August 8, 2022

Bodyweight Blueprint

Stay Fit With Muscles

Why You Gain Weight After Losing It, and How to Kick This Habit for Good

6 min read

Let’s see if this sounds familiar: You worked your tail off in the gym and maintained a nutritious diet for months to finally lose the weight you’ve wanted to… only to gain it all back once you’ve stopped dieting. If this has happened to you, it can be a discouraging cycle that feels like it will have no end. The goods news is you’re certainly not alone in your frustrations, and you’ve lost the weight once, so you know you can do it again.

This habit is called weight cycling — or yo-yo dieting — and it’s marked by a cycle of losing weight then gaining it back only to start dieting all over again. With the sometimes severe highs and lows, yo-yo dieting keeps you from achieving your goals. Not to mention the lasting effects it can have on your body. 

Thankfully, you can break the cycle, burn any allegiance to fad dieting and get back on track with your wellness goals. Here’s how. 

Read more: How Many Calories Should You Burn Each Day to Lose Weight?

Why does yo-yo dieting happen?

Yo-yo dieting is not something you’re intentionally doing. There’s a physiological reason your body responds to unrealistic dieting. The hormone leptin decreases as you lose weight. Leptin’s job in our body is to tell us when we have enough energy (in the form of fat) stored up in the body. When leptin levels decrease enough, we start experiencing hunger. 

In response to restrictive diets that limit what we eat, our bodies slow our metabolism to hang onto those nutrients for as long as they can. This means your weight loss will stall, and you’re at greater risk of gaining it back when you stop that restrictive diet. 

How common is weight cycling?

Every time you turn around, it feels like there’s a new diet to try. With the rise and fall of fad dieting, yo-yo dieting is more common than you may think, especially with restrictive diets. A March 2019 study from the Columbia University Irving Medical Center found that 70% of female participants experienced at least one instance of weight cycling. The study included a diverse group of 485 women aged 20 to 76. 

Weight fluctuation is entirely normal. The average adult’s daily weight tends to fluctuate within a 3- to 4-pound range, depending on what you eat, drink and eliminate that day. Weight cycling doesn’t always have to be drastic. However, it is outside of normal ranges of weight loss and weight gain for the body and generally follows an unsustainable diet. 

Why is yo-yo dieting bad for you?

You can lose muscle and gain fat

When you diet and lose weight quickly, you’re losing muscle along with fat. Then, when you are in the phase of yo-yo dieting where you are gaining weight, you will gain fat first, not muscle. In the long run, this can impact your ability to walk, lift things or climb stairs. However, this can be offset with exercise, like weight training to ensure you’re building muscle. 

Studies have also found that weight cycling can increase body fat percentage. A review of published research found that 11 out of 19 studies connected the history of yo-yo dieting to higher body fat. Half of the reviewed studies also found that weight cycling is linked to future weight gain.  

It’s risky for your heart

Weight gain increases your risk of developing heart disease. The same is true for the cycle of gaining and losing weight. A recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine found that the risk of heart disease is correlated to the change in weight — the greater the swing in weight, the higher the risk. 

Some studies have also investigated the relationship between weight cycling and increased blood pressure. Past studies suggest that with enough time between weight cycling, the effects on your blood pressure fade. Not all studies agree on this point, however. A more recent study has suggested that your body mass index will determine if a history of weight cycling contributes to higher blood pressure or not. More research is needed to get the full picture. 

It can affect your mental health

Various positive mental health benefits are associated with weight loss — greater confidence, a sense of achievement and increased self-esteem. Unfortunately, there can be negative effects as well, especially with yo-yo dieting. Repeated weight shifts are discouraging and can even contribute to anxiety and depression.

A 2020 study showed that a history of weight cycling is a significant predictor of depressive symptoms, with internalized weight stigma as a mediator. When controlled for gender, there was no significant difference, meaning that the effects are similar across men and women. Like the other risk factors on the list, not everyone will experience this.

How to stop the cycle of rebound weight gain 

Dieting is hard, and it’s easier than it should be to fall into a pattern of weight cycling. We don’t want to paint the picture that breaking the cycle of yo-yo dieting is easy. It’s not. And remember, losing weight isn’t necessary to be healthy. However, if weight loss is your goal, these tips may help you regain control.

A great way to reach your health goals is to establish a realistic diet and exercise plan. 


Claudia Totir/Getty Images

Reevaluate the diet you’re on. Yo-yo dieting starts with unsustainable diets. You’ll want to avoid any diets that rule out entire food groups. We’re people, and sometimes we need a cookie or a soda or bowl of pasta. Most importantly, we need the space to decide what we eat and what we don’t. 

Think about what you’re eating. In general, it’s a good rule of thumb to try and avoid high amounts of sugar and sodium. But don’t make foods off-limits for yourself. That’s one of the main pitfalls of yo-yo dieting. Instead, try to find your balance and make the best choices for you. 

Exercise. One of the main ways to combat yo-yo dieting is to exercise. Staying active will ensure you maintain a healthy weight during your long-term weight loss plan. Exercise will also help you avoid losing muscle mass over time. Just make sure to take breaks and don’t over-exert yourself.

Check in with yourself. Don’t forget to check in on yourself on your journey. How are you sleeping? How are you feeling? Has your relationship with food changed? Checking in on yourself now and then will help you make sure you’re healthy in every sense. 

Find help. Yo-yo dieting can be linked to binge eating disorder or other forms of disordered eating.  Even if you don’t have an eating disorder, if meals and weight are stressful topics for you, you can still get help and work through your relationship with food. You can reach out to your doctor, a counselor or the National Eating Disorders Association helpline.

Too long; didn’t read? Here’s what you need to know

Yo-yo dieting is the dark side of weight loss. And unfortunately, it happens to a lot of people. Remember, weight loss isn’t synonymous with being healthy. Yo-yo weight cycling comes from unrealistic and sometimes unhealthy diets that we couldn’t possibly maintain. Even if you’ve been stuck in the vicious cycle of weight loss and weight gain, it doesn’t mean you can’t get out of it. 

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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