How to Win the Constant Battle of Yo-Yo Dieting
See if this sounds familiar: you have an upcoming wedding, reunion, vacation, or other special occasion looming on the horizon, and you just have to lose ten pounds. You cut calories, add in thirty minutes of cardio, lose the weight, and fit into that skin-tight dress that has everyone gawking and exclaiming, “You look great! What have you been doing!”
Fast forward a couple of months post-event: you find not only have you regained the weight you lost, but the scale lets you know you’ve added a few more pounds. Well that won’t do! So you cut calories again. Only this time, you discover you’re not losing the weight as easily as you did the first time. Easy fix, right? You cut a few more calories, and add another twenty minutes to your cardio session. The scale finally starts moving in your favor, and you eventually fit back into that skin-tight dress.
Since you hit your goal of getting back into that dress, you go back to normal eating and BAM! Before you know it, the weight is back and this time that scale number is even higher! Well that won’t do! So you cut calories… and the cycle repeats itself.
If this hasn’t happened to you, I can almost bet it has happened to someone you know. This style of dieting is called weight cycling. This is a term penned by Kelly D. Brownwell, former director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. It’s more commonly known as yo-yo dieting. Both terms identify a style of dieting in which weight loss and gains happen in a cyclical manner. While the concept of yo-yo dieting may be familiar, what may not be so familiar is what actually happens to your body on a biological level each time you take part in in another dieting episode.
Let’s start with an explanation of the word homeostasis. Our bodies are pretty much programmed to do one essential thing: keep us alive. To do this, the body recognizes the need to keep all our systems working in a balance that is optimum for survival. Here’s an example: our internal body temperature is a somewhat constant 98.6°. If you were to take your temperature throughout the day, you may find it varies slightly from time to time. But for the most part, it stays pretty close to the body’s preferred number of 98.6°.
Now imagine it’s 32° outside, but you decide you’re going to run to the mailbox in just your thin PJ’s and flip-flops. Hey, the mailbox is just at the end of the driveway! By the time you get to the end of the drive, you are shivering like mad and kicking yourself for not grabbing at least a thick robe. The shivering is your body’s way of maintaining homeostasis. It senses the extreme external temperature change that is negatively affecting your steady internal temperature. Y ou begin to shiver in an attempt to generate heat that will cause the internal temperature to return to normal.
Just as our body has in place mechanisms to maintain a constant internal temperature, it also has many mechanisms in place attempting to maintain our weight both during and after a low-calorie (hypocaloric) dieting phase.
THE FAT CELL
First, let’s take a look at the bane of our existence, the fat cell. Well, maybe not the bane of our existence. After all, we need fat to protect our organs, maintain our body temperature, and absorb vitamins. This is just to name a few of the positive functions of fat. It’s when we have allowed ourselves to put on excess fat that we see fat cells as pests that must be destroyed and a hyporcaloric diet ensues. Going back to the scenario mentioned at the beginning of this article, you decide you need to lose ten pounds. To do so, you cut your calories from 2000 calories a day to 1200. You also decide to do thirty minutes of cardio to increase the calories in-calories out gap even more. So what’s going on inside? First, let me say I’ve never been a fan of the phrase “fat burn” because it implies you can burn away fat. The unfortunate truth is that unless you are getting liposuction or CoolSculpting©, those fat cells are with you for life. When you lose weight, the fat cells simply shrink – they change in size but not in number.
Now this is where it really gets interesting! Once you come off your diet and begin to eat normally again, you may notice that you put on weight relatively quickly. One of the reasons for this is that your body is now suppressing its ability to use fat as fuel and increasing its efficiency at shuttling both dietary fat and glucose into fat cells.1 It does this to store the maximum amount of fat (long-term energy) it can in case you decide you’re going to try and “starve” it again.
Not only does your body become a fat storing machine, it becomes a fat creating machine. In the early stages of weight regain, the body actually begins a process called de novo lipogenesis, which is the generation of new fat cells from excess dietary carbohydrates. And let’s face it, the poor carbohydrate is usually first up on the chopping block when calories are being cut. To be clear: after you are finished dieting, you simply go back to eating the way you originally were. The problem is, though, your body is now registering what used to be a normal calorie intake for you as excess. So what does it do? It either stores the excess into existing fat cells or it simply creates new ones. So say, for simplistic illustration sake, you have 37 fat cells that in total weigh 24.69 ounces. After you diet, you still have 37 fat cells but now, they only weigh 21.16 ounces (so weight loss). In the early post-diet stages, those fat cells begin to fill and proliferate; they now weigh 21.86 ounces and you now have 55 total fat cells. Before you know it, the fat cells have reached your original weight of 24.69 ounces. What you must realize, is that this is not the same 24.69 ounces you started off with because now, you have 56 fat cells that are still quite efficient at storing energy.(1) As a result, you are likely to overshoot your original weight because you now have more fat cells to fill. The cruel reality is that this process happens each time you yo-yo diet. With each dieting episode, it becomes harder and harder to lose weight because you are battling more and more fat cells.
Another unfortunate dieting reality is that if you restricted calories too severely, then it is likely you have lost muscle as well. It has been shown that for every ten pounds lost during a period of strict calorie restriction, “4-6 pounds can come from muscle”.2 This fact should be unnerving to you since the amount of muscle you have affects your metabolism. And if you’re menopausal? This fact should have you on high alert. The shifts in hormones that come with menopause make gaining muscle mass challenging! So there you are, hitting the weights hard in hopes of gaining some metabolic muscle, but your hypocaloric diet is right behind you, negating all of your efforts.
Our metabolism, much like our internal body temperature, is dynamic. Unlike our internal body temperature, our metabolism is capable of making huge adjustments. Often much greater than we can attempt to predict. For example, scientists at Laval University, performed a weight management study. In it, close and careful nutritional supervision was key to the program. One aspect of the program required that the participants eat a diet that was 500 calories less than what they were accustomed to eating.3 At the end of the 15-week program, one of the female participants had actually gained 4.62 pounds. To discover the rationale behind her weight gain, an indirect calorimetry test was performed. The results showed that her pre-study Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) of 1479 had decreased to 927 during the study! Essentially, she was not burning any calories and in regards to the calories coming in. They were being stored for later use (read: fat storage). Dr. Layne Norton, PhD of Nutritional Sciences, provides an explanation of what may happen when the body senses it is in a hypocaloric state: The body “adapt[s] to the low calorie intake and high calorie output. You get no calorie burn… [not even] a Thermic Effect of Food”4
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Let’s return to our hypothetical situation in which you dropped your caloric intake to 1200 calories a day to lose those unwanted ten pounds. You lost the weight, fit into your dress, came off the diet and resumed eating normally again. We now know that during the diet, it is possible you lost more muscle mass (which in and of itself lowers your metabolism) than fat. We also now know you’ve created quite a few new fat cells that are sending out signals to the brain that they need to be fed — and fed now! So not only did you return to your original weight, you put on even more because you now have more fat cells to fill. Since the extra weight won’t do, you go back to the 1200 calorie diet you had used in the beginning. You find that the weight isn’t coming off as it had at first. We now understand it is probable that as a result of adaptive thermogenesis, your metabolism has dropped dramatically. Your body has become so super efficient that you are not getting any calorie burn, in spite of the huge caloric deficit you are imposing upon it. So you drop your caloric intake to 1000 calories a day, begin doing two-a-day cardio sessions for an hour each, and the scale finally moves in your favor. But of course you now know that this dieting phase caused you to lose more muscle, caused you to generate even more new fat cells, and compromised your metabolism even more… right?
NOT WORTH THE RISK
There is so much pressure on women to project a certain image. Our faces must be wrinkle-free, our hair perfectly coiffed, our bodies stylishly clad, and our shapes must be lean, yet with the right amount of curves. We can’t escape these pressures as they chase us from the pages of magazines, through the images of the stars on screen, and in an unrelenting barrage of selfie posts on social media. As women, we aim to please. We get facials and botox; we color and style our hair. We wear the trendiest trends in the fashion world; and we diet. We diet, and we diet again, not realizing that our well-intentioned efforts are slowly destroying us.
If you do need to lose weight, understand that there is no quick fix—there is no magic formula that is going to make you lose weight right this minute. I know this is going to sound trite, but it’s true. It took you quite some time to put that weight on; it’s going to take you quite some time to take it off if you do it the right way. If you are a competitor or are considering competing, know that this article applies to you as well. Probably even more so. We just discussed what the wrong path to weight loss could do to you. Are all of those possibilities worth the risk just so you can receive a temporary, quick result? Keep in mind that the result will be temporary. I know because I’ve been there, done that. I used to compete as a figure competitor and I promise you I regret having not having asked enough questions and not having done enough of my own research. I did as I was told to do in regards to my diet and exercise regimen and all the above became my reality. Luckily, with the help of an amazing nutritionist, I was able to get back on the right path to health.
No matter what your weight loss goals are, just know that taking drastic measures is not the answer. Be patient; make the small changes you need to begin the weight loss process. Ask questions, do research, and even go so far to hire a nutritionist to help guide you. Take the time to lose weight the right way and I promise you will be pleased with your result. It is more likely you will keep your result for the long-term.
About the Author
Elizabeth Anastasopoulos, a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Nutrition Specialist, spends significant time in the gym training her athletes. However, her time as a figure competitor in the OCB directed her passion towards nutrition and nutritional counseling. She is currently pursuing her Diploma in Comprehensive Nutrition, and she plans to continue her education by obtaining a certification in sports nutrition as well.
Her greatest joy, though, is her family. She is a proud wife, as well as the mother of an 18 year-old daughter and of 9-year old twins. As a family, they enjoy multiple outdoor activities and traveling to various destinations.
1) MacLean, Paul S, et. al. Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2011 Sep;301(3):R581-600. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.00755.2010. Epub 2011 Jun 15.
2) Klein, Keith and Lee Labrada. Get Lean: Deluxe 12th Anniversary Edition. (4)
3) Tremblay, Angelo, et. al. Role of adaptive thermogenesis in unsuccessful weight loss intervention. Future Lipidology. Dec. 2007. 2(6)
4) Norton, Layne. Metabolic Damage. YouTube: Video Log 9. Dec. 6, 2012.