Weight cycling is a well(ish) known side effect of chronic dieting and comes with a plethora of risks - so why is it often not really talked about? In this article I'll try and summarize what weight cycling is, what causes it, the side effects and how to avoid it. I won’t go full dissertation mode but will try and link some research in case of interest.
What is weight cycling?
Also known as yo-yo dieting, weight cycling means the constant gaining and losing of weight.
You might see it defined slightly differently throughout scientific research as it’s not a super specific term but it’s estimated to affect about 20-24% of the general population - with even the researchers noting that it’s probably much higher than this. So if you’re experiencing this you’re not alone.
What causes weight cycling?
Weight cycling starts with dieting at its core. You want to lose weight, whether due to the effect of the media, diet culture, to feel in control etc. Often this means some harsh restriction leading to the losing of weight (although weight loss isn’t always guaranteed when dieting) that cannot be maintained.
And you stop the diet - either due to the fact it’s unsustainable or because you’ve hit your ‘goal weight’ or whatever you were aiming for. This means going from fierce restriction to nothing.
You gain the weight back because the pendulum swings back the other way.
And the result? You feel shame. Guilt. Not great. So you dig in deeper to the diet. And lose weight. But it can’t be maintained so you give up and the cycle continues. This cycle is a well documented phenomenon when chronically dieting, again affecting most people who start a diet - you’re not the only one who has fallen for it.
What are the side effects?
I’ll include some research below as this is an area of research in nutrition science, because it affects so many people and appears to have quite the list of negative consequences.
Ultimately the research has shown that weight cycling has a negative effect on blood pressure, heart rate, glucose levels, insulin sensitivity, lipid levels and overall stress on our cardiovascular and renal systems. There is a hypothesis called the ‘repeated overshoot hypothesis/theory’ which means we’re constantly affecting levels of such things within our body, with too low levels during periods of weight loss, and higher during weight regain. And these periods might not be balanced so our body is put under stress it cannot cope with.
And let’s not even start on the mental health effects. There is a link between weight cycling and depressive symptoms, with weight stigma playing a partial role here. If you believe your weight is an indicator of your morality aka being thin is being a better person somehow, it makes sense that regaining weight will start to make you feel negatively about yourself. It’s a two way street in that when your mental health is affected you might strive for control via dieting, or use food to cope and then gain/lose weight and start the weight cycling, which can make your mental health worse.
I’ve linked some great articles at the end of this post for those of you a little more scientifically inclined.
“The association between weight and health risk may be better attributed to weight cycling than adiposity itself” - Bacon and Aphramor 2011
Now I’ve scared you, maybe (sorry) let’s move on to how to avoid weight cycling.
How to avoid weight cycling?
I mean you’ve come to the page of a nutritionist who specialises in Intuitive Eating, so that’s going to be my number one recommendation. Break free from the dieting cycle and you’ll no longer be experiencing that pendulum effect of harsh restriction and the rebound effect.
Make peace with food: not only will working through this Intuitive Eating principle help you with food and dieting but also focuses on moving away from binary thinking to the shades of grey. No longer healthy / unhealthy but rather nourishing ourself.
Move away from weight as a barometer of morality: moving away from thin = good person. Because then of course you'll feel bad about yourself as your weight cycles.
Throw away the scale: literally. If you’re no longer watching your weight and tracking it, you will be less likely to dive into a diet with fluctuating changes in your body.
Reflect on your relationship with weight cycling: how is it feeling in your body, on your mental health etc. to be constantly on and off diets. Are you reaching diet burnout where you’re done with dieting?
Work on your relationship to your body: How’s your body image? How can it be improved so whatever your body looks like you can practice body neutrality or loving your body, wherever you fall on that scale.
Try and avoid shiny new diets: I know the newest trend might seem appetising but a diet is a diet. I have a free resource on how to spot a diet here.
It may take a while to break free from this diet cycle. Because your weight might stabilise at a higher weight than you may initially want, but it's stable and your relationship to food may be better. Now it’s your body image we need to work on. If you’ve been yo-yo dieting for years it will take time.
Eun-Jung Rhee 2017 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6489475/
Bacon and Aphramor 2011 - ‘Weight Science: Evaluating the Evidence for a Paradigm Shift” - Nutrition Journal
Montani et al 2015 - “Dieting and weight cycling as risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases: who is really at risk?” - Obesity reviews
Quinn et al 2020 - “Trying again (and again): weight cycling and depressive symptoms in U.S. adults” - PLoS One