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The Risks of Yo-Yo Dieting and Why It's Dangerous

November 01, 2023 6 min read

The Risks of Yo-yo Dieting and diet supplements, meal substitutes, and weight loss programs.

Turn on the television, day or night, and odds are you’ll be blasted with advertisements for diet supplements, meal substitutes, and weight loss programs. Scroll through any social media platform and you’ll find much the same.

The fact is that dieting is big business, so much so, in fact, that the diet industry is projected to generate nearly$400 billion in worldwide revenues by 2026. And what that means is that there’s an immense and growing demand out there for the answer to a problem that has plagued our increasingly sedentary and food-saturated society: How to keep lean and fit in the modern world, where an abundance of inexpensive and temptingly delicious foods abound?

The problem, though, is that the prominence of the diet industry in our culture all too often instigates an inherently flawed, and potentially dangerous, relationship with food. “Dieting,” as a verb, signifies a temporary state, something you do for a finite amount of time and often to achieve a specific goal, whether this means reaching a target weight or fitting into that dream dress or suit for a special anniversary or other much-anticipated events.

On the other hand, “diet,” as a noun, signifies a more permanent state of being, a lifestyle that speaks to a person’s typical eating patterns and, perhaps more importantly, their overall relationship with food.

And therein lies the rub, because “dieting” necessarily invokes something temporary, almost always depriving the body of the sense of homeostasis, or balance, that it requires for optimal functioning. Conversely, a “diet” is a roadmap. It reflects, explains, and predicts how a person chooses to nourish their body, not just for today, but also for yesterday and tomorrow.

However, when your dietary patterns reflect a history of imbalance and the only real consistency or balance in your diet is a history of dieting plans, programs, and supplements, then that may well be a harbinger of trouble ahead. The simple reality is that yo-yo dieting, known in medical language as “weight cycling,” can pose serious risks to your physical and even your emotional health.

An Increased Risk of Chronic Disease

If you have an experience with “dieting,” then you probably don’t need science to confirm what you already well know first-hand: That dieting is difficult and stressful. However, there is mounting evidence that yo-yo dieting can be extremely detrimental to your physical health (1).

For example, in a recent study of the effects of weight cycling on both cardiovascular and metabolic functioning, Rhee (2017) found that individuals who were prone to significant and repeated fluctuations in body weight due to yo-yo dieting were far more likely than the general population to experience abnormally high blood pressure, glucose, and blood lipid levels, particularly during post-dieting weight gain periods (1).

Not only this, but Rhee’s study also found that the study subjects experienced increased heart rate and increased reactivity of the sympathetic nervous system. In other words, the bodies of weight cyclers exhibited significant signs of stress, including indicators of cardiometabolic impacts as great or greater than those of overweight or obese persons who didn’t engage in weight cycling. 

Importantly, the deleterious effects of weight cycling don’t just pertain to obese or overweight persons subject to the rapid loss and regain of substantial amounts of weight. The evidence shows that persons who are of lower weight, including children, teens, and older adults, experience the same cardiometabolic effects as those identified in Rhee’s study, including hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and hyperglycemia (2). In alignment with these findings, Zou et al. (2021) found that those who engaged in frequent weight cycling were at a significantly greater risk of developing new-onset diabetes than those whose weight remained relatively stable over time (3).

Increased Risk of Gaining Weight Over Time

It may seem counterintuitive, but the very actions you take to shed excess body weight and increase lean muscle mass may, over time, increase your risk for obesity if you have a pattern of losing and gaining weight. The evidence to suggest a correlation between weight cycling and weight gain is substantial.

For instance, Dulloo et al. (2015) found that frequent dieting to lose weight among individuals with a normal body weight actually increases the body’s predisposition to fatness through a process called “overshooting” (4). In this process, the loss of fat mass triggers the body’s autoregulating responses, causing the body to produce and accumulate excessive numbers of fat cells in an effort to recover what has been lost.

Overshooting, Dulloo et al. also note, is often accompanied by and accomplished through “hyperphagia,” or the sometimes uncontrollable impulse to consume excessive amounts of food. Hyperphagia generally accompanies an injury to the hypothalamus gland in the deep structures of the brain, which, among other things, is primarily responsible for establishing the body mass “set point”.

In other words, there is mounting evidence that frequent yo-yo dieting can produce substantial neurological, genetic, and metabolic changes that not only increase your risk for obesity but which also make it far more difficult to lose weight and keep it off (5, 6, 7).

Increased Risk of Disordered Eating 

Yo-yo dieting doesn’t just stress the body and increase the risk of chronic illness and obesity. It can also create dangerous patterns of thought and behavior related to food and can lead to a negative relationship with food.

What that means is that food can easily become linked with feelings of depression or anxiety, particularly if your sense of self-worth and self-efficacy begin to be determined by how stringently you control your food intake, what the numbers on your tape measure read, or what results the scale gives you.

There is, indeed, increasing evidence that nutrition and mental health are strongly intertwined (8, 9). Not only this, but studies also indicate that the mechanisms linking nutrition and mental health are mutually reinforcing, meaning that when you are not nourishing your body (and brain) in a healthful way, you increase your likelihood of developing depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders (9).

The emergence or worsening of these mental health challenges, in turn, contributes to disordered eating and to a pathological relationship with food in general (9), which may result in conditions ranging from binge eating to anorexia to orthorexia (i.e. a pathological obsession with “healthy” eating) (9, 10, 11, 12).

How AFT Fitness Coaching Can Help

AtAFT Fitness Coaching, our expert team of nutrition coaches, fitness trainers, and coaches can help you reimagine and redefine your relationship with food. Our approach to nutrition is predicated on the idea that there is no such thing as “bad” food.

Rather than pursuing fad diets and quick weight-loss regimes, we emphasize balance as the path to fitness, including the cultivation of a customized health and nutrition plan to ensure you’re nourishing your body, as well as your mind and spirit.

Contact us today and let us know what you need help with!

  1. Rhee E. J. (2017). Weight Cycling and Its Cardiometabolic Impact. Journal of obesity & metabolic syndrome, 26(4), 237–242.https://doi.org/10.7570/jomes.2017.26.4.237
  2. Montani, J. P., Schutz, Y., & Dulloo, A. G. (2015). Dieting and weight cycling as risk factors for cardiometabolic diseases: who is really at risk?. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 16 Suppl 1, 7–18.https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12251
  3. Zou, H., Yin, P., Liu, L., Duan, W., Li, P., Yang, Y., Li, W., Zong, Q., & Yu, X. (2021). Association between weight cycling and risk of developing diabetes in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of diabetes investigation, 12(4), 625–632.https://doi.org/10.1111/jdi.13380
  4. Dulloo, A. G., Jacquet, J., Montani, J. P., & Schutz, Y. (2015). How dieting makes the lean fatter: from a perspective of body composition autoregulation through adipostats and proteinstats awaiting discovery. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 16 Suppl 1, 25–35.https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12253
  5. Contreras, R. E., Schriever, S. C., & Pfluger, P. T. (2019). Physiological and Epigenetic Features of Yoyo Dieting and Weight Control. Frontiers in genetics, 10, 1015.https://doi.org/10.3389/fgene.2019.01015
  6. Greenway F. L. (2015). Physiological adaptations to weight loss and factors favouring weight regain. International journal of obesity (2005), 39(8), 1188–1196.https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2015.59
  7. Lean, M. E., & Malkova, D. (2016). Altered gut and adipose tissue hormones in overweight and obese individuals: cause or consequence?. International journal of obesity (2005), 40(4), 622–632.https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2015.220
  8. Kris-Etherton, P. M., Petersen, K. S., Hibbeln, J. R., Hurley, D., Kolick, V., Peoples, S., Rodriguez, N., & Woodward-Lopez, G. (2021). Nutrition and behavioral health disorders: depression and anxiety. Nutrition reviews, 79(3), 247–260.https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuaa025
  9. Matsuoka, Y., & Hamazaki, K. (2016). Seishin shinkeigaku zasshi = Psychiatria et neurologia Japonica, 118(12), 880–894.
  10. Kalra, S., Kapoor, N., & Jacob, J. (2020). Orthorexia nervosa. JPMA. The Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association, 70(7), 1282–1284.
  11. Navarro-Tapia, E., Almeida-Toledano, L., Sebastiani, G., Serra-Delgado, M., García-Algar, Ó., & Andreu-Fernández, V. (2021). Effects of Microbiota Imbalance in Anxiety and Eating Disorders: Probiotics as Novel Therapeutic Approaches. International journal of molecular sciences, 22(5), 2351.https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms22052351
  12. da Luz, F. Q., Hay, P., Touyz, S., & Sainsbury, A. (2018). Obesity with Comorbid Eating Disorders: Associated Health Risks and Treatment Approaches. Nutrients, 10(7), 829. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10070829

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