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Does yo-yo dieting make weight loss harder?

Dr Joanna McMillan

The downsides to yo-yo dieting and how to break the cycle

A young woman smiling as she unpacks healthy groceries
A young woman smiling as she unpacks healthy groceries

When you’re eager to lose weight, it’s easy to be drawn in by all those fad diets promising fast results. After all, who doesn’t want a quick fix? But while these eating plans may appear to work initially, they’re often drastic in their approach, usually requiring you to ditch entire food groups – which can mean missing out on many essential nutrients.

This is not only potentially unhealthy, it also makes them hard to sustain in the long run. That often leads to the weight creeping back on – and kicking off the dreaded yo-yo diet cycle.

In this article, we’ll explore what yo-yo dieting is, the negative physical and psychological impact it can have on your body and how to break the cycle.

What is yo-yo dieting?

Yo-yo dieting, explains PhD qualified nutrition scientist and accredited practising dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan, is when a person goes through repeated cycles of losing weight and then regaining it – usually with ‘interest’, she explains. This weight cycling, as it’s sometimes known, has harmful effects on the body, and can impact on your mental health, too.

How can yo-yo dieting lead to weight gain?

Your metabolism is the process your body uses to burn the energy you get from food. When your metabolism is slower, you burn kilojoules more slowly and put on weight more easily in the future. Yo-yo dieting can cause your metabolism to slow and for this reason, yo-yo dieting makes weight loss harder each time you try, Joanna says.

“With less muscle and more fat, you burn less energy,” explains Joanna. “That, combined with the loss of confidence and feelings of failure, can make it really hard to keep the weight off or lose weight again.”

Man laughing as he's out for lunch with a glass of orange juice in front of him

The dangers of yo-yo dieting

The negative impact of yo-yo dieting extends well beyond weight gain. There are serious physical and psychological effects that can lead to potential long-term health issues.

1. Psychological impact

Along with the tendency to add kilos each time you go through the yo-yo diet cycle, the psychological effects of yo-yo dieting can be incredibly harmful, possibly even leading to mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

“It can be soul destroying to regain weight after going to so much effort to lose it, and each time you can end up losing confidence in your ability to lose the weight again,” says Joanna.

2. Muscle loss

“You tend to get fatter each time you go through the cycle as you lose both muscle and fat, but when you regain the weight, most of it is fat,” Joanna explains. “This lowers your metabolism, effectively, as fat tissue is less active and uses less energy even at rest compared to muscle.”

3. Cardiovascular harm

Research found an increased risk of heart problems in young women who had yo-yo dieted. The study authors think this could be because of fat replacing lean muscle, or due to the increase in blood pressure, blood sugar and triglycerides, that can all occur when weight is regained.

To quit yo-yo dieting for good, try shifting your focus from weight loss to your overall wellbeing

How to break the yo-yo diet cycle

While the yo-yo diet effect isn’t necessarily confined to the realms of food fads, the best way to lose weight healthily – and keep it off – is by eating a balanced, nutritious diet, choosing smaller portions and exercising and moving regularly. And remember, says Joanna, getting more movement into your day doesn’t have to mean going to extremes at the gym.

“It might be walking or gardening,” she suggests.

Related: How to start exercising more

To quit yo-yo dieting for good, Joanna suggests shifting your focus from weight loss to your overall wellbeing.

“Take the emphasis off weight and focus instead on health,” she says. “Build healthy habits and improve your relationship with food and with your own body. Accept that bodies come in different shapes and sizes and that if you focus on eating nourishing foods and building healthy lifestyle habits – including daily activities to keep you moving – your body will gradually shift to where it is happiest. Health comes from the inside out.”

Ready to get healthy?

At nib, we want you to be at your healthiest. So, if you need a helping hand to manage your joint pain, weight, diabetes, heart health, anxiety or depression, you might qualify for one of our health management programs at no additional cost for eligible members.*

To find out more information, or to register your interest, visit our Health Management Programs page.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

* Available to eligible nib members who’ve held Hospital Cover for 12 months and served their relevant waiting periods. Additional criteria vary according to each program.

Dr Joanna McMillan

Dr Joanna McMillan is a PhD qualified Nutrition Scientist and Accredited Practising Dietitian, plus one of Australia's favourite and most trusted health and wellbeing experts. She is the founder of Get Lean – an online lifestyle change program – and has authored several books including Brain Food and The Feel-Good Family Food Plan, as well as her Audible original audiobook, Gutfull. Jo's favourite song to dance to is Flashdance... forgive her - she was an aerobics instructor for 15 years!