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.”
Research reveals health dangers of weight cycling
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.
Dump the Dieting Mentality
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.
Body fat is not just stored energy
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
How to avoid weight cycling
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.
Originally printed on DrFuhrman.com. Reprinted with permission.
Joel Fuhrman, M.D. is a board-certified family physician, six-time New York Times bestselling author and internationally recognized expert on nutrition and natural healing, who specializes in preventing and reversing disease through nutritional methods. Dr. Fuhrman coined the term “Nutritarian” to describe his longevity-promoting, nutrient dense, plant-rich eating style.
For over 25 years, Dr. Fuhrman has shown that it is possible to achieve sustainable weight loss and reverse heart disease, diabetes and many other illnesses using smart nutrition. In his medical practice, and through his books and PBS television specials, he continues to bring this life-saving message to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
- Byun SS, Bello NA, Liao M, Makarem N, Aggarwal B: Weight Cycling is Associated With Poorer Cardiovascular Health Assessed Using AHA’s Life’s Simple 7 in a Diverse Sample of Women Encompassing Different Life Stages. In American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Scientific Sessions 2019.
- Welti LM, Beavers DP, Caan BJ, Sangi-Haghpeykar H, Vitolins MZ, Beavers KM. Weight Fluctuation and Cancer Risk in Postmenopausal Women: The Women’s Health Initiative. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2017, 26:779-786.
- Greenway FL. Physiological adaptations to weight loss and factors favouring weight regain. Int J Obes (Lond) 2015, 39:1188-1196.
- Delahanty LM, Pan Q, Jablonski KA, et al. Effects of weight loss, weight cycling, and weight loss maintenance on diabetes incidence and change in cardiometabolic traits in the Diabetes Prevention Program. Diabetes Care 2014, 37:2738-2745.
- Guagnano MT, Ballone E, Pace-Palitti V, et al. Risk factors for hypertension in obese women. The role of weight cycling. Eur J Clin Nutr 2000, 54:356-360.
- Tsai CJ, Leitzmann MF, Willett WC, Giovannucci EL. Weight cycling and risk of gallstone disease in men. Arch Intern Med 2006, 166:2369-2374.
- Syngal S, Coakley EH, Willett WC, et al. Long-term weight patterns and risk for cholecystectomy in women. Ann Intern Med 1999, 130:471-477.
- Mehta T, Smith DL, Jr., Muhammad J, Casazza K. Impact of weight cycling on risk of morbidity and mortality. Obes Rev 2014, 15:870-881.
- Field AE, Manson JE, Taylor CB, et al. Association of weight change, weight control practices, and weight cycling among women in the Nurses’ Health Study II. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord 2004, 28:1134-1142.
- Strychar I, Lavoie ME, Messier L, et al. Anthropometric, metabolic, psychosocial, and dietary characteristics of overweight/obese postmenopausal women with a history of weight cycling: a MONET (Montreal Ottawa New Emerging Team) study. J Am Diet Assoc 2009, 109:718-724.
- Coelho M, Oliveira T, Fernandes R. Biochemistry of adipose tissue: an endocrine organ. Arch Med Sci 2013, 9:191-200.
- Strohacker K, Carpenter KC, McFarlin BK. Consequences of Weight Cycling: An Increase in Disease Risk? Int J Exerc Sci 2009, 2:191-201.
- Strohacker K, McFarlin BK. Influence of obesity, physical inactivity, and weight cycling on chronic inflammation. Front Biosci (Elite Ed) 2010, 2:98-104.
- Wing RR, Phelan S. Long-term weight loss maintenance. Am J Clin Nutr 2005, 82:222S-225S.
- Franz MJ, VanWormer JJ, Crain AL, et al. Weight-loss outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of weight-loss clinical trials with a minimum 1-year follow-up. J Am Diet Assoc 2007, 107:1755-1767.
- Fuhrman J, Sarter B, Glaser D, Acocella S. Changing perceptions of hunger on a high nutrient density diet. Nutr J 2010, 9:51.