How Weight Cycling Affects Mortality

The hidden risks of yo-yo dieting

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

Weight cycling (or yo-yo dieting) has been shown to cause overall weight gain because of the impact on the brain and gut microbes. Weight cycling has also been linked to a higher risk for heart attack or stroke, compared to people with more stable weight readings.

The thing is, most of us are trying to lose weight for good reasons: our health and well-being. We know carrying excess weight can hasten chronic diseases and even death. That’s why many of us keep trying again and again to lose the weight. But the methods (trendy diets) we are using to shed pounds may be our undoing, responsible for the cyclical weight loss and gain.

Cycles of Weight Loss and Weight Gain

First, one stark statistic – 80 percent of people who lose weight, will slowly regain it and either end up the same weight or gain extra weight. This is likely due to the fact that when you lose weight, your body needs fewer calories to support and maintain your new weight, and you need to increase exercise effort to keep burning calories. Hormonal changes with weight loss may also drive weight regain, amplifying hunger signals. The deck is stacked against sustained weight loss unless you are able to thwart these realities.

In a cohort study, based on findings from the Korean Genome and Epidemiology Study spanning 16 years, researchers assembled data on 3,678 men and women and found that those who weight cycled had a higher risk of death. There was, however, one positive outcome noted among this group. Individuals diagnosed as obese, who experienced weight cycling, did have a lower risk of developing diabetes. The finding of “lowered risk of diabetes” was only found in participants who were classified as obese.

Obesity is Linked to Other Conditions

Obesity is linked to a number of worrisome chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, osteoarthritis and a number of cancers. It is a given that if you are carrying excess weight, the goal should be sustained weight loss. Experts agree that achieving that goal can be incredibly difficult, which is why weight cycling is so prevalent. There are measures you can take to increase the likelihood that the weight loss will stay off:

Choose a diet that offers health benefits and that fits your personality and lifestyle. There is no point in adopting a starvation diet or a diet that cuts out an entire food group – those diets are simply not sustainable and they can make you feel miserable. Work with a dietician or nutritionist to create a diet plan with the understanding that as you lose weight you will need to tweak portion sizes and your exercise program.

How to Avoid Weight Cycles

Losing even just ten percent of your excess weight can improve your health profile so consider a less lofty goal of weight loss. Your doctor or a dietician can evaluate your health risks and identify a weight goal that reduces your risk of serious health conditions. A less rigorous diet that can be modified easily for weight maintenance may be the best approach for keeping weight off. This year DASH, Mediterranean and the Flexitarian Diet all ranked high in U.S. News & World Reports. These programs encourage weight loss and better health.

Consider bariatric surgery. You may be a good candidate for one of the surgical options if you are diagnosed as obese and have experienced many weight cycles. Talk to your doctor and make sure that the surgery is done by a board-certified bariatric surgeon.

Evaluate whether you have created a supportive home and work environment for sustained weight loss. That means few tempting foods in the home and having healthy snacks you can turn to at work. You will not outsmart temptation – it’s just too powerful. You need to shop and stock your home and work place so that you can mostly thwart tempting treats.

Prepare before you eat out. You can often view the menu online so you can decide what you’ll order before you go out to eat. Control your bread basket urges by immediately ordering hot tea, a broth soup or a calorie free seltzer.

Make a deal with yourself that anytime you overeat you “pay it back” with exercise that same day. Then start the next day fresh – don’t starve yourself to undo the indulgence. That approach backfires by making you feel resentful and deprived.

View weight loss as “obesity in remission” which means that the disease is still present even if you shed weight. For too long we’ve treated obesity like a self-control issue rather than an actual disease. When you recognize obesity as a condition with serious health ramifications, it can help to motivate you to take care of yourself.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”