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What you need to know about yo-yo dieting

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So many Americans have been on the diet merry-go-round for years—losing weight only to gain it back again. Oh, you too? Let’s change that! Because science says it may be time to ditch yo-yo dieting and work on more sustainable habits, even if that means no weight loss. It may sound contradictory, but you read that right: It turns out that yo-yo dieting—or weight cycling—may do more harm than maintaining the status quo.

Besides the guilt, shame, and disappointment that comes with losing weight only to regain it again, some research suggests that yo-yo dieting could negatively affect health in certain people. However, the research is mixed about whether weight cycling is solely to blame or if it may have to do with other lifestyle habits or issues. (Science is ever evolving, people!) But take a look at the possible problems linked to yo-yo dieting and learn ways to lower your risk and make your weight care journey more maintainable. 

1. Insulin resistance that may increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes

Dramatic and immediate weight loss (looking at you, fad diets) is often the result of severe calorie restriction. And here’s what may happen: You inevitably wind up feeling super hungry and consumed by thoughts of food. This may increase the risk of binging or overeating, triggering a surge of glucose (sugar) into your bloodstream. Insulin is then released to move blood sugars into your muscle, fat, and liver cells for energy.  But if that energy isn’t used, it tends to get stored and cause weight regain—specifically fat mass. This higher body fat percentage is linked to insulin resistance. It occurs when blood sugars remain consistently high because your body isn’t responding to insulin. Over time, this may put you at risk for type 2 diabetes. One review of studies showed that weight cycling may be a strong, independent predictor of newly diagnosed diabetes. However, more research is needed to determine the exact mechanism behind this and the individual risk it poses. 

2. Possible concerns for cardiovascular issues

Some research shows that certain measures of health—including blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol levels—may worsen after weight cycling. How does this happen? Well, there’s a thing called the “repeated overshoot theory”: Your body wants to maintain as much normalcy as possible, and when you repeatedly gain and lose weight, your vitals also fluctuate to try and keep up. During times of weight regain, your body can overcorrect or “overshoot” these levels, making them too high. This additional stress on the cardiovascular system may increase your risk for heart disease, heart attack, and even stroke.

3. A poor relationship with food

Weight loss journeys often go something like this: you restrict your eating, feel great for a short period of time, get cravings, overeat the foods you “can’t have,” experience guilt and shame, and go back to restricting. But you’ll “be better next time!” Only that’s not what happens. (No judgment on you! That’s just the way it goes.) This cycle can lead to labeling food as “good” and “bad” and ties morality and self-worth to everything you put on your plate. And that often makes you see food—or yourself—as the enemy and cause a downward spiral of shame. In fact, weight cycling has been associated with greater reported feelings of depression. 

4. Muscle loss

A 2019 study published in the journal Obesity found that severe yo-yo dieters are at a higher risk of muscle loss. This is due partly to fast weight loss from calorie restriction. Here’s why: When you lose weight, you often lose muscle along with fat—which is especially true of the “overnight” kind of weight loss. But maintaining lean muscle mass is crucial during a weight care journey because it boosts your metabolism and also counteracts age-related muscle loss that helps you move better day to day. 

So, what should you try instead?

  • Focus on the long-term rather than a quick fix

We know it’s hard! But aren’t you tired of the whole weight rollercoaster? We want your success to last. So think about making small, sustainable changes you can build on—like going for a walk each day or keeping a food journal. When you set realistic goals and expectations, you’ll be able to stick with them (for good this time!), even if the journey might take a little longer than you’re used to.  

  • Find foods and types of movement that work for you

What your friend likes to eat may not feel right for you, and that’s okay! It’s important to find healthy foods that you actually enjoy and will prepare—that’s the key to making lifelong habits. The same goes for movement. If you aren’t a runner, why are you starting that couch to 5k? Yoga and strength training more your style? Cool! Go for the physical activities that are the best for you and are more likely a fit that helps you succeed. 

  • Take the pressure off of the scale 

You may have a goal weight in mind, but at the end of the day, that number may not be sustainable without drastic measures. Ignoring the scale can be challenging when so many of us have been taught that a certain weight equals health. But try to shift your priority to health-promoting behaviors instead of those digits. We call them non-scale victories (NSVs). Do you have more energy? Are you sleeping better? Have you noticed a boost in self-confidence or quality of life? Are your health labs better? Those are all serious wins!

  • Appreciate body diversity and accept what may be healthy for you

Look around you. There are many different body shapes and sizes, and no two people ever look the same. Throughout your health and wellness journey, try showing more appreciation for the body that carries you through this life. Hey, it does amazing things, and it’s time you showed it more love. Try to create realistic expectations, be kind to yourself, and don’t compare yourself to others. You may never get to [insert size or weight here] because of how you’re built, and that’s fine! What matters most is that you’re nourishing and moving your body in ways that feel good.

If you find yourself tempted by a quick fix, don't be discouraged (and try some strategies to reframe and get back on track). Weight care is not a linear journey, and your coach is there to help support you through it all! 

Found offers a science-backed approach to weight care that's based on your unique biology, psychology, lifestyle, and prescription medication needs. Members receiving medication plus behavior change support from Found lost at least 13% more weight, and in some cases up to 229% more, compared to people receiving the same medication in clinical studies. To start your journey with Found, take our quiz.

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