RALEIGH, N.C. — Every few months, a new trendy diet or fad weight loss plan invades social media, but researchers from North Carolina State University are warning everyone to think carefully before starting a new diet. Their study finds most fad diets are unsustainable and only result in short-term weight loss if any at all. This leads many people to hop from diet to diet as their weight fluctuates. Now, researchers warn their latest study highlights the negative interpersonal and psychological consequences associated with “yo-yo dieting,” also known as weight cycling.
All in all, the team at NC State believes their work underscores the toxicity of yo-yo dieting, as well as how challenging it can be for people to break the cycle.
“Yo-yo dieting – unintentionally gaining weight and dieting to lose weight only to gain it back and restart the cycle – is a prevalent part of American culture, with fad diets and lose-weight-quick plans or drugs normalized as people pursue beauty ideals,” says Lynsey Romo, the study’s corresponding author and an associate professor of communication at NC State, in a university release.
“Based on what we learned through this study, as well as the existing research, we recommend that most people avoid dieting, unless it is medically necessary. Our study also offers insights into how people can combat insidious aspects of weight cycling and challenge the cycle.”
The study authors held in-depth interviews with 36 adults (13 men, 23 women). All participants had first-hand experience with weight cycling in which they lost and regained more than 11 pounds. Researchers hoped to gain further insight into why and how people enter into yo-yo dieting cycles – and how, if at all, anyone was able to find their way out of it.
“Overwhelmingly, participants did not start dieting for health reasons, but because they felt social pressure to lose weight,” Prof. Romo comments.
Notably, study participants also reported engaging in numerous weight loss strategies that did indeed lead to initial weight loss, only for the pounds to eventually return. Regaining lost weight led many to report feeling a sense of shame and further internalized stigmatization. All in all, the entire experience would leave participants feeling worse about themselves than they did before they began dieting. These feelings often served as the catalyst for an individual pursuing increasingly extreme behaviors to try to lose weight again.
“For instance, many participants engaged in disordered weight management behaviors, such as binge or emotional eating, restricting food and calories, memorizing calorie counts, being stressed about what they were eating and the number on the scale, falling back on quick fixes (such as low-carb diets or diet drugs), overexercising, and avoiding social events with food to drop pounds fast,” Prof. Romo says. “Inevitably, these diet behaviors became unsustainable, and participants regained weight, often more than they had initially lost.”
“Almost all of the study participants became obsessed with their weight,” explains Katelin Mueller, co-author of the study and graduate student at NC State. “Weight loss became a focal point for their lives, to the point that it distracted them from spending time with friends, family, and colleagues and reducing weight-gain temptations such as drinking and overeating.”
“Participants referred to the experience as an addiction or a vicious cycle,” Prof. Romo notes. “Individuals who were able to understand and address their toxic dieting behaviors were more successful at breaking the cycle. Strategies people used to combat these toxic behaviors included focusing on their health rather than the number on the scale, as well as exercising for fun, rather than counting the number of calories they burned.”
“Participants who were more successful at challenging the cycle were also able to embrace healthy eating behaviors – such as eating a varied diet and eating when they were hungry – rather than treating eating as something that needs to be closely monitored, controlled or punished.”
However, the vast majority of study participants remained stuck in their personal cycle.
“The combination of ingrained thought patterns, societal expectations, toxic diet culture, and pervasive weight stigma make it difficult for people to completely exit the cycle, even when they really want to,” Prof. Romo adds.
“Ultimately, this study tells us that weight cycling is a negative practice that can cause people real harm,” she concludes. “Our findings suggest that it can be damaging for people to begin dieting unless it is medically necessary. Dieting to meet some perceived societal standard inadvertently set participants up for years of shame, body dissatisfaction, unhappiness, stress, social comparisons, and weight-related preoccupation. Once a diet has begun, it is very difficult for many people to avoid a lifelong struggle with their weight.”
The study is published in the journal Qualitative Health Research.