Regaining weight after losing it on a diet is much more common than keeping the weight off. Often dieters gain back more than they lost, and it’s a common experience to have an even harder time losing weight the next time. “Weight cycling” is the term for these repeating episodes of intentional weight loss followed by unintentional regain, also often called “yo-yo dieting.”
In addition to making the next attempt at weight loss more difficult, repeated cycles of weight loss and gain have damaging effects on the body.
A study presented at the American Heart Association’s March 2019 Scientific Sessions reported that weight cycling was associated with poorer cardiovascular health parameters. Women were assigned a cardiovascular risk score based on 7 factors: smoking, diet, physical activity, BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose. Women with a history of weight cycling were less likely to have a favorable BMI and less likely to have a favorable overall cardiovascular health score.1 Previous research also linked bouts of weight cycling to a greater risk of endometrial cancer.2 It is also worth noting that in the cardiovascular study, over 70% of the 485 women reported having a history of weight cycling (at least one instance of weight loss and regain), highlighting how common this issue is.1
One of the most important messages about weight loss is this: change your diet, lose the weight and keep your new, healthier way of eating forever.
The human body responds to weight loss the same way it would respond to starvation – by conserving energy. The brain uses information about calorie intake and the body’s amount of stored energy to determine whether to release appetite-enhancing or appetite-suppressing hormones. One way the body adapts to weight loss is by altering the production of appetite-regulating hormones such as ghrelin and leptin, favoring weight regain by increasing appetite and promoting fat storage. Another way is by decreasing resting energy expenditure.1
These compensatory systems make going back to one’s old unhealthy diet even more weight gain-promoting. The highly palatable low nutrient foods, which stimulate cravings via the dopamine reward system, are even more dangerous for someone whose calorie expenditure has fallen. Also, when you lose weight, some loss of muscle is unavoidable, and strength exercise helps to limit muscle loss. However, when someone gains weight back after dieting, that weight is fat, potentially leaving the dieter with a greater body fat percentage than before.
Studies have linked weight cycling to a greater risk of diabetes, hypertension, gallbladder stones, and shorter telomere length.2-6 Shorter telomeres mean rapid aging. Weight cycling women were also found to have a greater waist circumference, and seem to gain more weight over time than “non-cyclers” who start off at the same BMI.7, 8
The bottom line is that making changes to your diet to improve your health and your weight need to be permanent changes, not temporary.
Why is gaining back body fat harmful? Adipose (fat) tissue is more than a vessel for storing excess energy. In addition to storing fat, adipose tissue acts as an endocrine organ: it contains macrophages (a type of white blood cell) in addition to adipocytes; it produces and secretes compounds that affect the function of other types of cells. Obesity is accompanied by a systemic low-grade inflammation.9, 10 Adipose releases compounds that can induce negative consequences such as insulin resistance, higher triglycerides, and reduced immune function, and even growth promoters that can increase risk of cancer. As fat tissue grows, more of these pro-inflammatory compounds are produced, leading to chronic inflammation, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.11
The key to losing weight and keeping it off forever is changing your diet forever. Stay away from extreme fad diets; they are not sustainable long-term. About 80 percent of dieters are unable to keep 10 percent of their original body weight off for more than one year.12 Feeling deprived and going back to your old diet is almost inevitable. However, if you use high-nutrient foods to resolve toxic hunger and achieve greater meal satisfaction with a smaller number of calories, it will be much easier to stick with your new way of eating and prevent future weight regain.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine analyzed and reported weight loss results provided by 75 obese patients who had switched to a Nutritiarian diet. The average weight loss was 55 pounds after three years, which means they kept the weight off long-term. Compare these results to most weight loss intervention studies, which report average losses of only 6-13 pounds maintained after two years.13 One reason for the remarkable effects on permanent weight reduction with a Nutritarian diet is that the users are more fully educated regarding the long-term health and longevity benefits and it is adopted not merely for its weight loss benefits. Additionally, it has been demonstrated that this nutrient dense, plant-rich diet can suppress appetite and resolve food cravings and food addictions.14
My book The End of Dieting explains exactly how to break out of the cycle of physical and emotional addiction and overeating – how to keep the weight off permanently.