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What is a Yo-Yo Diet?

By Y. Chen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The yo-yo diet is one type in a class of many extreme fad diets. Also referred to as "weight cycling," the diet is characterized by a cyclical pattern of repetitious loss and gain of body weight. Some of the ways people choose to do this include skipping meals and consuming very few calories. This type of diet is infamously unsuccessful, however, and can even be harmful. Dieters often experience initial success, but due to its overwhelming toll on the body, the inability to sustain this weight loss in the long run causes dieters to regain all of it back and then some.

The term "yo-yo diet" was first coined by Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D, an American scientist, professor, and expert on obesity and weight control at Yale University. He named the dieting process due to its analogous nature to the up-down action of a toy yo-yo. Because of the starvation dieters subject their bodies to, their weight loss consists of losing both muscle and body fat. When the body senses that it is rapidly losing its energy source, it kicks on its famine response, a defense mechanism that aims to protect fat stores by using up lean tissue and muscle for energy instead. This weakens the stability of muscles. Because the amount of muscle in the body is directly proportional to metabolic rate, a loss of muscle also means a drop in metabolic rate. While this process naturally occurs in the case of actual famine, it is not appropriate for a regular weight-loss diet.

Yo-yo dieting operates in such a way that it is harder each time to lose weight. As the yo-yo nears the end of its string, the plastic spool starts spinning slower. Likewise, the diet follower may find weight loss success harder and harder to maintain as time goes by, leading to depression and demotivation. As soon as the dieter starts attempting to eat normally again, all the weight regained will be stored in the form of fat. This type of diet essentially tampers with a healthy body's normal fat-to-muscle ratio, which is a primary aspect of good health.

Fad diets in general are too extreme on the human body. Many times, radical food deprivation is misleadingly perceived as a substitute for good diet and exercise habits. People's susceptibility to fad diets is the result of many dynamic factors, including biological factors (genetics, hormones, and biochemicals), emotional and motivational support, and misguided expectations. The environment also plays a huge role, since everywhere most people turn, they face pressures from images in mass media of supposedly perfect body shapes.

Experts agree that a yo-yo diet is not a healthy way to lose weight in the long run. Alternatives that help dieters lose their excess poundage without altering the body's fat to muscle ratio do exist. Some of these tips include the following:

  1. Aiming for realistic weight loss goals;
  2. Decreasing calorie consumption at a slower pace;
  3. Not skipping breakfast;
  4. Modifying activity levels to sustain muscle mass while losing weight;
  5. Taking a good look at what, when, and why the individual eats.
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Discussion Comments
By leilani — On Feb 12, 2012

AS bad as quick diets seem to be in terms of health and longevity, they still seem to be better than being continually overweight.

At least that is what a study seem to have found in observing mice over a period of time.

The mice that were gaining and losing weight still outlived the mice that were continually heavy.

And not by just a little, but by about 30% did the yo you dieters outlive the overweight mice.

By mentirosa — On Jul 21, 2008

Another unhealthy side effect of yo yo diets is that men in particular are prone to developing gallstones if they keep gaining and losing weight. Men who lost 20 lbs or more were at a 75% higher risk of getting gallstones then men who maintained their weight, according to a recent study.

By mentirosa — On Apr 02, 2008

I completely agree that dieting is not the way to go. I have been yo-yoing a number of times, but the diets do not seem to work long term. Yes, you can loose weight in the short run, but to consistently keep it off is nearly impossible.

The reason is that by dieting, you have really not learned how to eat properly. Also some diets are so restrictive in calories, that after a while your body is so food deprived, that you do not think of anything else but food. For me, I have learned after many trials, that the best way to keep extra pounds off is to eat healthy food.

I do keep track of how many calories a day I eat, and 1500 seem to be right when I want to loose weight, 1800 to 2000 to maintain. You need to find out what is right for you, based on metabolism and calories burned exercising.

Also it is important not to get hungry, so having some snack, like nuts or fruit available at all times will not send you off on a food binge. I exercise 5 to 6 times a week, and I sleep 8 hours a night. That is what we are being told is the right way to live. It seems to be working.

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