As we approach the end of the year and enjoy the foods and activities that come with the holiday season, we also approach resolution season. Without fail, millions of Americans kick off the new year with promises to lose weight, but the evidence is clear – self-directed diets fail.
Millions of Americans diet each year.
Most dieting efforts fail, and those that succeed usually regain the weight within 5 years.
Self-directed dieting causes physical and psychological harm.
Focusing on healthy habits, like increasing muscle mass and strength and managing stress, can lay a strong foundation of health that improves your chance of losing body fat and keeping it off.
Moreover, further evidence shows that weight cycling –also known as yo-yo dieting – is more harmful than beneficial.
Diet culture and weight cycling
According to a survey conducted by the Marist in 2019, one in 10 Americans resolved to lose weight in the new year. The diet industry in America is a $72.6 billion juggernaut. Fad diets that promote extreme cleansing, and cut out whole food groups – or eating in general – enjoy consistent popularity.
And yet, obesity in America remains at an all-time high despite most overweight Americans dieting many times throughout their lifetime. One does not need to be heavy to diet, as non-overweight Americans attempt to lose weight at alarming rates too.
However, most of these weight loss attempts result in weight regain within 5 years. This struggle is one that millions of Americans are familiar with, one that we can take to the curb with our Christmas tree this year.
While we know that excess weight carries health risks, evidence is mounting that constantly losing weight only to regain it a short time later causes significant stress on the body too.
5 reasons to stop the cycle
Weight cycling is frustrating for those attempting weight loss and has severe implications for our physical and psychological health. But just how bad can it be?
1. Death and heart disease
While the exact mechanism is not yet understood, numerous studies show that weight cycling significantly increases our risk of dying and developing cardiovascular disease.
2. Loss of muscle mass
Lean muscle is protective in many ways and should be maintained throughout our lifetime – regardless of our fat loss goals. Unfortunately, most fad diets induce weight loss through rapid and unsustainable means, and thus we lose muscle too.
Weight cycling – especially for those in the non-obese range – strongly predicts developing adult-onset diabetes.
4. Disordered eating behaviors
People with bigger bodies are at a significantly higher risk of developing eating disorders at baseline, and the stress of losing and regaining weight increases the mental and physical toll considerably. A preoccupation with our weight places us at a much higher risk for developing disordered eating behaviors like binge eating, orthorexia (an unhealthy focus on eating healthy), and more.
5. Loss of life satisfaction
Fad diets usually rely on extreme strategies like cutting out entire food groups to achieve weight loss. As soon as you stop the intervention, your weight returns. Furthermore, this silver bullet approach often increases depression and anxiety and decreases life satisfaction. Evidence strongly shows that weight loss interventions that focus on healthy behaviors and sustainable lifestyle modification instead are the clear winners.
The reality is that obesity does pose a health risk, and losing weight and keeping it off is perhaps ideal for most. But with so many people stuck cycling instead, it may be better to maintain a steady weight and focus on building healthy behaviors first.
Build a strong foundation
The next time you consider trying the latest fad diet, try these strategies instead:
Lean muscle mass is protective as we age, helps us maintain balance, and prevents falls. It is also far more compact than other kinds of tissue, so we look leaner and tighter the more we have – even if we maintain the same weight.
Focus on centering protein at each meal and following a structured strength training routine that prioritizes large muscle groups using heavy weights.
Strength and the size of our muscles often increase together when we find an effective weight-lifting routine and eat enough protein and carbohydrates to recover from our workouts.
If you are new to strength training, work with a professional who can properly instruct you on form and write a training program tailored to your needs. Weight training, like any athletic pursuit, can be dangerous if done improperly or recklessly.
Attempting to lose weight – even when done healthily and safely – introduces stress to our bodies. We are trying to achieve the same function, on lower calories (often while increasing our activity).
Thus, we must manage our stress and maximize our recovery. Aim for 6–8 hours of sleep per night and rest between workouts.
Overtraining – when we do not allow proper rest and recovery from our workouts – increases our risk for injury and exercise burnout. Slow and steady truly do win the race.
Using a framework of addition – adding exercise, protein, rest, and recovery – instead of focusing on what’s being subtracted, allows us to feel optimistic about the changes we are making, so we are more likely to stick with them.
Movement is a gift, so use it to the fullest and avoid any diets you cannot reasonably maintain for a lifetime, and you'll be much better off in 2023 and beyond.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Attempts to Lose Weight Among Adults in the United States, 2013-2016.
- The American Journal of Physiology. Biology’s Response to Dieting: the impetus for weight regain.
- Archives of Internal Medicine. Medical, metabolic, and psychological effects of weight cycling.
- International Journal of Eating Disorders. Effects of weight cycling on the resting energy expenditure and body composition of obese women.
- Frontiers in Endocrinology. Body-Weight Fluctuation Was Associated With Increased Risk for Cardiovascular Disease, All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
- Nutrients. Weight Loss Strategies and the Risk of Skeletal Muscle Mass Loss.
- Journal of Diabetes Investigation. Association between weight cycling and risk of developing diabetes in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
- Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Disordered eating and obesity: associations between binge eating disorder, night-eating syndrome, and weight-related co-morbidities.
- Nutrients. Obesity with Comorbid Eating Disorders: Associated Health Risks and Treatment Approaches.
- Systematic Reviews. Health, not weight loss, focused programmes versus conventional weight loss programmes for cardiovascular risk factors: a systematic review and meta-analysis.