Losing weight and gaining it back is tougher on your body than you might think. Here’s how to break the cycle.
The next time you’re with a group of people (small or large) take a look around. It’s safe to assume that half of them are attempting to drop some pounds.
After all, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that, at any given time in America, about 50 percent of all adults are trying to lose weight.
Even if they’re successful, an abundance of evidence shows they’re likely to gain it back.
For example, a 2018 study published in the Medical Clinics of North America journal proclaimed that long-term maintenance of lost weight was the “primary challenge” in obesity treatment.
It’s a familiar cycle that maybe you have experienced: Your weight creeps up, so you go on a strict diet to change that number on the scale.
Usually it works — until it doesn’t, and the pounds begin to come back.
For some people, this yo-yo effect can become a way of life, but it can be far more harmful than you might think.
The Health Dangers of Yo-Yo Dieting
Also called weight cycling, yo-yo dieting is the pattern of losing and regaining weight. More and more research shows that it may be harmful. It can cause stress on the heart among other risks, according to Laura Bishop-Simo, R.D. She’s a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“As the number of weight cycling episodes increases, so do the possible risks of stress on a person’s heart and other organs,” she says.
Bishop-Simo says other potential health consequences of yo-yo dieting include:
- Changes in blood glucose that may lead to diabetes
- Elevated cholesterol
- Psychological changes, such as depression or development of an eating disorder
Regained Weight Is Often Due to “Stubborn Fat”
Scientists are still figuring out what impacts weight cycling can have, and why. One major issue is that when you gain the weight back, it’s not the same “weight” you lost.
When the pounds drop, it’s usually a mix of fat and muscle. But when you regain them, it’s mainly fat, explains Stephen Perrine, co-author of The Whole Body Reset: Your Weight Loss Plan for a Flat Belly, Optimum Health, and a Body You’ll Love at Midlife and Beyond.
“With more fat comes higher inflammation, and that’s been linked to chronic health conditions,” Perrine says.
This process can also slow your metabolism, making it harder to lose weight in the future, he adds. This is where that “stubborn fat” concept comes in — along with plenty of frustration.
So, if long-term weight loss is so difficult, and regaining lost weight is dangerous, should we even try to lose weight in the first place?
Yes! Weight loss, even a modest amount, has been shown to help prevent and manage chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes, reports the CDC.
The problem isn’t weight loss — it’s crash dieting, agree Bishop-Simo and Perrine.
The solution? Avoiding the most common dieting mistakes. Follow these simple — yet effective — steps so you can drop the yo-yo and get on a steady track toward sustainable weight loss.
Step #1: Have Patience
Weight gain usually happens slowly, so it’s unrealistic to try to lose it quickly. People tend to view dieting as a temporary hardship to shed pounds fast. This is exactly the mindset that leads to the yo-yo cycle.
Sustained weight loss requires sustained behavior changes. If you’re making unrealistic changes to your life to lose weight, you’re unlikely to keep those changes up long term.
Try this: “Make your weight loss goals manageable and attainable,” advises Bishop-Simo.
Losing 5- to 10 percent of your weight may be all you need for better health, she says. (This would be about 10-20 pounds for a 200-pound person.)
And have patience! You want to lose the weight gradually. Adopting healthy practices that whittle away fat slowly is a better approach.
Better yet, focus on healthy behavior changes instead of the number on the scale. Weight is hard to control. But things like eating well, exercising more, and reducing stress are all behaviors that you do have some control over.
Make these changes slowly — one small thing at a time — to make them easier to stick to long term.
Even if these changes don’t lead to a massive weight loss, they’ll still benefit your health. Celebrate other wins like feeling more energized or improving your strength and stamina.
Step #2: Enjoy Your Food!
Eating less and exercising more are the most popular strategies to lose weight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It makes sense — if too many calories cause weight gain, then eating less and burning more will lead to weight loss.
It’s true, slashing calories and even eliminating some food groups will likely lead to rapid weight loss. But it comes at a cost.
First, an overly restrictive diet can leave you feeling hungry and deprived, which can lead to binge eating later. And it’s harder to sustain an overly restrictive diet, Bishop-Simo says.
Second, it slows your metabolism. When your calorie consumption drops, your body adjusts by burning fewer of them, explains Perrine. This is why people tend to reach a “plateau” in weight loss when dieting.
Finally, you’ll lose a lot of muscle mass with that weight. If you’re not eating enough calories, your body will start breaking down muscle for energy.
This can set you up for problems like weakness, higher fall risk, lower immunity, and even cognitive health issues, according to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Exercise Nutrition & Biochemistry.
Try this: “The best way to combat the loss of muscle is to eat a varied diet of whole grains, healthy fats, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables,” says Bishop-Simo. (You should also include activities that build lean muscle mass — more on that next.)
Including plenty of protein, fat, and fiber will reduce hunger and cravings, and keep your body nourished. Perrine recommends eating some protein (25-30 grams) with every meal and including healthy fats like olive oil, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish.
And don’t deny yourself your favorite foods. All foods can be included in a healthy diet, even the occasional ice cream, says Bishop-Simo.
Restricting “indulgent” foods will only make you crave them more. She recommends allowing yourself an occasional treat to avoid cravings and binges.
Recommended reading: Lose the Weight, Keep (Even Gain!) the Muscle: Your 3-Step Plan
Step #3: Add Strength Training to Your Routine
When people want to lose weight, they usually ramp up their cardio workouts in an effort to burn calories, says Perrine. At the same time, they’ll often shy away from strength (or resistance) training, thinking that they’ll “bulk up” and counter their weight-loss efforts.
“Walking is great,” he says, “but if you’re not doing resistance training, then you’re not doing as much for your everyday functioning and your weight loss as you could be.”
Bishop-Simo agrees, pointing out that strength training helps build muscle. “Having a greater lean muscle mass increases the body’s ability to burn calories,” she says. Adding muscle mass can help you lose fat over time and maintain weight loss.
Try this: Don’t ditch cardio completely, but Bishop-Simo recommends adding resistance and strength-training exercises likes planks, squats, seated rows, and calf raises.
This six-move strength training workout for beginners is a good place to start.
You can even add some resistance to your daily walk by finding hills to climb or by increasing the incline on a treadmill.
Finally, Bishop-Simo says, “find exercises that you enjoy — whether that’s being inside, outside, alone or with a group. And don’t be afraid of variety!”
Exercise shouldn’t feel like a punishment. Any physical activity is good for your health, and the best activity for you will be the things that you actually want to do.
Take Your Favorite SilverSneakers Classes Online!
SilverSneakers members can access live fitness classes and wellness workshops through SilverSneakers LIVE. See the latest schedule and RSVP for classes here.
Not a member? If you have a Medicare Plan, it may include SilverSneakers — at no additional cost. Check your eligibility instantly here.