Yo-yoing: it was fun when you were a kid (AND we’re talking about a small plastic toy). But now it’s your weight that’s reeling up and down. Not good. Here, we reveal how to put a stop to it – forever
Who among us hasn’t high-fived ourselves when our favourite jeans are just that bit looser... only to find they’re too tight a few months later. And it’s not just us normal folk – stand at any supermarket checkout and the cautionary tales scream at you from the tabloids: Kirstie Alley regained the 30-plus kilos she lost on Jenny Craig. Oprah – well, we all know about her struggles. Mariah Carey, Sophie Monk… The list goes on. If these rich, powerful women, with their personal trainers and private chefs, can’t win the weight war, what chance do we have? We investigate the dangerous cycle of yo-yo dieting – and find out how you can break out of it – for good.
It doesn’t help that the statistics are grim. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, US, analysed 31 long-term diet studies and found that about two-thirds of participants regained more weight within four or five years than they initially lost. By some estimates, a huge (literally, we presume) 80 per cent of people who’ve lost weight regain it all, or more, after two years. It’s enough to make you throw in your gym towel and bury your head in a bowl of nachos.
In fact, that’s a common reaction – you feel crap, so you eat more, making you put on more weight, then feel even crapper. Not a fun cycle to be on. Along with the emotional toll is a physical one: not only is extra weight a health risk, recent studies have linked the gain-lose-gain cycle to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
METABOLIC MATHSWhile small fluctuations are normal, the behaviour that experts refer to as “weight cycling” is not. Cycling is defined as a significant increase or decrease in weight (five kilograms or more) that occurs multiple times. Experts believe a yo-yo pattern is often the result of an eating plan that’s too restrictive. A study in Obesity found people who followed a very low-energy diet regained significantly more weight than those on a more forgiving plan. Desperate for quick results, “women try to lose weight on diets with too few calories,” says Dr Judith Beck, director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research, US. “If you lose weight on 1200 calories [approx. 5000kJ] , the minute you go up to 1300 [approx. 5500kJ], you start gaining weight.”
MORE FROM WH: Seven ways to stop yo-yo dieting for good!
The risks of super-quick weight loss hit the news recently, with attacks on reality weight-loss shows from dietitians and other professionals, such as Australian weight loss expert Dr John Ticknell who said that people who lost large amounts of weight rapidly had “little chance of keeping it off long term”. The Australian Association for Exercise and Sports Science has also claimed that the shows send the wrong message, saying they can promote dangerous behaviour and extreme measures that could result in personal harm.
Frustratingly, even on a sensible diet your body sheds weight reluctantly. “One reason it’s difficult to keep weight off is because there is a metabolic overcompensation for weight loss,” says Dr Gary Foster, director of the Center of Obesity Research and Education at Temple University, US. “If you decrease your body mass by 10 per cent, you’d expect your metabolic rate to decrease by 10 per cent, but it actually slows down by about 11 to 15 per cent.” Oh, great.
Why does your own metabolism thwart you? Simple, says Dr Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, US: “The body may perceive dieting as a threat to its survival. It might not know the difference between Atkins and famine.”
What’s more, says Dr Brownell, weight cycling can actually change your physiology. So the more diets you’ve been on, the harder it gets to lose weight. A hunger hormone called ghrelin increases, and a fullness hormone called leptin decreases, so you feel hungrier and less satiated.
Times in life when your weight is primed to spike
In uni A quarter of US freshmen gain 5 per cent of their body weight during their first semester. And with all-night boozing and all-day fast food, this gain is likely to continue. What to do Skip the food court and start taking a healthy lunch box with you, just like when you were a kid.
In love Research shows that living with or marrying a man can add to your waistline. “Women often adjust their eating habits to match those of men,” says psychologist Dr Susan Alpers. What to do Remember, he needs more kJs than you do, so don’t match him bite for bite at every meal.
In your 30s Most women start to lose muscle mass around this age, so their metabolism slows. What to do Pump iron. You may not be able to stop losing muscle, but you can slow down the rate of loss. Two 30-minute strength-training sessions a week will keep your metabolism fired up.
BORN TO REBOUND?It’s bad enough that your body fights you when you try to lose weight. Now there’s compelling research to show that some people may be hardwired to yo-yo. Dr David Kessler, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration and author ofThe End of Overeating , and his team of researchers looked into the biology of weight cycling. They found reward circuits in the brains of people Dr Kessler calls “conditioned hypereaters” were excessively activated simply by the smell of food, and stayed that way until they finished eating whatever was in front of them. In other words, when you have overactive neural circuitry, resisting temptation is not a question of willpower alone. “This is a biological cause of conditioned hypereating.” Dr Kessler says. He estimates that 50 per cent of obese people are conditioned hypereaters.
Evidence shows, however, that this reaction is partially learned, and that through conditioning, you can rewire your brain. After all, the yen to yo-yo is not just physical; emotional triggers play a huge role, too. A study at Brown University, US, found that dieters who ate in response to emotions like stress, as opposed to external events like overdoing it at the pub, were more likely to regain weight.
Case in point: Darcie Schmidt lost 34 kilograms in her late 20s, then regained 55kg in two years, largely due to emotional eating. In her early 30s, she stuck to a strict diet-and-exercise regimen and shed 60kg. But the stress of a divorce, and a return to study knocked her off track: she traded 5km, five-day-a-week runs for bags of chips and regained 18kg.
Dr Beck sees women like Schmidt all the time. The problem, she believes, is that they never learned the skills needed for long-term behaviour change. “They haven’t been taught how to motivate themselves every day,” Dr Beck says, “or how to recognise a mistake as a one-time thing.” And lets face it, telling yourself you simply need to build up a few behavioural skills is a much better internal script than the familiar “I’m lazy/have no willpower” schtick.
A study of 200 overweight and obese people in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, supports the behaviour-change approach. Along with other weight-loss techniques, one group received an additional hour of therapy, in which they learned to change their behaviour; the other group did an extra hour of exercise. After a year, those in the therapy group had maintained their weight loss; the other hadn’t.
RISKY BIGNESSWhile watching the numbers on the scale fluctuate wildly is a blues inducer and clothes-budget buster, there are far more compelling reasons to hold steady: your metabolism might be affected – and not in the way you probably hoped.
“If you go on a strict diet and gain weight back quickly, you might lose a lot of muscle and regain a lot of fat,” says Dr Keith Ayoob, a registered dietitian. “Then your metabolism operates on a slower idle, so it’s going to be harder to lose weight as time goes on.” The more times you yo-yo, the theory goes, the more fat your body gains in each rebound. Because muscle burns 10 times more than fat, your metabolism eventually will slow to a crawl.
“Losing and gaining regularly takes a huge toll on your body,” Dr Ayoob says. Beyond aesthetics, like a loss of skin elasticity, regaining weight burdens your arteries and skeletal system, and may stress the liver. Yo-yoing also hurts your ticker: a study in Clinical Cardiology found that women who weight cycle five times or more during their lifetimes may be damaging their hearts in the process.
Perhaps most startling is the effect weight cycling has on the immune system. According to the first study of the long-term impacts of yo-yo dieting, women who repeatedly lost and gained weight had lower immunity and lower counts of natural killer cells. “These cells are important for fending off infections and are vital in fighting the early stages of cancer,” says Dr Cornelia Ulrich from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, US. Low killer-cell activity is associated with higher rates of cancer. In her study of overweight but otherwise healthy women, those who had yo-yoed most decreased their natural killer-cell activity by a third.With so many drawbacks, you might wonder if you’d be better off just accepting a few fat rolls. But the perils of being overweight still outweigh the risks of yo-yoing. So how do you stop the cycle for good? Check out the strategies here: take them on board, and pretty soon you’ll be able to relegate your yo-yoing weight to the same place as your plastic toys: the past.