Yoyo Diets and Weight Cycling

How many times have you successfully lost weight -- only to gain it again further down the track?

Some people struggle with this for most of their lives. This is "yo-yo" dieting - a continuing pattern of gaining and losing weight. Sometimes it is called "weight cycling".

To quote one research paper:

Weight cycling may also have negative psychological and behavioral consequences; studies have reported increased risk for psychopathology, life dissatisfaction, and binge eating.

What Causes Yo-yo Dieting?

When your diet includes bouts of starvation, missing meals, or very low calories - you are setting yourself up for the yo-yo effect.

While it seems that good results can be achieved quickly, sooner or later, the body gets the hint that less calories are coming in. The body adapts, and decides that energy must be conserved - and metabolism (the way the body burns food for energy) begins to slow down.

Often this can be a 'plateau' - the weight loss that was initially achieved begins to slow down or stop.

Many people hit the wall at this point, and, struggling to maintain the diet, the weight begins to come back on. And what's even worse, is that for some people, the lowered metabolism means they end up with more weight than what they started at!

Gets Worse With Each Episode

This is one of the problems with dieting (as a sudden fad) - the body's metabolism becomes less efficient with each dieting episode. The severe calorie restriction also causes loss of muscle tone (catabolism).

Less muscle once again means a slower metabolism.

The commons signs of this are flabby upper arms (due to loss of tricep muscle tone and subsequent fat gain).

Alternatives to the Yoyo

It is a mental and emotional blow to go through all that dieting, just to be back where you started.

Rather than suddenly dieting - hoping for a quick weight loss, it is better to take a more long term sustainable approach.

  • Aim for modest weight loss (even small amounts of lost fat can improve your health)
  • If lowering calories do it slowly (i.e. don't suddenly drop 1000 calories per day).
  • Think of your diet as a healthy eating plan.
  • Look to change your lifestyle (activity levels and what and when and why you eat).
  • To break the weight loss plateau you need to give your metabolism a boost. Aim to increase your levels of physical activity. And if you are missing meals or eating too few calories you need to take a serious look at your diet and aim to eat more often (every 3 hours).
  • Don't skip breakfast.
  • Can you imagine still being on your "current" diet 1 year from now?

See our top picks for weight loss


  • Elliot, D. L., Goldberg, L., Kuehl, K. S., & Bennett, W. M. (1989). Sustained depression of the resting metabolic rate after massive weight loss. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 49(1), 93-96.Link
  • Wadden, T. A., Bartlett, S., Letizia, K. A., Foster, G. D., Stunkard, A. J., & Conill, A. (1992). Relationship of dieting history to resting metabolic rate, body composition, eating behavior, and subsequent weight loss. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 56(1), 203S-208S. Link
  • Brownell, K. D., & Rodin, J. (1994). Medical, metabolic, and psychological effects of weight cycling. Archives of Internal Medicine, 154(12), 1325-1330. Link
Last Updated 1 Jan 2015