What are the health risks of yo-yo dieting?

Natasha Turner, ND
Alternative & Complementary Medicine

Yo-yo dieting affects your metabolism and energy, but also damages your arteries and could cause high cholesterol and heart disease. Watch as naturopathic doctor Natasha Turner, ND, explains these risks and how you can repair any existing damage.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Research shows it’s better for your health not to diet at all than to say you’re dieting and steal spoonfuls of crème brûlée during every commercial break. That’s because diets typically promote weight cycling and yo-yo dieting, which is actually more hazardous to your health than keeping a steady overweight weight. Most weight cyclers eventually gain back more weight than they had initially lost because the shame and stress involved with gaining weight can lead to eating more.

Weight cycling may also have negative psychological and behavioral consequences; studies have reported increased risk for mental distress, life dissatisfaction, and binge eating. Some studies have shown that extreme weight cycling can even damage the heart.

One study found that women who were yo-yo dieters (also called weight cycling) -- especially if it occurred five or more times during their life -- had a great risk of heart disease beginning shortly after menopause. The researchers believe that the link between weight cycling and heart disease involves the cells that line the blood vessels called endothelial cells. When people gain and lose weight repeatedly, these cells become damaged so blood can’t flow freely. When blood flow to the heart becomes restricted, the stage is set for heart attack and stroke.
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Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
Yo-yo dieting refers to repeatedly losing weight and then gaining it back. This is often associated with a very low calorie diet. There is usually an initial success, but the weight loss can't be maintained due to the diet's severe nature.

Yo-yo diets lead to the loss of body fat, but the body also loses lean muscle. With less lean muscle, your metabolic rate is lowered. When you resume your normal eating habits, you add back more body fat and the cycle continues. With added body fat, your overall health deteriorates. This can lead to chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease.

Also, this type of dieting can take a negative emotional and motivational toll on the dieter. You may feel defeated and unwilling to try to maintain a healthy weight. Remember, the goal of a healthy weight is a good one. But instead of trying fad diets, talk to your doctor or a dietician about how to lose weight the right way. You'll have a better shot at keeping it off.
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It appears that weight changes, either loss or gain, are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and premature mortality. Whereas an increased risk from weight gain is perhaps understandable, given all the health hazards associated with being overweight, an increased risk from weight loss is more perplexing. After all, health experts have been telling us for decades that most of us need to lose weight to remain healthy.

But the increased risk seen among those who lose weight appears to be the result of cycles of weight loss and gain, or "yo-yo" dieting, an inherently unhealthy process that seems to stress an often already overstressed system. Yo-yo dieting is probably also dangerous in part because when we lose weight through dieting and gain it back, we tend to regain more fat. It's likely that over time, any health risk associated with one-time weight loss is far outweighed, as it were, by the many health benefits of remaining lean.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.