Yo-Yo Dieting: Break The Yo-Yo Diet Cycle

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - 2:48pm

By Kathleen Goodwin, RD

America is obsessed with thinness. Every day we are bombarded with images, suggestions, and subliminal messages that a thin body will lead to success, fame, fortune and happiness. Dieting has become a national pastime with advertisers, authors and companies making billions pitching us the next magical weight loss book, device or pill. While one would think that all these available remedies and programs would cause a significant drop in the obesity problem, on the contrary—during the past two decades our national obesity rate has soared.

Yo-Yo dieting causes a “starvation response”

One of the resulting problems of people looking for quick fixes and ignoring the timeless advice of “eat less and exercise more” is a phenomenon called weight cycling or yo-yo dieting. You see, the body goes through an adaptive process when it is exposed to chronic long term dieting without exercise. This process is called “the starvation response,” and it’s how our ancestors adapted to chronic food shortages. In short, our body has a built in mechanism of lowering our metabolic rate (the amount of calories we burn daily) to cope with “starvation”.

For example, prior to chronic dieting your body may have had a daily calorie need of 2000 calories per day to maintain your weight. However, after a few weeks on a severely reduced calorie “starvation diet” without regular exercise, your metabolic rate naturally falls. When you return to regular eating again (as most cannot follow a starvation type diet for too long) you may now have a daily metabolic rate of 1850 calories per day or a 150 calorie per day loss. This now translates into a weight gain of one pound every 24 days (3600 calories in excess = 1 pound weight gain) if you eat the way you ate prior to dieting.

The yo-yo diet cycle

The term “yo-yo dieting” comes from the process described above. In a nutshell, here’s how it works:

  1. You start a quick weight loss diet and don’t exercise, which results in a lowered metabolic rate (your body now burns less calories each day than it did before).
  2. You quit your diet.
  3. Now, you return to eating as much food (or more—because of a sense of deprivation) as you did before your diet.
  4. As a result, you gain weight gain beyond what you previously weighed due to your lowered metabolic rate (and/or because you are binging on previously “forbidden foods”).
  5. Frustrated with your weight gain, you go back on a diet.
  6. Your metabolic rate lowers further; you regain lost pounds and add more weight in the process.
  7. The cycle continues….

Why does yo-yo dieting occur?

There has been a lot of research to help us understand why weight cycling occurs. When we diet, our body still requires a set number of calories to function each day. If we do not get it from food, our body will break down its own energy stores in fat and muscle to survive. It has long been established that a diet that promotes more than a two-pound per week weight loss will break down muscle tissue for energy at a more rapid rate than it will break down fat stores for energy. Whereas, the slower one loses weight, the less our body uses lean muscle tissue for energy and the more it uses our fat stores. Lean muscle is the last thing a dieter wants to lose. Why? Muscle tissue IS the source of our metabolic rate. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn each day. The less you have, the less you burn each day. Thus, even slow weight loss diets will burn some muscle tissue for energy, particularly when unaccompanied by exercise. Choosing to lose weight fast without exercising is a no-win combination that is a strong predictor of weight cycling.

Break the cycle of the yo-yo Diet

So how can you avoid the phenomenon of weight cycling and, more importantly, maintain or increase metabolic rate while dieting? Just follow these simple guidelines and you’ll be well on your way to a healthy, fit, metabolically active body:

  1. Stay away from fads that promise quick fixes.
  2. Strive for a weight loss of no more than 2 pounds per week, preferably less.
  3. Exercise regularly using your large muscles (i.e. the buttocks and the legs) doing activities such as walking, running, cycling and weight lifting. You will burn 50 more calories each day for every pound of muscle you gain. Unlike fat, one pound of muscle is tiny and will not produce a noticeable increase in body size like fat gain does. Muscle has a strong lean appearance, fat does not! Get rid of the fat and add some muscle and your body will appear sleek, lean and strong.
  4. Have small snacks throughout the day rather than large meals. Each time you eat, your body experiences an increase in metabolic rate. You will also stave off extreme hunger by eating throughout the day.