Back to Living Better

What does yo-yo dieting do to your body?

Have you ever followed a strict diet, lost weight and then gained it all back (and then some)? Research shows 45 percent of American adults go on a diet each year, but it also shows two-thirds of Americans are still overweight or obese. So, what happens to your body when you repeatedly gain and lose weight? Christi Hansen, MS, RDN, LD, and Melissa Hoover, MS, RDN, LD, both licensed and registered dietitians at Piedmont, explain.

What is yo-yo dieting?

“Yo-yo dieting is a pattern of eating where someone restricts their diet to eat less and lose weight, stops the diet once they’ve lost weight, eventually regains the lost weight (and often more), then begins a new period of restrictive eating to lose weight again,” says Hansen.

How does yo-yo dieting affect the body?

Yo-yo dieting can increase your body fat percentage, slow your metabolism and even increase your risk for life-threatening diseases.

“When weight is quickly lost and regained, the regained weight is typically fat tissue rather than muscle tissue, which can increase the overall body fat percentage over time,” explains Hoover. “In addition, most yo-yo dieters are focused mainly on food intake and do not establish exercise habits that help preserve important muscle tissue. This eventually leads to loss of muscle mass and body strength.”

She adds, “Yo-yo dieting and weight re-gain have also been associated with increased risk of developing diseases including fatty liver, diabetes, and heart disease.”

How to maintain long-term weight loss

Maintaining a healthy weight – rather than binging and dieting – is a key to good overall health. So, how do you do it?

  • Practice mindful eating. “Focusing on mindful eating instead of restrictive eating is a good place to start,” says Hansen. “Mindful eating is the process of working with your body’s hunger cues and feelings of fullness to know when you should eat or stop eating. It also focuses on choosing foods that provide nutrition rather than just salt, sugar, fat, a stomachache or a food coma.”

  • Ask yourself if you’re thirsty or bored before you eat. Drink a glass of water and wait 10 minutes,” she suggests. If you’re bored, call a friend, read a book or magazine, or go for a walk around the block.

  • Make sure your meals are filling. “If you get hungry frequently, think about whether or not your lunch was big enough and if it contained protein and fat,” says Hansen. “Maybe it was just empty starches or sugars and now your stomach is empty.”

  • Pair the right foods. “If your stomach is empty, eat something that will fill you up,” she says. “Dietitians often suggest pairing fruits or vegetables with nuts, hummus, or unsweetened dairy because those combinations contain fiber, protein and fats – nutrients that are slow to digest leaving you feeling fuller for longer.”

  • Eat regularly. “Eating regular meals will also help avoid extreme episodes of hunger that often lead to overeating whatever is easy to grab,” she explains.

  • Exercise. Having lean muscle mass increases your metabolism, which helps you keep the weight off. Add strength training to your workout routine twice a week, in addition to 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise

Start your weight loss journey today

“Don’t wait to put mindful eating habits into place until after the holidays,” says Hansen. “We see so many people who binge this time of year then start January off with guilt-fueled resolutions to lose weight. The yo-yo cycle of extreme dieting to compensate for extreme eating continues.”

You can make progress toward a healthy weight even during the holidays. Hansen recommends these tips:

  • Be choosy about your treats. Only eat the ones you like the most.

  • Brainstorm non-food related activities to spend time with friends and family.

  • Eat breakfast and/or lunch on the day of a big meal or party so you don’t arrive famished for a high-calorie event and overdo it.

  • Use colorful sliced vegetables as a base for snacks and dips to lighten them up and add some antioxidants.

  • Serve raw vegetables or fruit with every meal. 

  • Lastly, always take a walk after eating if you can.

“All of these tips will help control weight and also reduce inflammation and the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease,” she says.

Check out more health and wellness tips from Living Better experts.