Yo-yo dieting is a playful name for a habit with serious consequences. It describes a pattern of “off and on” dieting that often results in cycles of weight loss and weight gain. It’s certainly not a consistent or healthy solution to obesity.

The consequence of yo-yo dieting, weight cycling, is a common physical phenomenon that isn’t always associated with specific eating habits. Weight cycling may happen for a variety of reasons, and it includes everything from five-pound losses and gains to significant fluctuations of 50 pounds or more.    

If your weight fluctuates regularly, you may face heightened health risks and develop unhealthy eating and exercise habits as a result. As you work to maintain a healthy weight or prepare your body for weight loss surgery,  it’s important to understand the effects of weight cycling and the best ways to prevent them.

Health Effects Of Weight Cycling

Maintaining a stable, healthy weight during adulthood is only possible when you eat well and stay active. Inconsistencies in your diet or exercise regimen will inevitably cause some variations in your weight, along with the health risks and conditions that come with excess weight. As you age, weight cycling is also likely if you don’t adjust your habits to reflect your changing nutritional needs and metabolic rates.

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Obesity increases your risk of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arthritis, and heart disease. Excess weight is also correlated with higher risks of having a stroke and certain cancers. Each time your weight increases and your Body Mass Index (BMI) reaches the overweight or obese category, your risk of developing these potentially fatal diseases will also increase.

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Excess fat tissue causes health risks, some of which increase when you carry that weight in specific areas. For example, obesity-related conditions such as hypertension and type 2 diabetes are more likely if your abdominal area has more excess weight than your hips or thighs. However, weight cycling only causes excess fat deposits at the peak of each cycle. After you lose your excess weight, these fluctuations cannot change the amount or location of excess fat tissue on your post-cycle body.    

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Metabolic rates determine the speed at which your body turns food into energy. These rates decrease with age and increase with regular physical activity. Contrary to common misconceptions, your metabolism isn’t actually altered by the process of gaining and losing weight. That means your body won’t burn calories at a slower rate just because you’ve experienced multiple weight cycles.

Is It Even Harder To Lose Regained Weight?

While weight cycles don’t permanently change your body’s overall ability to retain muscle or lose fat, they do cause physical changes that temporarily affect your physique, metabolism, and health risks. Your body needs sufficient caloric energy and muscle tissue in order to keep your weight and energy levels consistent, and overeating or undereating will interfere with these physical processes.

Unfortunately, yo-yo dieters often experience extreme weight cycles because their dietary habits also cycle from one extreme to another. Remember: just as overeating and obesity cause health risks, extreme calorie restriction will increase your health risks too. Depriving your body of the energy it needs will cause your body to produce more cortisol, a stress hormone that decreases your appetite temporarily but increases it over time.

Muscle loss also occurs during multiple phases of weight cycling. When you restrict your caloric intake, your body will burn muscle tissue for energy instead, causing your body to have a lower muscle-to-fat ratio after your weight cycle is over. It will be harder to exercise and maintain a healthy weight if you’ve caused your body to lose muscle with extreme dieting.

Inactivity and obesity, of course, will also lead to muscle and energy loss. If you lose a significant amount of weight after a period of inactivity, you won’t have the strength or energy you need to sustain normal eating and exercise habits.

Staying Overweight Vs. Weight Cycling

Weight cycling is a frustrating experience, but it’s not inevitable. If you become depressed and discouraged every time your excess weight returns, you may be tempted to give up on your attempts to eat better or exercise more. However, this is never the right answer.

The health effects of weight cycling, such as excess fat deposits and increased cortisol production, are still up for debate in the medical and scientific communities. Because there are so many different factors at play, it’s difficult to pinpoint a cause-and-effect relationship between weight cycling and common health risks or physiological changes. Obesity, on the other hand, has very clear consequences for your body and lifestyle.

Beat Obesity Once And For All

Just as the health risks associated with obesity are proven, immediate, and significant, the benefits of weight loss are too. Losing just 10 percent of your body weight will decrease your weight-related health risks, and it doesn’t have to happen overnight. Instead of becoming discouraged by some weight gain or losing your momentum after initial results, focus on long term goals and consider weight loss surgery as an approach to help you achieve them. Sustaining a healthy weight and diet over the long term will help you live a longer, healthier life.