Here's How Yo-Yo Dieting Affects Your Body (And Your Mind)

Does your weight tend to go up and down like a yo-yo? . (Photo: karen roach/Shutterstock)

If you're like many people, you may feel pressure to lose weight. But after a few weeks or months of dieting and weight loss, you get derailed by a vacation, a new job, stress at work, stress at home, or any one of the millions of things that can alter your eating patterns. Before you know it, you've gained back all of the weight you lost, and then some. A few months or years down the road, the weight loss pressure resurfaces and the whole cycle begins again. This is called yo-yo dieting, and it wreaks havoc on your physical and mental health.

Yo-yo dieting, also known as weight cycling, occurs when a person experiences periods of weight loss followed by weight gain followed by weight loss and so on and so on. The effects of this weight cycling are significant, even when the weight lost and gained is as little as 10 pounds. We turned to the experts to find out how yo-yo dieting can affect your body and your mind.

It changes your metabolism

When you diet, your body responds to the calorie restriction by going into "starvation mode" and slowing down your metabolism. According to Dr. Westin Childs, an osteopathic doctor specializing in the function of the hormonal system, it works like this: rapid weight loss triggers changes in hypothalamic function, which signal your body to reduce your basal metabolic rate to match whatever calories you're currently consuming. "If that is a 1,000-calorie diet then your brain will send signals to your tissues to reduce calorie burn to that amount," Childs added. In other words, even with caloric restriction, you will stop losing weight.

Women on a scale
The ups and downs of yo-yo dieting. (Photo: Yuriy Maksymiv/

It can make you gain weight

While dieting may initially help you shed a few pounds, it only works temporarily. Your body responds to the lack of calories by turning to lean muscle mass for energy. Once normal eating habits are resumed, the weight comes back on — but in the form of fat, not muscle. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that after two years of weight-cycling, about one third of dieters weighed more than they did at the beginning of the two years.

It can damage your heart

Yo-yo dieting may increase the risk for coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death in post-menopausal women. A study presented to the American Heart Association found that when normal-weight women (categorized as those with a body mass index of less than 25) experienced periods of weight cycling, they were 3.5 times more likely to have sudden cardiac death than women whose weight remained stable over the study's 11-year period. In the same study, yo-yo dieting increased a woman's risk of death by coronary heart disease by 66 percent.

Heart health
A stable weight is better for your heart health than cycles of weight loss and gain. (Photo: udra11/

It can be damaging to your skin

Dermatologist Robin Evans, of Southern CT Dermatology, weighed in on the effect that yo-yo dieting has on the skin. "The up and down weight losses and gains can have deleterious effects on the skin especially on the face with stretching and contracting the skin," said Evans. " The result ends up being increased skin laxity, more wrinkles and an overall effect of aging the skin."

It plays games with your mind

Yo-yo dieting is hard on the body, but it's even harder on the mind. "Repeatedly gaining and losing weight can leave dieters feeling more depressed about their weight and losing self-belief as a result," said Dr. Samuel Molloy, the medical director at Dr. Felix, an online medical service based in the United Kingdom.

Cycles of dieting and weight gain can also make you obsess about food both when you're dieting and when you have returned to your old eating habits. Furthermore, the hunger, weakness, and fatigue experienced during dieting can lead to irritability and agitation with a reduced tolerance for frustration. "So, while you may fit into a smaller size, you will have alienated yourself from friends and colleagues in the process," said Dr. Carly Snyder, a psychiatrist who specializes in women's mental health.

If you're a yo-yo-dieter, talk to your health care provider about lifestyle changes (not diets) that can help you maintain a stable and healthy weight for years to come.