humans. Obesity21(2), 218–228. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.20027
  • 4
    Schwartz, A., & Doucet, É. (2009). Relative changes in resting energy expenditure during weight loss: a systematic review. Obesity Reviews11(7), 531–547. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-789x.2009.00654.x
  • 5
    Mehta, T., Smith, D. L., Muhammad, J., & Casazza, K. (2014). Impact of weight cycling on risk of morbidity and mortality. Obesity Reviews15(11), 870–881. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12222
  • 6
    Contreras, R. E., Schriever, S. C., & Pfluger, P. T. (2019). Physiological and Epigenetic Features of Yoyo Dieting and Weight Control. Frontiers in Genetics10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fgene.2019.01015
  • 7
    Martínez-Gómez, M. G., & Roberts, B. M. (2021). Metabolic Adaptations to Weight Loss. Journal of Strength and Conditioning ResearchPublish Ahead of Print. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003991
  • 8
    Müller, M. J., Enderle, J., & Bosy-Westphal, A. (2016). Changes in Energy Expenditure with Weight Gain and Weight Loss in Humans. Current Obesity Reports5(4), 413–423. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-016-0237-4
  • 9
    Müller, M. J., Enderle, J., & Bosy-Westphal, A. (2016). Changes in Energy Expenditure with Weight Gain and Weight Loss in Humans. Current Obesity Reports5(4), 413–423. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-016-0237-4
  • 10
    FX, L., SW, F., JF, N., B, P., HS, B., DR, W., DD, H., & CL, R. (2017). Factors Associated with Visceral Fat Loss in Response to a Multifaceted Weight Loss Intervention. Journal of Obesity & Weight Loss Therapy07(04). https://doi.org/10.4172/2165-7904.1000346
  • 11
  • 12
    Park, K.-Y., Hwang, H.-S., Cho, K.-H., Han, K., Nam, G. E., Kim, Y. H., Kwon, Y., & Park, Y.-G. (2019). Body Weight Fluctuation as a Risk Factor for Type 2 Diabetes: Results from a Nationwide Cohort Study. Journal of Clinical Medicine8(7), 950. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm8070950
  • 13
    Stewart, T. M., Martin, C. K., & Williamson, D. A. (2022). The Complicated Relationship between Dieting, Dietary Restraint, Caloric Restriction, and Eating Disorders: Is a Shift in Public Health Messaging Warranted? International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health19(1), 491. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19010491
  • 14
    Memon, A. N., Gowda, A. S., Rallabhandi, B., Bidika, E., Fayyaz, H., Salib, M., & Cancarevic, I. (2020). Have Our Attempts to Curb Obesity Done More Harm Than Good? Cureus12(9). https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.10275
  • 15
    Melby, C., Paris, H., Foright, R., & Peth, J. (2017). Attenuating the Biologic Drive for Weight Regain Following Weight Loss: Must What Goes Down Always Go Back Up? Nutrients9(5), 468. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9050468
  • 16
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, September 19). Losing Weight . Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/index.html
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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