It’s been seven years since media professional Akanksha Jha began her tryst with dieting to lose weight. It started when she joined a weight management class the day her marriage was decided that helped her lose 10 kilogrammes in just three months. But since then, she has jumped from one diet to another, a practice called yo-yo dieting, in a bid to maintain a healthy weight.
“I have done GM (General Motors) and Keto (ketogenic) diets, apart from numerous others. It takes an incredible amount of perseverance to lose weight. But as soon as I reach a certain number, and start eating normally, those extra kilos come back knocking on the door. It feels like all my labour goes to waste,” Jha said.
Her anguish is one that’s shared by many.
Experts call it ‘yo-yo dieting’ or weight cycling, where individuals are on a vicious cycle of losing weight through dieting but regaining it as soon as they get off them and transition to a normal diet. This goes on and on and can be not just physically but also mentally taxing. The plight of these individuals is further exacerbated by the false promises of several ‘lose weight fast’ diets.
To some this may seem normal and not worth discussing. After all, who among us has not lost some weight before a college reunion, a get together, or a beach trip and ended up losing those gains soon after? But here’s where the problem arises. Studies have shown that weight cycling may lead to increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, gall bladder stones and other ailments.
This means that every time Jha went on a diet, lost weight and then gained it back, there were subtle changes going on in her body that were increasing her risk of developing multiple chronic disease conditions.
Heart diseases: In a 2019 study published in Preventive Medicine Reports, the team found that weight cycling is related to a lower score on the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 test (now updated to include eight parameters) that measures an individual’s risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.
Diabetes: Another metabolic condition that has been linked with yo-yo dieting is diabetes. A study that looked at about 5,000 subjects over a period of four years found that those with the most weight cycling were at the risk of developing diabetes.
Musculoskeletal decline: Associated with frequent weight cycling is a decline in muscle mass. A study published in Obesity in 2019 found that severe weight cyclers are six times most likely to lose muscle mass and develop sarcopenia, an age-related disease that leads to gradual muscle mass loss.
Gall bladder stones: Yet another reason to be wary of weight cycling is risk of developing gall bladder stones. A study published in 2006 in Journal of The American Medical Association, said that losing weight and regaining it increases risk of just this.
What happens when one yo-yo diets?
There have been numerous studies and research papers that have talked about the risks of weight cycling and long-term struggles with weight management. It may lead to an increase in appetite which in turn will mean further weight gain.
Mugdha Pradhan, founder CEO at iThrive, a Pune-based integrated and functional healing firm, says that leptin is a hormone that plays a huge role in regulating hunger and maintaining energy balance. In a healthy body, leptin tells the brain when to generate hunger signals. Due to yo-yo dieting and crash diets, this leptin system becomes dysfunctional, increasing the risk of an individual becoming leptin resistant and gaining weight and becoming obese.
A 2016 study called Pathway to Dieting and Weight Regain found that almost one-third to two-thirds of the weight lost is regained within a year.
Another downside of weight cycling is that individuals end up gaining body fat percentage. Unlike body mass, body fat is quickly regained during the weight gaining phase of yo-yo dieting. In a review of 19 studies, 11 found out that weight cycling is corelated to increased body fat. In the same review, four out of eight studies reported chances of future weight gain.
Weight cycling takes a toll not just your body but also mind – imagine reaching the desired weight with your diet plan, then slipping back to where you started after a couple of months of eating normally, if not being heavier by a few kilos.
“This may lead to emotional highs and lows, from feeling amazing to feeling like a failure,” says Shivani Misri Sadhoo, a Delhi-based psychologist and couples therapist.
iThrive’s Pradhan adds that weight cycling is usually an outcome of a very poor relationship with food, where a person binges and eats to fill emotional holes and then compensates for that with periods of dieting and starvation to lose weight. Not only does this mess with your internal biochemistry, it also has a huge negative impact on mental health, she says.
For Jha the act of having to lose weight over and over leads to a lot of pressure she says. Post-pregnancy weight gain has also taken a toll on her mental health.
In a large study done in 2020 by a team led by Dianne Quinn, professor and head of the department of Psychological Sciences at University of Connecticut, found that there is a direct link between weight cycling and reported symptoms of depression.
Moreover, weight cycling is seen as being practiced not only by adult women, but also by younger girls who try to lose weight due to social pressures. A study published in Nature found that younger girls are increasingly going in for different diets to lose weight and a new pattern is emerging. The study also says a certain type of body image promoted in the social media and in magazines is spurring these girls to lose weight.
For her part, Jha says she has decided to escape the clutches of weight cycling. A growing anti-diet and body positivity movements along with improved self-belief are leading her to eat food without counting calories.
After ten years of dieting on and off she says she will neither lose weight nor gain it in the future. With the help of her dietitian, she is focussing on stabilising her health and emotions, along with making changes in her eating behaviour, sleeping pattern and stress management. All this work has finally made her be unapologetic about her weight.