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Yo-Yo Dieting: Why Your Diet Keeps Failing


Yo-Yo Dieting is a term used to describe the endless process of dieting to lose weight, regaining that weight after the diet is over, and then eventually deciding to diet again. Odds are, if you have tried to diet at some point in your life, you have experienced this cycle. It is demoralizing to watch the weight creep back on after you worked so hard at losing it. This vicious cycle causes many people to give up entirely. Please bear with me, the second half of the article is much more positive than the first.

The Depressing Part

A huge reason many of us fail at our diets is because we put limitations on ourselves that are not sustainable. We cut out our favorite foods, severely limit our calories, and feel miserable the entire time. This puts an extreme strain on our willpower, which studies have shown is a limited resource that can run out when used too often [1]. As a result, if we have to rely too heavily on our willpower to remain on track with our diet, eventually it will fail us and we will give into a binge or quit the diet altogether.

Once we do give in to our temptations, many of us find that the weight comes back on faster than before and we sometimes shoot past the weight we started the diet at. This is a natural result of our bodies being hardwired for our early ancestors when food was scarce and we could not just stroll into a grocery store. Our bodies are geared to preserve energy in the form of fat, so that if our ancestors came across a long stretch of time when they could not find food, the body could metabolize fat and other sources to keep itself running.

Obviously, this genetic predisposition is no longer necessary in a time of plenty when calories are always easily accessible, however, we still have to live with this genetic wiring. This is a major reason why dieting can feel so hard. Our body is fighting to preserve energy so it cuts back on our resting metabolic rate and increases the output of the hunger hormone. It also cuts back on our NEAT calorie expenditure (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), which is little fidgets and small movements we make throughout the day. This further cuts the calories we burn by 200-400. These lead to a precarious combo where we are more inclined to overeat, and when we do, we are farther above our maintenance calories than we think due to the lower resting metabolic rate. This leads to the rapid weight regain after we quit a diet.

Depending on how aggressively we starve ourselves during our diet, our metabolism can take weeks or even months to bounce back to normal levels. This means we have to be careful about how many calories we cut from our diets to avoid trashing our metabolism.

The Hopeful Part

Now, everything above sounds extremely demoralizing, so let’s get to the positive part since there are ways to minimize the above effects by using a proper calorie deficit, eating low calorie dense foods, and structuring your diet with foods you enjoy.

First off, a calorie deficit that creates weight loss of 0.5%-1.5% of your bodyweight a week is generally recognized as an effective and sustainable range. This typically is a calorie deficit of 500-1000 calories per day below maintenance levels. This level of deficit allows your body to preserve muscle mass while burning fat, which helps keep your resting metabolic rate up [2]. Cutting calories above this level means your body will cannibalize hard earned muscle mass for energy, lowering your metabolic rate, which will persist well past the end of your diet. 

To estimate your daily calorie expenditure and resting metabolic rate (basal metabolic rate), use an online calculator like this one. Be aware that this is an estimate and your actual calorie burn can be off by a few hundred calories. Tracking calories and watching the scale over time can be your best rate for figuring out what the rate actually is.

Next, structure your diet to contain foods with low calorie densities that you enjoy. Low calorie dense foods are anything with a lot of volume, while being low in calories. Vegetables and fruit are an excellent way to do this. Protein heavy foods are also very good to eat due to the fact that protein is the most satiating macronutrient, meaning you will feel full from eating it and stay full longer. This helps keep the hunger cravings at bay. Try to aim for 0.6-1g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day for the best results. 

This all falls apart if you do not choose foods that you enjoy eating. There are thousands of recipes and ideas online of ways to make your favorite foods in a way that fits into your diet. Check out a few of my favorites here. Do some experimenting and find what you love eating. When you do this, you can enjoy what you eat on the diet, which makes it much easier to stick to. This means that you can adopt this eating pattern as a lifestyle, even when your goal is not losing weight. As a result, it is much easier to maintain your weight and slight modifications to your diet can allow you to cut weight.

When done correctly, your “diet” will turn into what you eat all year round. When you find foods that you love and fit well into your lifestyle, the days of aggressive dieting and rapid weight gain can be behind you. This means that you can exist at a healthy weight all year round and avoid that “oh shit” moment when you look in the mirror or step on the scale.

This can be a daunting task to start, but by finding the right recipes, it can be a change that you will never regret. You will become the best on the block and feel great doing it. I believe in you!

[1] Muraven, M. (in press). Ego-depletion: Theory and evidence. In R. M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of Motivation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Astrup A, et al. Prediction of 24-h energy expenditure and its components from physical characteristics and body composition in normal-weight humans. Am J Clin Nutr. (1990)