Most people don't think yo-yo dieting—repeatedly gaining and losing significant amounts of weight —is great for you. But new research presented this week at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2016 shows just how bad it might be for your overall health.
For the study , researchers collected self-reported weight history data from more than 158,000 post-menopausal women and divided them into four categories: stable weight, steady gain, maintained weight loss, and weight cycling (i.e., yo-yo dieters). They then followed up with the women 11 years later.
Researchers discovered that women who were considered to have a "normal" weight at the start of the study then yo-yo dieted had about a 3.5 times greater risk of dying from a sudden heart attack than those who had a stable weight. Not only that, women who were of a “normal” weight who engaged in yo-yo dieting had a 66 percent increased risk in dying from coronary heart disease . Worth noting: This didn’t happen with women who reported that they gained weight but didn’t lose it, or they lost weight without gaining it back.
While researchers only studied women who had already been through menopause , they say it’s unclear whether losing and regaining weight before menopause would have the same impact.
This isn’t the first time scientists have linked yo-yo dieting with health issues. Research published in the International Journal of Exercise Science found that yo-yo dieting increases bodily inflammation , which has been linked to a host of illnesses, like cancer and asthma.
It doesn’t end there. “Constant weight loss/weight gain cycles can put a person at risk for progressive development of obesity , diabetes , and depression ,” women’s health expert Jennifer Wider , M.D., tells SELF.
While losing weight can be good for you if you’re overweight, gaining it back can be hard on your body—especially if your weight jumps up and down often. “When someone changes weight frequently, the gaining portion raises blood pressure and cholesterol ,” Wider explains. It can also cause increased storage of fat in the body around the organs , Gina Keatley , a C.D.N. practicing in New York City, tells SELF. When the person loses the weight, these markers can drop, but they may not go down to medically healthy levels, she says.
Extreme weight fluctuations create a lot of stress , says Lisa Moskovitz, R.D., CEO of NY Nutrition Group . “High levels of stress increase cortisol, the stress hormone which has been linked to developing chronic diseases,” she tells SELF.
On top of all of that, yo-yo dieting can so easily become a vicious cycle. Beth Warren, R.D.N., founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living a Real Life With Real Food , tells SELF that losing weight by unhealthy means can impact your metabolism by cutting down on muscle. "Since muscle burns more calories than fat, your metabolism slows down ," she explains. "Inevitably, weight loss from these measures is gained back," and because of your lagging metabolism, you might gain more weight than you lost.
It's important to also be clear that weight loss as a goal isn't necessarily for everyone. For anyone who has a history of disordered eating, even if you're in recovery, you should speak with a doctor before you change your eating habits or pursue any weight-loss goal. Even if you don't have a history of disordered eating, it's really important to have realistic expectations and make sure you're approaching weight loss in a healthy way (avoiding yo-yo dieting is a great place to start). And remember that many factors beyond your diet are important, too—like exercise, getting good sleep, managing stress levels, and genetics—so simply eating fewer calories may not bring the results you want.
Jennifer Haythe, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, tells SELF that she always advises her patients to avoid yo-yo dieting. “The best way to diet safely is to reduce caloric intake and increase physical activity by a modest amount every day,” she says. “This allows for safe, gradual, and lasting weight loss.”
Moskovitz also recommends avoiding fad diets and crash dieting, and know that you can bring in help if you have issues with regaining weight you’ve lost. “Talk to a professional to find a healthy weight-loss plan that is not too restrictive to avoid rebounding,” Moskovitz says. “Ditch the diet mentality and worrying about the scale or what you weigh. Heath is priority .”
You may also like: The Ultimate Fat-Burning, Butt-Lifting Workout