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Breaking the cycle: The hidden harms of yo-yo dieting

In a new study, researchers have investigated the often overlooked psychological consequences of “yo-yo dieting.” The study, led by Professor Lynsey Romo at North Carolina State University, offers a critical perspective on this widespread phenomenon.

The researchers caution against the normalization of fad diets and quick weight-loss plans, which have become ingrained in societal pursuits of beauty ideals. 

Most people should avoid dieting 

“Yo-yo dieting – unintentionally gaining weight and dieting to lose weight only to gain it back and restart the cycle – is a prevalent part of American culture, with fad diets and lose-weight-quick plans or drugs normalized as people pursue beauty ideals,” said Professor Romo.

“Based on what we learned through this study, as well as the existing research, we recommend that most people avoid dieting, unless it is medically necessary. Our study also offers insights into how people can combat insidious aspects of weight cycling and challenge the cycle.”

Focus of the study 

The researchers interviewed 36 adults who had experienced significant weight cycling, defined as losing and regaining more than 11 pounds. 

The sample included 13 men and 23 women, and the aim was to understand the reasons behind their entry into the yo-yo dieting cycle and their efforts, if any, to break free from it.

Misguided motivation

The findings were revealing. All of the participants reported that their motivation to lose weight stemmed from social stigma or comparisons with celebrities and peers, rather than health concerns.

“Overwhelmingly, participants did not start dieting for health reasons, but because they felt social pressure to lose weight,” said Professor Romo.

Weight regain 

The study participants adopted various weight-loss strategies, which, while initially successful, led to eventual weight regain. This regain often resulted in feelings of shame and further internalization of weight-related stigma, exacerbating negative self-perceptions. Such experiences propelled participants towards extreme behaviors in an attempt to lose weight again.

“For instance, many participants engaged in disordered weight management behaviors, such as binge or emotional eating, restricting food and calories, memorizing calorie counts, being stressed about what they were eating and the number on the scale, falling back on quick fixes (such as low-carb diets or diet drugs), overexercising, and avoiding social events with food to drop pounds fast,” said Professor Romo. 

“Inevitably, these diet behaviors became unsustainable, and participants regained weight, often more than they had initially lost.”

Unhealthy obsession

Katelin Mueller, co-author of the study and graduate student at NC State, noted that almost all of the study participants became obsessed with their weight.

“Weight loss became a focal point for their lives, to the point that it distracted them from spending time with friends, family, and colleagues and reducing weight-gain temptations such as drinking and overeating,” said Mueller.

Vicious cycle 

According to Professor Romo, the participants referred to the experience as an addiction or a vicious cycle.

“Individuals who were able to understand and address their toxic dieting behaviors were more successful at breaking the cycle. Strategies people used to combat these toxic behaviors included focusing on their health rather than the number on the scale, as well as exercising for fun, rather than counting the number of calories they burned,” said Professor Romo.

“Participants who were more successful at challenging the cycle were also able to embrace healthy eating behaviors – such as eating a varied diet and eating when they were hungry – rather than treating eating as something that needs to be closely monitored, controlled or punished.”

The damage of dieting

However, most of the participants remained trapped in the cycle, hindered by ingrained thought patterns, societal expectations, toxic diet culture, and pervasive weight stigma. The study thus highlights the immense difficulty in exiting this cycle, even with strong motivation to do so.

“Ultimately, this study tells us that weight cycling is a negative practice that can cause people real harm,” said Professor Romo. “Our findings suggest that it can be damaging for people to begin dieting unless it is medically necessary.”

“Dieting to meet some perceived societal standard inadvertently set participants up for years of shame, body dissatisfaction, unhappiness, stress, social comparisons, and weight-related preoccupation. Once a diet has begun, it is very difficult for many people to avoid a lifelong struggle with their weight.”

The study is published in the journal Qualitative Health Research

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