Here's why you should be aware of weight cycling or yo-yo dieting and break that cycle!
‘Yo-Yo dieting’ or ‘Weight cycling’ is a term that was first used by Kelly D. Brownell at Yale University (1). In simple terms, weight cycling is defined as cyclic intentional or unintentional weight loss and weight gain (5,7). People often go onto a diet and lose weight successfully. But in most cases, they often gain back weight within a short span of time taking them back either to their original weight or more than that. To tackle this, they implement a strict dieting program, hoping that they would be able to lose it back and maintain it this time. This results in individuals finding themselves getting caught in repetitive dieting behaviour or yo-yo dieting. Little do we know that we are causing damage to our body with this weight cycling.
Yo-Yo dieting and its impact on the body:
This yo-yo dieting can not only draining emotionally as a result of not seeing expected results but can also be harmful to our body with potential long-term consequences. These weight fluctuations increase the possibility of weight gain in the future. In individuals with a history of weight cycling, the food cues are blunted which may put these individuals at risk of overeating in a food-replete environment (2).
Although the evidence is not uniform across all the studies, the majority of studies have suggested that it can cause an increase in fat percentage as well. Many studies have suggested that it causes some metabolic disturbances and also slows down the rate of weight loss in the subsequent dieting cycles. A study of more than 1000 obese hospital patients reported a slower velocity of weight loss during the second weight cycle, compared to the previous one. Regarding metabolic disturbances, one study demonstrated that it changes the fat distribution in people, mainly contributing to central adiposity with a history of weight cycling. They showed that women with weight cycling had thicker SAT (Subcutaneous Adipose Tissue) layers around their upper body compared to lean women suggesting a pattern of ‘Android’ fat distribution, i.e. more fat distribution in the abdominal area as compared to the lower body (5).
Fig 1: Effects of weight cycling (1).
In addition to this, many studies suggest that weight cycling can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. A study that was a part of the Diabetes Prevention Program demonstrated that weight cyclers were 33% more likely to develop type-2 diabetes compared to non-cyclers (5). The reasons behind this can be abdominal fat accumulation, which may cause insulin resistance and elevations in triglycerides (3).
Weight fluctuations can also cause a decline in our cardiovascular health mainly through our lipid profile, i.e. higher levels of triglycerides, LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, total cholesterol, and lower levels of the beneficial HDL cholesterol (4).
In addition to all this, weight cycling can potentially cause a rise in depressive symptoms (typically because of weight stigma), eating disorders, and multiple co-morbidities like hypertension (high blood pressure), cancer, bone fractures, and increased mortality (1,6).
Keep a balance
Fig 2: Eatwell guide (British Nutrition Foundation) (8)
The solution to this is finding a balance instead of going to two extremes of strict dieting or unhealthy eating! Moderation is the key when we are trying to lose weight sustainably. Instead of completely going on restrictive diets (which may be hard to follow long-term), be aware of the portion size you are choosing to eat. Restrictive behaviour often leads to fear or negative feelings associated with food. Losing weight to stay healthy instead of just trying to look ‘slim’ can help us in the long run. Thinking of other benefits of eating a varied and balanced diet such as how we feel might be helpful in taking the focus away from weight loss.
As British Nutrition Foundation suggests (8), there are 8 tips for eating well:
1. Include high fibre carbohydrates and whole grains in your diet instead of refined carbohydrates like all-purpose flour, white bread, cornflour, etc. High fibre carbohydrates include whole-grain pasta, potatoes with skin, millets, whole-meal/ whole-grain or seeded bread, whole-grain or seeded tortillas, etc.
2. Make sure that you eat a good variety of fruits and vegetables every day to break the monotony and to add plenty of different colours, fibre, vitamins, and minerals to your plate. Eat at least 5 portions of fruits and vegetables every day.
3. Make oily fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, and trout a part of your diet as they are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and are good for cardiovascular health.
4. Cut down on saturated fats found in butter, ghee, chocolate, cheese, and fatty cuts of meat and replace them with unsaturated fat, found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, oily fish, and avocado. You can also use healthier methods of cooking like baking, roasting, grilling, steaming, etc to minimize or control your oil intake. Cut down on sugar as well as it gives us empty calories, i.e. no beneficial nutrients. Whenever you are shopping for your groceries, take a look at the nutrition label to be aware of these nutrients.
5. Consume no more than 6g (1 teaspoon) per day. Instead use extra herbs, spices, citrus juices (lemon and lime), or vinegar to enhance the taste of your food.
6. Take part in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes vigorous-intensity physical activity. Moderate-intensity activities include cycling or brisk walking. High or vigorous-intensity activities include swimming and running. In addition to this, don’t forget to do muscle-strengthening activities like weight lifting, exercises with weights, or carrying heavy boxes or groceries.
7. Aim for at least 6-8 glasses of water per day to help with staying hydrated.
8. Don’t skip breakfast as it is the most important meal of the day and should be the most nutritious meal of the day. Include whole-grain cereals and avoid eating sugary cereals. In addition to this, instead of going for sweetened fruit juices, always go for a whole fruit!
Striking a balance this way can help us to maintain our weight life-long without harming our body. After all, healthy minds live in healthy bodies!
Ditch the Dieting Behaviour and adopt Healthy Living!
Thank you to this week's guest blog writer Anuradha, who is currently studying at Bournemouth University. She has completed her undergraduate degree in India in Home Science, specialising in Nutrition and Dietetics and since then has completed a post-graduate diploma in Dietetics. More recently she has become more passionate about how one’s mental health and behaviour is linked with nutrition driving her to study a Master’s in Nutrition and Behaviour at Bournemouth uni.
1. Eun-Jung, R., 2017. Weight Cycling and Its Cardiometabolic Impact. Journal of Obesity & Metabolic Syndrome, 26 (4), 237-242.
2. Feig, E. H., Winter, S. R., Kounios, J., Erickson, B., Berkowitz, S. A. and Lowe, M. R., 2017. The role of hunger state and dieting history in neural response to food cues: An event-related potential study. Physiology & Behavior, 179, 126-134.
3. Huajie, Z., Ping, Y., Liegang, L., Wu, D., Pu, L., Yan, Y., Wenjun, L., Qunchuan, Z. and Xuefeng, Y., 2021. Association between weight cycling and risk of developing diabetes in adults: A systematic review and meta‐analysis. Journal of Diabetes Investigation, 12 (4), 625-632.
4. Kakinami, L., Knäuper, B. and Brunet, J., 2020. Weight cycling is associated with adverse cardiometabolic markers in a cross-sectional representative US sample. Journal of epidemiology and community health, 74 (8), 662-667.
5. Mackie, G. M., Samocha-Bonet, D. and Tam, C. S., 2017. Does weight cycling promote obesity and metabolic risk factors? Obesity Research & Clinical Practice, 11 (2), 131-139.
6. Quinn, D. M., Puhl, R. M. and Reinka, M. A., 2020. Trying again (and again): Weight cycling and depressive symptoms in U.S. adults. PloS one, 15 (9), e0239004.
7. Rhee, E.-J., Cho, J. H., Kwon, H., Park, S. E., Park, C.-Y., Oh, K.-W., Park, S.-W. and Lee, W.-Y., 2018. Increased risk of diabetes development in individuals with weight cycling over 4 years: The Kangbuk Samsung Health Study. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, 139, 230-238.