The Short Term and Long Term Effects of Yo-Yo Dieting

December 19, 2021 6 min read

The Short Term and Long Term Effects of Yo-Yo Dieting

It’s the end of the year, and I’m sure many of us are already thinking about what we are going to do starting January 1st.  What diet we will follow, what new workout routine we are going to implement, what extreme restriction we are going to put ourselves through, etc.  Before you take the plunge into a hard-core change, let us first share with you the consequences of extreme dieting. 

When we take extreme approaches, they never last.  Let’s be honest, we all know that one person that is always cutting out entire food groups, or slashing calories again - do you ever see them successfully lose weight and keep it off?  Then think about the person that seems to never have weight struggles - they never mention a ‘new diet’ they are following, the person who manages their weight well is usually the same person who is just consistent with healthy habits including exercise and eating an all around nutritious diet. 

We get it though, desperate times call for desperate measures.  When you don’t feel your greatest (ahem - post-holidays…), it can be easy to want to take the hardcore approach and get to the end result faster.  Before we jump the gun though, we need to question, does the extreme measure actually get us there faster, or does it leave us in an even worse off place?  

Short Term Effects of Yo-Yo Dieting 

Say we wake up on January 1st and we decide that those 5-10 pounds we gained over the holidays need to come off, so we implement two-a-days, juice cleanses, and remove all the carbs.  Will we get the scale to budge?  Probably initially, but we need to understand that when we see rapid weight loss, that doesn’t come without side-effects. Remember, every action always has a reaction.  So that begs the question, what are the short term effects of yo-yo dieting?  

1. Muscle Loss - When we slash calories quickly, our body weighs out whether muscle or fat is more necessary to keep, and although we may differ in opinions, your body will always see fat as more essential for survival.  So even though we may see the scale go down, we need to realize that a lot of what we are losing could be muscle and water versus fat. 

2. Increased Hunger - When we diet and see weight loss, that gets paired with a decreased level of our hormone leptin, which is the hormone that helps keep us feeling full.  This, in turn, causes appetite to increase in a way for the body to try to resupply energy stores.  

3. Dehydration - As we mentioned, a lot of what weight loss during extreme calorie deficits is water-weight.  When you restrict calories, carbohydrates, or both - the first source of energy your body burns before fat is glycogen.  For every gram of carbohydrate (aka glycogen), you have 3 grams of water attached to it.  So when you burn through your glycogen, the water paired with it exits the body, leaving you dehydrated and feeling fatigued, and often even dizzy or with headaches.  

4. Blood Sugar Dysfunction - If we aren’t getting adequate carbs, proteins, fats, and fiber, our blood sugar and insulin levels start to suffer.  Long periods without adequate food cause our blood sugar to drop and then quickly spike once we consume food.  In the short term, these highs and lows cause unstable energy and mood.  In the long-term, they wreak havoc on our cellular health and increase our risk for diabetes.  

4. Primes the Body for Fat Gain (Especially in the belly!)  - When we cut calories too low, or go too extreme with weight loss efforts, our metabolism slows down.  This primes the body for fat regain because the body sees the low calorie periods as famine periods.  That means when we eat higher calories again, your body prompts fat storage with those calories for future potential shortages.  Research even shows that most of the weight regain tends to be belly fat (SOURCE).  

So if this is your first rodeo with dieting, and extreme dieting measures, you may only have to worry about some of these short term side-effects.  Although, if you’ve been on this yo-yo dieting roller coaster for years, we need to understand that the long-term effects are much more concerning and hopefully reason enough to stop this vicious cycle in its tracks. 

Long-Term Effects of Yo-Yo Dieting

1. Higher Body-Fat Percentage -As discussed above, a lot of times the weight that we lose while on extreme diets is muscle mass, and then the weight regained is mostly body-fat.  So if you go through multiple cycles of yo-yo dieting, this means a continued increase in body-fat over time (SOURCE).

2. Gut Dysfunction - The swing from low-calorie celery juice diets to high-calorie binges of fried foods and alcohol and back again does not fare well for our gut.  These swings in food quality throw off the balance of healthy gut bacteria, and when the level and diversity of healthy gut bacteria gets disrupted, GI conditions like IBS and obesity are often the result.   

3. Fatty Liver - When we continuously lose and regain weight, it can affect how our body stores fat.  Fatty liver is when the body stores excess fat inside of the liver cells and this is particularly at risk when you gain considerable amounts of weight.  A mouse study showed that several cycles of weight gain and loss caused fatty liver (SOURCE).

4. Increase in Blood Pressure - Research has shown that weight gain after dieting is linked to an increase in blood pressure, and even worse, yo-yo dieting has shown to blunt the effect of future dieting on improving blood pressure.  One study found that those with a history of yo-yo dieting had less improvement in blood pressure while losing weight in the future (SOURCE).  

5. Psychological Stress - When we do extreme diets, we often deprive ourselves to accomplish the rules of them.  This extreme restriction may result in a bit of weight loss, but it is more likely to result in burnout.  These ups and downs in weight can take a toll on our confidence, and our emotional well-being.  

We understand the desire for weight loss, or improving our health, so if extreme diets aren’t the way to go, what path should we be taking?

What to Do Instead?

Most diets give a set of rules over a period of time, but we must realize these diets set us up for failure. It teaches us that rules need to be followed UNTIL our goal is met, but anyone with success in weight loss and sustaining it knows that the work isn’t done when we get there.  

To break this vicious cycle, we need to understand it is not about how fast or how extreme we go, it is about whether we can keep it up consistently.  Consistency always wins - we have to make these new habits into a lifestyle.  So what are these new habits we need to adopt for long-term sustainable change? 

  • Build a Foundation with Whole Foods - Focus on quality of food versus restriction of all ‘bad’ foods.  When we work to bring more good in, it naturally pushes out the bad (i.e. fried foods, sugar, alcohol).  
  • Exercise (Weight Train) Regularly - If there is one population that tends to manage a healthy weight with less effort, it is the weightlifting population.  Having higher muscle mass helps to speed up our metabolism, make us more insulin sensitive, and improve longevity.  
  • Sleep More - We’ve talked plenty about how poor sleep negatively impacts weight here, but you should have a goal each night of 7-8 hours of sleep for creating an ideal situation for weight loss.  
  • Move More - When we do extreme diets, we often increase our movement quite a bit during the diet phase, then lose it once we stop.  Keep up with daily steps and general movement and it can rack up calorie burn to help you keep the weight off you’ve worked hard to lose!  
  • Eat Adequate Protein - One of the biggest drivers of successful diets, whether they are low-carb, or lower fat is one factor - enough protein.  Protein helps keep us satiated, it helps preserve muscle mass in a calorie deficit, and it helps us burn additional energy via thermic effect of food.  
  • Moderate Sugar and AlcoholNotice that we didn’t say totally remove these things.  Although weight loss can be tough when we consume these freely, you should be able to maintain a healthy weight while having them in moderation.  We recommend creating 3 or 4 weekly ‘personal guidelines’ to help keep yourself accountable and slightly challenge yourself (i.e. no more than 2x eating out per week, no more than 3 drinks total per week, etc.).    

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