What Is Yo-Yo Dieting? How to Stop the Cycle

woman using a diet app to track food

Oscar Wong / Getty Images

Every other day there appears to be a new weight-loss program or meal plan that hits social media and promises fast and impressive weight loss results. While it may be tempting to hop on the bandwagon of something new, experts warn that some of these diets are unsustainable and may result in an individual gaining back the weight once they are no longer following that regimen.

This back and forth of starting and stopping diet plans is what is sometimes known as yo-yo dieting. If this sounds like something that happens to you from time to time, keep reading. Below we explore what yo-yo dieting is, why it can be risky, and what you can do to end the cycle of yo-yo dieting once and for all.

What Is Yo-Yo Dieting?

Yo-yo dieting is a term that is commonly used to describe the pattern of starting a new diet, losing weight, stopping the diet, and regaining the weight that was lost, explains Kayley Myers, MS, RDN, LD, a registered dietitian nutritionist.

Sometimes yo-yo dieting is referred to by the clinical term “weight cycling,” which refers to this process of losing and regaining weight as a result of starting and stopping diets on a continual basis. While anyone is susceptible to yo-yo dieting behaviors, it is most often seen in individuals who struggle with their relationship with food and body image, explains Myers.

“Usually, new diets claim that their plan will help you look and feel your best, which can entice someone who believes that their life would be better if they lost weight,” she says. “The problem, however, is that this type of dieting often catapults the individual back into the weight loss-weight gain cycle.”

Why Yo-Yo Dieting Is Risky

Sometimes society places so much of an emphasis on a person's weight, or a person's BMI (body mass index), that dieting starts to sound like a good thing to do for your health. While maintaining a healthy weight for your age, sex, and body type is important, how you get there is just as important.

Unfortunately, some popular diets that are perpetuated on social media, are not sustainable or are overly restrictive, which can result in yo-yo dieting because they cannot be followed long term. When this happens on a consistent basis, it can produce some negative consequences. Here is a look at some of the primary reasons yo-yo dieting can have a negative impact on your health.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age.

Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

May Slow Your Metabolism

The human body requires nutrients and calories from food to adequately function, explains Lindsay Wengler, MS, RD, CDN, CNSC, a registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorders. Consequently, it is natural that reduced nutrient and hypo-caloric intake from yo-yo dieting has a variety of detrimental effects, she says.

“Your body responds to under-eating by increasing hunger hormones and slowing metabolism," Wengler says. "[This practice] can lead to reduced thyroid function, reduced stamina, increased fatigue, and mood changes—there is a scientific explanation for hangry after all.” 

Research suggests that weight loss is often accompanied by a slowing of resting metabolic rate (RMR). This phenomenon is sometimes called “metabolic adaptation” or “adaptive thermogenesis” and acts to counter weight loss and potentially contribute to weight regain.

Several studies have been conducted on participants in the reality television show, "The Biggest Loser" and its effects on weight loss, weight regain, and metabolism. What researchers found was that the metabolic adaptation that the participants experienced persisted for many years following the competition.

What's more, RMR remained suppressed at the same average level as at the end of the weight loss competition, making it challenging for the participants to lose weight again. Even the participants who were most successful at maintaining their weight loss after six years also experienced greater ongoing metabolic slowing. 

Consequently, the researchers indicate that long-term weight loss requires people to combat against persistent metabolic adaptation that counters their ongoing efforts to reduce body weight. To do that, you should be mindful of your food intake, increase your physical activity level, and be kind to yourself.

Further, if you are struggling with maintaining your weight, or with healthy weight loss, it is strongly recommended to follow up with a healthcare professional who can give you a more individualized plan based off of your unique situation and needs.

May Increase the Risk of an Eating Disorder

Besides taking some of the joy out of eating, Wengler warns that yo-yo dieting also can increase the risk of developing an eating disorder. In fact, research has shown that a continued unhealthy and unbalanced relationship with food can lead to disordered eating and even place a person at risk for an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.

May Increase the Body’s Buildup of Abdominal Fat

Candice Seti, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, certified nutrition coach, certified weight management specialist, and certified expert life coach, warns that frequent yo-yo dieting can encourage the build-up of visceral fat in the mid-section.

In fact, one scientific review found that 58% of studies reported a link between a history of weight cycling and increased weight around the midsection or abdomen. Unfortunately, visceral fat, or fat that builds up in the center of the body, is associated with a myriad of life-threatening conditions, including heart disease, stroke, and heart attacks.

May Put You at Risk for Type 2 Diabetes

While being overweight in general can increase your risk for diabetes, yo-yo dieting can have the opposite effect—even increasing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

“A restricting or binging eating pattern common in weight cycling can lead to chronic blood glucose spikes that may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes,” explains Wengler. 

May Reduce the Body’s Muscle Mass

Muscle mass is important for providing us with strength, mobility and healthy aging, but yo-yo dieting can sabotage our body’s muscle mass and existing body fat, warns Robert Herbst, CPT, a weight loss coach and powerlifter.

“When people talk about losing weight, what they really want to do is change their body composition by losing fat through burning more calories than they take in, while either not losing any muscle or gaining muscle in the process,” Herbst explains. “If a person loses a pound of fat, but gains a pound of muscle, their weight will stay the same, but their body composition will be more healthy because their percentage of body fat will be lower.” 

How to Stop Yo-Yo Dieting

If you’re someone who has leaned on diets for years, or even decades, as a means to lose weight, it can be hard to stop the cycle of yo-yo dieting. But it is important to find an eating plan that you can follow long-term. Here, experts share their best tips for putting an end to yo-yo dieting.

Stop Labeling Foods “Good” or “Bad”

Depending on your thought process regarding food, you might be tempted to label certain foods as “good” or “bad." But, doing so can cause your view of what is and isn’t nutritious to become distorted. When it comes to many of these foods, however, Dr. Seti points out, that it is often not the food itself that is the problem, but rather how much or how often we eat them. 

“The problem is that, by making them off-limits, you give them absolute power and take away your perception of self-control,” she says. “The key is to allow foods back in moderation and to let yourself know that you are allowed to have them, which takes the restriction power away along with the fear that you will never be allowed to have them again.” 

Incorporate Intuitive Eating

Intuitive eating is the opposite of dieting. It involves tuning into your body’s natural cues, including hunger, fullness, and any side effects that might result when you consume certain foods. Research shows that intuitive eating habits lead to improved health, including a reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes. 

“Intuitive eating guides balanced and diverse food choices by tuning into your body’s unique and individual needs without restriction or deprivation,” says Wengler. “Honoring our hunger and fullness cues leads to greater satisfaction and enjoyment than yo-yo dieting.”

Focus on Self-Care and Stress Management

When we are stressed out, we tend to have less energy to put toward living a healthy lifestyle. Incorporating self care and working on reducing our stress level can help and even increase our quality of life. 

“When our metaphorical cup is empty and we’re overstressed, we generally turn to food for energy,” says Dr. Seti. “A solid stress management plan, that incorporates stress-relieving activities such as meditation, yoga, and journaling, can actually become a yo-yo dieting prevention strategy.”

Consider Seeing a Medical Professional

Whether it be a registered dietitian or mental health professional who specializes in unhealthy eating behaviors, seeking the help of a healthcare provider can help you create a nutritious, balanced, and individualized meal plan for your needs.

“Getting to the root of your desire for weight loss and understanding the thoughts that drive food decisions can help stop the cycle of weight cycling,” adds Myers.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to yo-yo dieting, keep in mind that it is not a single instance of weight loss, but rather a repetitive behavior that can put you at risk for a myriad of health issues. While it can be challenging to break the cycle of yo-yo dieting—especially if you have been participating in it for a while—making small changes and taking steps toward improving your relationship with food can make a big difference over time. 

If you are struggling with yo-yo dieting and are not sure how to change your eating habits, you may want to consider talking with a mental health professional or registered dietitian. They can help you evaluate your goals, create new habits, and develop an eating plan you can follow for life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does yo-yo dieting ruin your metabolism?

    Research suggests that yo-yo dieting can have a negative impact on your metabolism. Low-calorie dieting, in particular, increases your body’s levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which can then, in turn, have a slowing effect on your metabolism. These changes can linger long term, but your metabolism can speed up as you eat more calories.

  • Does yo-yo dieting cause insulin resistance?

    While there are many factors that can influence insulin resistance, research has shown that the weight fluctuations and inflammation associated with yo-yo dieting can play a role.

13 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hall KD, Kahan S. Maintenance of lost weight and long-term management of obesity. Medical Clinics of North America. 2018;102(1):183-197. 10.1016/j.mcna.2017.08.012

  2. Mehta T, Smith DL, Muhammad J, Casazza K. Impact of weight cycling on risk of morbidity and mortality: Weight cycling and mortality risk. Obes Rev. 2014;15(11):870-881. 10.1111/obr.12222

  3. Fothergill E, Guo J, Howard L, Kerns JC, Knuth ND, Brychta R, Chen KY, Skarulis MC, Walter M, Walter PJ, Hall KD. Persistent metabolic adaptation 6 years after "The Biggest Loser" competition. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2016 Aug;24(8):1612-9. doi:10.1002/oby.21538

  4. Stewart TM, Martin CK, Williamson DA. The complicated relationship between dieting, dietary restraint, caloric restriction, and eating disorders: Is a shift in public health messaging warranted? IJERPH. 2022;19(1):491. doi:10.3390/ijerph19010491

  5. Mackie GM, Samocha-Bonet D, Tam CS. Does weight cycling promote obesity and metabolic risk factors? Obesity Research & Clinical Practice. 2017;11(2):131-139. doi:10.1016/j.orcp.2016.10.284

  6. Fx L, Sw F, Jf N, et al. Factors associated with visceral fat loss in response to a multifaceted weight loss intervention. J Obes Weight Loss Ther. 2017;07(04). doi:10.4172/2165-7904.1000346

  7. American Diabetes Association. Extra weight, extra risk.

  8. Park KY, Hwang HS, Cho KH, et al. Body weight fluctuation as a risk factor for type 2 diabetes: Results from a nationwide cohort studyJCM. 2019;8(7):950. doi:10.3390/jcm8070950

  9. McLeod M, Breen L, Hamilton DL, Philp A. Live strong and prosper: The importance of skeletal muscle strength for healthy agingBiogerontology. 2016;17(3):497-510. doi:10.1007/s10522-015-9631-7

  10. Soares FLP, Ramos MH, Gramelisch M, et al. Intuitive eating is associated with glycemic control in type 2 diabetesEat Weight Disord. 2021;26(2):599-608. doi:10.1007/s40519-020-00894-8

  11. Ayala EE, Winseman JS, Johnsen RD, Mason HRC. U.S. medical students who engage in self-care report less stress and higher quality of lifeBMC Med Educ. 2018;18(1):189. doi:10.1186/s12909-018-1296-x

  12. Benton D, Young HA. Reducing calorie intake may not help you lose body weightPerspect Psychol Sci. 2017;12(5):703-714. doi:10.1177/1745691617690878

  13. Tomiyama AJ, Mann T, Vinas D, Hunger JM, DeJager J, Taylor SE. Low calorie dieting increases cortisolPsychosomatic Medicine. 2010;72(4):357-364. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c

By Jenn Sinrich
Jenn Sinrich is a Boston-based freelance editor, writer, and content strategist. She received her BA in journalism from Northeastern University and has more than a decade of experience working as an on-staff editor for various publications.