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How to Stop Yo-Yo Dieting

Three months before my youngest son’s bar mitzvah I began shopping for a dress. As I approached the store, I was excited. It had been several years since I had hosted a formal family event, and I was looking forward to treating myself to something special to wear.

My initial enthusiasm quickly turned to frustration. I knew I had gained weight but hadn’t realized how much until I faced the unforgiving dressing room mirror. I left the store and promptly went on a diet. By the day of the party I had lost enough weight to feel happy. I had not, however, permanently changed my lifestyle, and within a few months, the weight came back.

Sound familiar?

Why Yo-Yo Is a No-No

The phrase “yo-yo dieting” was coined by Dr. Kelly Browned, a clinical psychologist at Yale University, to describe the cyclical loss and gain of body weight, like the up-and-down motion of a toy yo-yo. The dieter loses weight, then gains it back, and then tries to lose it again.

Erin Palinski-Wade, a nutrition expert and author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies, says, “Typically yo-yo dieting results from an all-or-nothing mentality, where the participant focuses on following a restrictive crash diet plan that is unsustainable.” Many of us have experienced a lifetime of these cycles.

We know that as we age, we tend to lose muscle and our metabolism slows, so losing weight gets harder. Yo-yo dieting compounds these issues. Palinski-Wade explains, “Each time you lose weight rapidly, you lose muscle mass along with body fat, which slows metabolism making future weight loss harder. The constant ‘yo-yoing’ weight is reflective of a restrictive-binge cycle of eating that is not conducive to long-term weight loss and is also mentally exhausting.”

Not only can yo-yo dieting damage emotional well-being, it can have physical implications such as stressing on the heart, stressing the joints, increasing the risk of diabetes, and increasing blood pressure.

Quick Loss Can Equal Quick Gain

Rebecca Mohning, a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, and founder of Expert Nutrition, explains: “Many people are so busy just getting through the day, they may not have time to think about proper nutrition or exercise. They might be gaining weight slowly, know their pants are getting tight, but avoid getting on a scale. Then a special occasion approaches, one when they might be photographed or see people they haven’t seen in a while and they panic about their appearance.”

People usually yo-yo diet because they want to lose weight rapidly. To lose weight fast usually means they are making unsustainable diet changes, such as cutting out specific food groups or decreasing calories to an unhealthy level. They are unable to maintain these dietary changes, so the weight returns rapidly.

Palinski-Wade encourages her patients to stop dieting and opt for long-term, sustainable lifestyle changes. “[They] take longer to see results, but the results last unlike crash diets,” she says.

Tips for Breaking the Cycle

Rather than looking for quick fixes, try some of the simple, sustainable weight loss suggestions below:

1. Try the 80/20 method.

“This is a natural and easy way to cut calories and still enjoy the foods you love. Eat 80 percent of what is on your plate and leave 20 percent untouched,” Mohning says.

2. Track your steps.

Increased movement is always a good thing, and many people find that a fitness tracker, like a FitBit helps them move more and lose weight for good. One thing is for sure: A long walk around the neighborhood every night keeps you out of the kitchen.

3. Focus on fruits and veggies.

This is a no-brainer. Fruits and vegetables increase your fiber intake while adding essential nutrients to your diet.

4. Stop the daily weigh-ins.

When it comes to weight loss, the scale can be both an ally and an obstacle. “True body fat losses will not be reflected in one day. Instead, take waist circumference measurements every week,” says Palinski-Wade.

5. If a change seems unsustainable to you from the get-go, skip it.

You might come back and consider it later, but Palinski-Wade advises that initially you “focus only on changes you can foresee yourself sticking with for life. Once you do that, you can make another change and then another, which will eventually snowball into significant progress and improved body weight.”

Mohning reminds her clients that it is natural to gain a few pounds with age. “It’s hard to be the same weight we were in high school. As we age, we lose muscle and lean toward more sedentary activities. Don’t throw in the towel,” she says. “Instead concentrate on making healthy choices and staying active.”

Photo: Kelly Knox

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