Yo-Yo dieting is often blamed for making it harder and harder for people to lose weight due to progressive metabolic damage and cyclical swings in body fat levels.
Luckily for those who’ve been struggling with their weight for awhile, the available scientific evidence is clear that this is absolutely not true. In this article and video we’re going to explore the issue and see what studies following thousands of yo-yo dieters have found.
The common refrain we hear is that by restricting calories during a diet, damage is done to the metabolism, causing the person to burn fewer calories going forward.
Most people don’t pick diet and exercise plans they can stick to for life, so at some point they fall off the wagon and regain the weight. Eventually, the argument goes, these people will again attempt to lose weight, but this time, due to the metabolic damage done during their last attempt, it will be harder to shed the pounds. Each successive yo-yo dieting attempt make it harder and harder to stay slim, we’re told.
But is there any truth to this?
Let’s start off by discussing the National Weight Loss Control Registry, which tracks more than 10,000 people who have lost a lot of weight and kept it off long term. The average member has lost 66 lbs and kept it off for 5.5 years.
Before finding steady success, 93% of the members had repeated bouts of weight loss and regain, some of them experiencing dozens of cyclical yo-yo dieting periods1.
So it’s probably fair to assume that previous failed attempts at weight loss don’t stop successful weight loss maintainers from staying slim. After failing multiple times, they figured out a diet and exercise pattern they can stick to, and they’re now maintaining their weight loss. See my video to hear what they do differently.
Bigger Restriction For The Same Weight Loss?
I’ve often heard that when people try to lose weight after multiple yo-yo dieting cycles, they have to restrict their calories more dramatically to see the same level of fat loss.
Let’s look at several studies which have examined this issue to see if there’s any truth to it.
One study followed 2,474 obese patients enrolled in a very-low-calorie-diet weight loss program between 1988 and 20002. A total of 480 of the participants ended up restarting the program 1-3 additional times after regaining some or all of the weight lost in the initial attempt. They consumed only 700 to 800 calories per day, which is a ridiculously low calorie intake, but great for examining the idea of binge dieting’s long-term effect on metabolic rate.
So was their weight loss slower during subsequent weight loss attempts on the program? No. There was no statistically-significant difference. Here are the weight loss totals by week for men and women during their first three restarts:
As you can see, sometimes the participants lost slightly more weight in subsequent attempts. This lead the researchers to conclude that, “The present study refutes the hypothesis that repeated dieting makes further dieting efforts more difficult.”
Metabolic Rate And Fat Distribution Vs Yo-Yo Dieting
But what about metabolic rate? Will yo-yo dieting permanently suppress it? And is it possible that when you regain weight after a crash diet that fat piles onto your stomach, butt, thighs, or other areas where it wasn’t before?
One study followed obese women who lost an average of 41.58 pounds and then regained it3. Their resting energy expenditure dropped from 1,631 to 1,501 after losing the weight, which is exactly what you’d expect from someone who lost that much body fat, since fat cells burns calories to maintain themselves. But after the women regained their weight, their resting energy expenditure returned to its pre-study level, and their body fat distribution was unchanged.
This lead the researchers to conclude that, “These results do not support claims that weight cycling adversely affects REE, body composition, or body fat distribution.”
But Isn’t Weight Cycling Damaging To Your Health?
If you binge on unhealthy food during weight regains, you’re certainly damaging your health because the food itself is known to increase your risk of disease. But if you eat healthy food in larger quantities and gain weight, there doesn’t appear to be any negative outcome outside of the increased risk of having a greater amount of fat on your body.
For instance, this study4 examined the health implications and found,”a history of weight cycling did not affect the metabolic profiles of the weight cyclers compared with the noncyclers.”
Dozens of studies have looked into this myth, and they’ve all found it to be untrue. To sum up the findings of one more overview5, “Weight cycling has been hypothesized to have deleterious metabolic, behavioral and health consequences. The majority of clinical studies in humans do however not support the hypothesis that weight cycling per se influences the amount of velocity of subsequent weight loss. Both natural and experimental weight cycling studies have failed to demonstrate permanent alterations of body composition or body fat distribution. Studies found little evidence that weight cycling affects resting energy expenditure.”
The Bottom Line on Yo-Yo Dieting
Being of a healthy weight is always better than being overweight. Yes, gaining weight is never good, particularly if you do so from eating unhealthy food. But the benefits of weight loss are substantial, and you should never stop attempting weight loss for fear of damaging your metabolism.
I lost 62 pounds from my high by adopting a low fat raw vegan diet. I’ve stayed slim for years because I picked a diet and exercise program I can sustain.
If you want to know what works for me, check out my book, Raw Food Weight Loss And Vitality.
Ogden, Lorraine G. Et al. Cluster Analysis of the National Weight Control Registry to Identify Distinct Subgroups Maintaining Successful Weight Loss Obesity (Silver Spring). 2012 Oct; 20(10): 2039–2047.↩
Li, Z. Et al. Weight cycling in a very low-calorie diet programme has no effect on weight loss velocity, blood pressure and serum lipid profile.Diabetes Obes Metab. 2007 May;9(3):379-85. ↩
Wadden, TA. Et al. Effects of weight cycling on the resting energy expenditure and body composition of obese women. Int J Eat Disord. 1996 Jan;19(1):5-12.↩
J Am Diet Assoc. 1993 Sep;93(9):1025-30. Metabolic and anthropometric changes in female weight cyclers and controls over a 1-year period.↩
Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1995 Sep;19 Suppl 3:S46-50. Is weight cycling detrimental to health? A review of the literature in humans.↩