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Yo-yo Dieting

by the editorial team Published on 5 September 2008

You hear the term yo-yo dieting batted around a lot in the health and fitness world but what does it actually mean?

Yo-yo Dieting

Yo-yo dieting is often something that we don't realise we're doing. A poll by Splenda revealed that the average British woman goes on a diet 2.7 times per year. That's a lot of change to your eating habits!

We spoke to leading nutritionist Kate Cook to find out more about yo-yo dieting and how you can avoid it in the first place.


Kate says yo-yo dieting is a real issue - especially in Britain: "A lot of women don't have a very comfortable relationship with food."

She says yo-yo dieting happens so often because diet eating habits are too difficult to sustain over a long period of time which causes regular fluctuations in weight.


This means dieter are able to lose a dramatic amount of weight in a very short period of time but will more than likely put the same amount, if not more back on again after they finish the diet. Effectively it becomes harder and harder to lose that weight and keep it off once and for all.

How does your body react?
If you suddenly reduce your calorie intake the body acts in two interlinked ways:

  • It goes into rest mode, which means that it uses less energy even when doing nothing, to save energy.
  • It stores fat, a bit like when we don’t have any money, we save what we get for a rainy day.

Kate likens it to the body going into famine mode. She says: ""It's well known that very low calorie diets will cause you to store fat. Your body thinks that you're in famine so if you apply the trick of fad dieting too regularly then your body starts reacting and starts storing fat for the famine it thinks is looming."

The effect of this means that when you finish the diet, even if you've lost weight, your body reacts to a 'normal' diet again by putting on more weight. Especially if you go back to bad food habits, the body will put on weight more quickly in preparation for any more deprivation you might be about to put it through.

Constant deprivation makes the body take advantage of everything you give it when you eat normally again, and the more you diet the more resistant the body becomes to it.

This is why many people feel like they spend their lives dieting but never lose weight.

Ultimately changing your eating structure in the long term, viewing food differently, (not in terms of good and bad food) and being able to see the bigger picture is vital to creating a more positive relationship with food that will help prevent you from yo-yo dieting over and over.

Kate says the long terms effects of yo-yo diet can be psychologically tough too.

She says: "People don't feel relaxed about food and when they break the rules they feel like they're letting themselves down. Often with food we have no structure - we feel we should know what to do."

Inevitably if you end up unhappy with your weight it can feel as though you're failing a test that everyone should know how to pass, but breaking the pattern of yo-yo dieting can be done - it just takes a considered approach.

How to prevent it:

The main way not to yo-yo diet is to simply not fall for diets that promise spectacular results without much effort. Sure, their effectiveness will be immediately visible on the scales, but you'll lose out in the long run.

The best way to shed that weight is to take it easy on your body. If you're looking at shifting some serious poundage then you're body is going to need some time to re-adjust.

Teach it to adapt to the changes you impose at its own pace. Even if it seems like a big commitment, an educated reassessment of your eating habits is far more effective.

Kate says that successful eating habits come down to structure. She says: "It's about learning what the structure is and knowing that there are times where you can go outside of the structure without feeling guilty."

And that means balance.

The solution: a balanced diet

To lose weight and keep it off, you need to learn how to eat properly - not just for a few months, but all the time.

NHS Choices describes a balanced diet as one that consists of: "Starchy foods such as rice and pasta; plenty of fruit and vegetables; protein-rich foods such as meat, fish and lentils; milk and dairy foods; and not too much fat, salt or sugar."

A blend of these food groups in your diet will give you all the nutrients you need, but that B-word is all important.

The NHS suggests: "When it comes to a healthy diet, balance is the key to getting it right. This means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions, and consuming the right amount of food and drink to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight."

The right amount of course varies person to person as everybody's digestive system and metabolism is unique to them.

Kate is quick to point out that "people's bodies are different" and that while there are many different diet regimes to help provide a structure to long term weight loss and optimum health (the Glycaemic Index or food combining), any type of diet structure should be adapted to suit the individual. Essentially she says it's about "dumping the diet" altogether and eating with health in mind.
Your meals should be of controlled portions, spread throughout the day.

Breakfast should be big enough to set you up for the day (15 to 20% of you daily intake). Your largest meal should be at lunchtime, (35 to 40%), and then a slightly smaller dinner at (30 to 35%) to round off the day. The remaining 5-10% can be filled with (healthy) snacks.

Additional fat, sweets, soft drinks and alcohol should be consumed in minimal quantities. One thing to get your head around is when you diet there's a lot more to it than calorie counting.

What you should do is reassess the types of food you're eating (and the amount of activity you're doing; exercising two or three times a week is important if you want to stay at your new target weight and make it last).

But knowing your weaknesses might not come so easily. To lose weight without regaining it, Kate agrees that seeing a dietician or nutritionist or even attending a wellness class may help you change your habits for good.

Keeping a healthy weight is not "just about diet," Kate says: "It's about life."


Her number one reason to stop the yo-yo diet cycle? "Happiness! Get off the treadmill and learn how to have a normal relationship with food. Stop wasting time worrying about the size of your bum and do something fantastic!"

Sounds like a plan to us! First though, to master the art of healthy eating for life...

For more information on healthy eating visit the NHS or The Nutrition Coach.

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