Since lockdown started easing and countries were added to the green list, the noise around “needing” to shed the pandemic pounds has reached a crescendo. Tempted to crash diet? Here’s why yo-yo dieting is so detrimental to every part of your wellbeing.
Warning: this feature contains discussion of disordered eating and diets
During lockdown, we were bombarded with messages to stay at home, wear a mask and wash our hands. Another message also came over loud and clear: if you’ve put on weight, get ready to lose it again. In fact, even Boris Johnson banged on about how fat we all were and how we was spending 2021 losing weight after his stint in ICU.
Now that we’re coming out of lockdown, the pressure to diet has never been so high. Instagrammers tell us how to get post-lockdown ready while the (ever-changing) travel advice has meant that lots of people are now panicking about being seen on a beach or in anything other than sweatpants for the first time in 18 months.
All this is leading to yo-yo dieting, says PT, nutritionist and founder of Shapes Studio, Paola Langella. “Right now, people are crash-dieting like crazy. I’ve been getting frantic texts from people asking how they can lose the 5lbs they put on during lockdown!” She explains that all that anxiety and panic is actually having the opposite effect that these people want: “The more stressed we feel, the more bloated we become because our stress hormone is running wild. That stress often leads us to eating a lot junk food, then to make up for it, we try to cut out carbs or try intermittent fasting.”
Lockdown created the “perfect storm” for eating disorders, according to the eating disorder charity, Beat. It reported that the number of people contacting its helpline between May and July last year increased by 97%. The fear, then, is that the pressure to diet now that society is going back to “normal” may compound those issues.
“During lockdown, people did put on weight because they couldn’t work out as usual and it was a stressful time but now, the pressure is huge to lose it all. Throw into the mix the fact that it’s June, we can travel again and people will try the quickest diet ever. We need to send a message not to do that,” Paola says.
The thing weight-loss companies never tell you is that dieting is a scam. You restrict what you eat to lose weight and as soon as you reach that arbitrary goal, you put it all back on. This process of quickly losing weight, regaining it and dieting again is known as “yo-yo dieting” because of the way it causes your weight to go up and down like a yo-yo.
Aside from the fact that there’s more to life than what we weigh (which isn’t necessarily a sign of health or fitness), yo-yo dieting can have a seriously negative impact on physical and mental wellbeing. Here are just some of the ways that getting stuck in a cycle of on-off restriction can affect health:
Stress becomes elevated
Yo-yo dieting puts a great deal of stress on the body. “When we restrict ourselves over a certain amount of time, we automatically crave what we miss. That generates a stressful reaction, which can cause tiredness and anxiety,” explains Paola. “When we are off the diet again, we start to once again return to the same habits but with renewed cravings.”
“Cutting out food groups or drastically reducing your intake of key nutrients is never recommended and this crash approach to dieting can trigger the release of corticosterone – the hormone which helps to regulate energy and stress levels,” says nutritional therapist, Amanda Hamilton, who works with Bioglan Superfoods. Because of that, “yo-yo dieting can contribute to heightened stress levels, irritability and low mood and energy.”
Your risk of heart disease is increased
Columbia University found that weight cycling has an effect on seven heart disease risk factors: smoking status, weight, diet, physical activity, cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose. As little as 1.5kg of loss-regain-loss can increase the risk of heart disease, with researchers concluding that over time, the risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol are increased.
Dr Naseem explains: “Repetitive cycles of weight change have been associated with coronary artery disease and increased blood pressure. The risk of your immune system also being weakened by depriving yourself of essential minerals and vitamins with ill-thought-through diets.”
Low mood and poor sleep soon follow
Research shows that reducing calorie intake via dieting can lead to increased preoccupations with thoughts about food, weight and shape. Dr Naseem explains that this can cause emotional distress, while the physical implications of not eating enough may result in “poor sleep, low mood, a heightened response to negative emotions, increased stress levels, difficulty concentrating and lack of interest in things that we used to enjoy. This, in turn, affects our daily functioning and relationships – leaving us feeling isolated and low.”
Anyone who’s been through the ups and downs that come from restriction cycles knows that they can be draining; you’re constantly caught between emotional highs and lows and again, that can have a negative impact on how we feel and see ourselves. “Weight oscillations can also cause hormonal changes which can disrupt cortisol and melatonin levels – affecting weight and sleep cycles. This can make it easier to regain weight with the next diet as the body is producing intense cravings in order to regulate the hormones.”
Restriction ruins your metabolism
If reducing body fat is your goal, then crash diets won’t help. In fact, weight cycling stops our bodies from understanding and responding to hunger. Dr Naseem explains: “Fat cells create a hormone called leptin which signals to the brain when we have enough fat stored in the body. As weight loss occurs, leptin reduces.” That causes our metabolism to slow down – leading to hunger. When a diet has run its course, we’re left with a bigger appetite but with our body burning through less energy – “which is why cycles of yo-yo dieting lead to more weight gain.”
While yo-yo dieting undeniably causes metabolic damage over time, the good news is that the damage is reversible – via strength training.
It can trigger binge-eating disorders
One of the biggest issues with continually following crash diets is the triggering of binge-eating habits and disorders. Binge-eating happens when someone eats to the point of discomfort, with little or no control. Yo-yo dieting can prime people to do this, explains eating disorder specialist and psychologist, Dr Omara Naseem, because all that under-eating and restriction pushes our bodies into starvation mode; binge eating is the body’s survival instinct kicking in.
When restricted of the energy it needs, the body puts out “cravings for high-energy quick fixes like sugary or fried snacks,” says, Dr Naseem. “The body also slows down to conserve energy which leads to a slower metabolism and dips in blood sugar which are also linked with causing cravings.”
5 ways to break out of yo-yo dieting patterns
As with all destructive behaviours, recovery begins with recognition. Acknowledging that you’re stuck in a yo-yo diet means that you can do something about it, and there are various ways to begin forging a healthier relationship with food.
1. Set better goals
“A major issue with yo-yo dieting is that it fosters the attitude that habits only need to be followed until the goal is met and can then be abandoned. Creating a healthy lifestyle shouldn’t be about setting unrealistic goals to change negative aspects of our lives overnight, but making steady positive lifestyle changes you can stick to,” says Amanda.
2. Follow the 80:20 rule
Paola recommends trying to adopt an 80:20 approach to healthy eating. “80% of the time, you’d cook at home and eat healthy delicious food and 20% of the time, you’d indulge a bit.” By prioritising whole, home-cooked foods most of time, we negate the perceived need for restriction.
3. Try mindful eating
Mindful eating may be a bit of a buzz word but the principles are sound. Spend a week really focussing on how you feel when eating. Eat until you feel full and satisfied. Notice when you feel hungry or full, chew slowly and savour your food. Notice the texture, smell and taste of what you eat. This won’t necessarily work for everyone but there’s no harm in trying it.
4. Talk to someone
If you struggle with feeling motivated or you’re worried about slipping into unhealthy yo-yo habits, try sharing your goals with someone you can trust. Dr Naseem says that “it’s also important to engage in the things which you enjoy and make you feel good away from food in order to build on your self-esteem and celebrate your wins.”
5. Assess other parts of your life
Amanda suggests looking at what is happening in your life that may be contributing to you feeling the need to yo-yo diet. “If work, relationships, money or friendships are causing you feelings of stress and contributing to insecurity, in the long run, it would be beneficial to get to the root of the problem so that poor mental health doesn’t manifest in nutrition.”
If you or someone you know is living with disordered eating, check out the eating disorder charity Beat website where you’ll find plenty of help and confidential advice. The NHS has plenty of advice on healthy eating, as well as information on eating disorders and fad diets.
Looking for lots of healthy recipes and workout ideas for building a more sustainable regime? Head over to the Strong Women Training Club where you’ll find everything you need for getting stronger today than you were yesterday.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.