Yo-Yo Dieting is the reason most people claim that ‘diets don’t work’.
The fact is, all diets work so long as they result in a calorie deficit.
Unfortunately, what happens for most people is that they reach their target weight, go back to the way they were eating before which puts them into a calorie surplus, meaning they start gaining weight again.
This paper cites a meta-analysis of 29 long-term weight loss studies and found that
“more than half of the lost weight was regained within two years, and by five years more than 80% of lost weight was regained”
Hall and Kahan, 2019
This means there is an inability to keep weight off in the long term, and actually over the very long term you could even end up being heavier than you were to start off with.
HOW TO BREAK THE YO-YO DIETING CYCLE
The only way to stop the cycle is to diet in a way that’s sustainable.
This means not jumping on the latest fad diet. In fact, it means not doing any diet that has a name, full stop.
All you need to do is create a calorie deficit, i.e. ensure you are eating fewer calories than you use on a daily basis over a long period of time.
An easy way to get started with this is to use a TDEE calculator to get an idea of how many calories you burn each day.
Once you have this number, subtract 20%.
Eat that number of calories every day for 2 weeks, if your weight hasn’t reduced, subtract another 10% and repeat.
Dieting in this way is sustainable because it means you don’t need to cut out foods you love, or not eat after 6pm, or do 5 HIIT personal training sessions in the gym every week.
Here are a few habits that will help you maintain that calorie deficit;
- Get a protein of protein at each meal. I recommend eating 1.8g of protein per kg of bodyweight, or 0.82g per pound. Protein is good for wieght loss in many ways, but in short, it’ll help full you up, maintain the muscle mass you have, and even help you burn more calories at rest. Protein is essentail
- Also get a portion of fruit and or veg at each meal. Most fruit and veg are very low in calories and will help fill you up, not to mention they’re great for overall health.
- Have 3 square meals per day. Trying to fit 4 meals and 7 snacks into your calorie goal will end up with you simply being hungry all the time. If your calorie goal is 1,600 per day, have a 400 calorie breakfast, 400 calorie lunch and an 800 calorie dinner
- Don’t drink your calories! drinking high-caloroe drinks is a sure-fire way to leave yourself feeling hungry with very few calories left. Avoid smoothies, milk, juice and full calorie soda, and instead stick to water, blach tea and coffee (or green tea) and diet sodas (yes Diet Coke is fine!)
- Get 7-9 hours sleep each night. Missing out on sleep is a sure fire way to make sure you’re going to be hungry and overeat the next day. DON’T underestimate the value of sleep!
Sticking to these habits will help you stick to a calorie deficit and lose weight in a way that doesn’t impact your lifestyle too much.
WHAT IS YO-YO DIETING?
Yo-Yo dieting is characterised by periods of weight loss, followed by gaining all of the weight back (and potentially more).
This happens because the diets that most people follow are unsustainable. I.e; they can’t be stuck-to long term.
Some of the most popular ‘short-term’ diets out there at the moment include;
- Intermittent Fasting
While these diets may produce weight loss initially, the restrictive nature of each one means that for most people, it’s not realistic to maintain dieting in such a way indefinitely.
Let’s look at why each diet is going to ultimately fail at some point;
Keto is an extremely high fat diet, in order to tip the body into a state of ketosis, both carbs and protein need to be very low.
This means a very limited choice of foods that’s constrained to
- Fatty meats (Bacon, Beef, Duck, Lamb)
- Oils and butters
- Nuts and Seeds
- High Fat diary (Cheese, Whole Milk)
While it might be easy to stick to these foods exclusively for a period of weeks or even a few months, there will come a time where you’re presented with a situation where eating carbs might be a necessity.
You might be out of the day and only have access to sandwiches and pastries, you might be at a dinner party where a carb-heavy course is served.
And let’s be honest, are you really going to stay away from pizza, bread and cakes for the rest of your life like some sort of psychopath? Of course you’re not.
The Paelo diet uses the principle that we shouldn’t eat anything our ancient ancestors didn’t have access to.
This means cutting out ALL processed foods, i.e. anything that comes out of a packet.
While Paleo doesn’t exclude any specific food groups, it does mean making everything from scratch in a way that most of us aren’t used to. While this gets us into the mindset of using healthier, lower calorie ingredients, it’s a very time consuming process that is likely to clash with the busy lives most of us lead.
The real issue with Paleo however is the lack of convenience; you’re not going to live the rest of your life NEVER eating anything that’s pre-packaged or processed, so that’s where this dieting method falls down.
5:2 is probably the most flexible dieting approach of all the above, but it still has its limitations.
5:2 Dictates that on 2 days of the week, you only eat 500 calories, and then have the freedom to do as you please on the others.
While this is an approach that some people may be able to commit to for life, it still has it;s downsides – what if you’re on holiday for a week (or two), are you really going to limit yourself to 500 calories on those days?
Doing so would meaning severely limiting food and alcohol intake, something you’re unlikely to want to do on holiday.
OMAD stands for ‘one meal a day’.
The appeal of this approach is obvious, you get to eat one huge meal everyday.
Once the novelty has worn off however, the reality of how this fits (or doesn’t fit) into your life hits home.
Regardless of the size of the meal you eat, you are likely to be hungry at other points in the day. Eating a huge amount can also lead to discomfort, would you really want to eat a huge breakfast then do anything remotely active?
Similarly, could you really put up with crippling hunger in the morning if your single meal isn’t until the evening?
I.F has similar issues to OMAD.
This dieting method means only eating between specific hours e.g 12 noon and 8pm. Again this might be doable for a few weeks or months but NEVER eating breakfast or a midnight snack again?!
I don’t think so. Breakfast is the best meal of the day!
WHY DO SO MANY PEOPLE FALL INTO THE YO-YO DIETING TRAP?
A couple of key reasons;
Impatience/Leaving things until the last minute
Most people want to drop weight quickly for an impending event like a holiday or wedding.
They usually don’t even think about starting the process of weight loss until around 8 weeks before.
Now, you can lose weight in 8 weeks but you’re putting a lot of pressure on yourself to do it quickly. You don’t have time to fart around with trial and error so you just cut out carbs.
It works a treat, you lose several pounds in the first few weeks and get to your target weight. The problem is you love carbs, and as soon as you start eating them again the weight goes back straight back on.
Annnd you’re back to square one.
The only way to lose weight is by creating a calorie deficit.
But in order to do that, you need to put in a bit of work into tracking your calories. Most people don’t want to do this.
They want the ‘easy’ answer, something like ‘carbs make you fat’.
This just isn’t true, but it SEEMS like it’s true when you cut out carbs and lose weight. This is a self fulling prophecy – you lose weight when you cut out carbs, therefore in your head, cutting out carbs is the only way to lose weight.
Companies like Weight Watchers and Slimming World make a LOT of money out of people wanting to lose weight.
They assign a point system to foods that’s easy to follow.
The problem is foods don’t have ‘points’, they have calories.
This means that you can only lose weight when you’re in the Weight Watchers/Slimming World ecosystem. As soon as you stop paying, you’re on your own. You have no idea what to do and all the weight goes back on.
WHY YO-YO DIETING IS SO BAD?
Not only does yo-yo dieting waste a lot of time (because you end up regaining the weight you lost), it can also put you in a worse position than you were in before.
The reason this happens is because dieting rapidly results in a lot of weight loss, but the faster that weight loss occurs, the more likely it is that a large proportion of muscle tissue (as well as fat) will be lost.
This 2014 study took two groups of people and put one on a very low calorie diet
(500 calories per day for 5 weeks) and the other on a moderate calorie diet (1,250 calories per day for 12 weeks). Both groups lost around 19lbs, the study found that;
“Fat-free mass accounted for 18 percent of weight loss in the very-low-calorie diet group and 7.7 percent of weight loss in the low-calorie diet group”
So losing fat should be the goal, NO ONE should be aiming to lose muscle.
Muscle isn’t just for bodybuilders, muscle gives you shape and makes you look good, but crucially, it will also elevate your metabolism.
This study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that for a middle aged person the average metabolic rate of skeletal muscle was 12.9 calories per Kg per day while the average metabolic rate of fat tissue (adipose tissue) WAS 4.5 calories per Kg per day.
This means that if you lost 10kg and all of it was fat tissue, your metabolic rate would drop by 45 calories per day.
However, if you lost 10kg and half of that was muscle and half fat, your metabolic rate would drop by 97 calories per day.
This means that if you dropped by 10kg from a 50/50 ratio of fat and muscle, then gained back 10kg of pure fat, you’ll maintain your weight at a LOWER calorie amount, making it MORE difficult to lose weight next time round (because you’ll need to diet on lower calories.
DOES YO-YO DIETING SLOW YOUR METABOLISM?
Based on all of the scientific data above, we can say with confidence that yo-yo dieting will slow down your metabolism over time, particularly if you’re losing weight very quickly in each dieting phase.
The more dieting phases you go through, the more likely you are to lose muscle tissue.
This alone should be enough to make you realise you need to stop this endless cycle of disappointment.
CAN YOU ‘FIX’ YOUR METABOLISM AFTER YO-YO DIETING?
There is no such thing as a ‘broken’ metabolism.
Your metabolism is what it is.
Your metabolism is based on your weight, age and gender, so there isn’t a huge amount you can do to change it (aside from gaining weight, which presumably goes against your goal).
Rather than thinking about ‘fixing’ your metabolism, the better approach is to think about how you can prevent metabolic adaptation as much as possible in the first place.
What’s the best way to do this?
Focus on Fat Loss Rather Than Muscle Loss.
Keep Protein Intake High
Aim to eat around 1.5g of protein per Kg of body weight.
This means that if you weight 80kg, you should eat a minimum of 120g of protein per day. This will help to maintain and/or build muscle tissue, which as we know, elevates metabolism.
More importantly, resistance train. Using your muscle will signal to your body that you need to keep what you have (or build new muscle).
Keep NEAT High
NEAT is non-activity thermogenesis – i.e. the calories you burn from any normal day-to-day activity outside of ‘formal’ activity like running or gym workouts.
Doing this won’t actually change your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), but it will compensate for some of the calories you no longer burn as you get lighter.
Specific metabolic rates of major organs and tissues across adulthood: evaluation by mechanistic model of resting energy expenditure: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2980962/
Fast Weight Loss May Mean Muscle Loss: https://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20140529/fast-weight-loss-may-mean-muscle-loss
Maintenance of lost weight and long-term management of obesity: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5764193/
Joe is an online weight loss coach and qualified personal trainer of 15 years who helps busy, professional men and women lose fat and build muscle.
Having a 9-5 desk-job, Joe understands the struggles of juggling a hectic life with trying to maintain a good physique.