Is Yo-Yo Dieting Worth It?
Yo-yo dieting: losing weight to put it back on again. Doesn’t sound like fun, does it? In fact, it sounds very much like labouring to roll an immense stone up a steep hill, only for the stone to tumble quickly back to earth. There’s a word for that – Sisyphean. And though it sounds like a feat best avoided, yo-yo dieting is something many of us have experience of.
Why Diets Fail
Of course, no-one sets out to lose weight then gain it all back after going off the rails. Yo-yo dieting, therefore, is a cynical term for failed weight management. It alludes to a prior success, sure, but also to the inevitable foundering of your willpower.
Cutting weight, as we all know, requires effort, commitment and consistency – qualities which tend to fall by the wayside when we’ve hit our weight-loss targets. After punishing ourselves to drop a dress size or squeeze into an old pair of jeans, we tend to feel we have reached the summit of the mountain. In reality, we've merely made it to a shelter on a plateau halfway up.
Do we hurry in out of the cold and reward ourselves with treats? Or do we take stock before continuing our ascent?
Around nine in ten diets end in failure. Studies of weight loss programmes show that dieters peak at six months, with the weight starting to creep back on thereafter.
Others ditch the diet after only a few weeks or months, frustrated by their inability to fulfil unrealistic expectations.
Yo-yo dieting would appear to be a fairly pointless pursuit. But according to new research, it might not be the waste of time it’s made out to be.
The Benefits of Yo-Yo Dieting
It turns out that despite the bad press, yo-yo dieting actually makes people healthier in the long-term. Better to have gained and lost (and gained again) than never to have lost at all, the evidence seems to say.
Research conducted by the University of Alabama in Birmingham showed that yo-yo diets actually lead to longer lives. Mice who had dieted and regained weight enjoyed better longevity than their counterparts who remained obese.
Dr David Allison, who headed up the study, compared yo-yo dieting to visiting the dentist. “If you go to the dentist for your six-month evaluation, they find some plaque around your teeth and scrape it off, then give you a toothbrush and a piece of string and send you out and say keep up the good work,” Allison told the American Association Annual Conference in Boston. “Six months later, guess what, the plaque is back on. Just like weight loss. Nobody says dentistry is a failure, they say that’s OK.”
Although the study did not assess the effects of yo-yo dieting on humans, nutritionist Susan Jebb – a professor of diet and population health at Oxford – concurred with the findings. “I agree with the notion that losing weight is generally worthwhile, even if you put the weight back on again,” she said.
Yo-yo dieting doesn’t escape criticism altogether, though. Professor Timothy Spector from King’s College, London, takes a different view. “Data in humans shows that yo-yo dieting makes you gain weight long-term. In our twin study of 5,000 twins, the yo-yo dieter was usually heavier long-term than the identical twin who didn’t diet.”
How to Lose the Weight and Keep It Off
While more studies need to be done on humans, perhaps there is something to be said for yo-yo dieting. However, the ultimate goal should be to reach a healthy weight and maintain it going forward.
There is no magic bullet to keeping the weight off, but diet and exercise is naturally better than diet alone. Walk, run, cycle, swim; take up tennis or squash or football; build your strength in the gym using free weights or attend a Boxercise or Spin Fit class once a week. Such healthy habits will keep the bulge at bay.
When it comes to diet, make a plan and stick to it – but don’t beat yourself up too badly if you overindulge now and then. Practice portion control and eat nutrient-dense meals while shunning processed foods high in sugar and salt.
As ever, consistency is key. If you fall into the habit of yo-yo dieting, focus on weight-loss maintenance rather than slipping into old habits.