Posted on Jan 30, 2024, 12 p.m.
A recent study from North Carolina State University published in Qualitative Health Research urges people to think twice before going on another diet, highlighting the negative interpersonal and psychological consequences associated with yo-yo dieting and societal stigmas.
Yo-Yo dieting is also known as weight cycling, and it is a cycle of gaining weight and dieting to lose weight only to gain it back again to restart the negative cycle. This study sheds new light on how toxic yo-yo dieting can be, and how difficult it can be to break free of the cycle.
"Yo-yo dieting -- unintentionally gaining weight and dieting to lose weight only to gain it back and restart the cycle -- is a prevalent part of American culture, with fad diets and lose-weight-quick plans or drugs normalized as people pursue beauty ideals," says Lynsey Romo, corresponding author of a paper on the study and an associate professor of communication at North Carolina State University. "Based on what we learned through this study, as well as the existing research, we recommend that most people avoid dieting, unless it is medically necessary. Our study also offers insights into how people can combat insidious aspects of weight cycling and challenge the cycle."
This study involved 36 adults who experienced weight cycling of more than 11 pounds and underwent in-depth interviews with the goal of learning more about how people enter the yo-yo cycle and if they were able to end the cycle. All of the participants reported wanting to lose weight due to the social stigmas related to their weight, and/or because they were comparing their weight to that of celebrities or peers.
"Overwhelmingly, participants did not start dieting for health reasons, but because they felt social pressure to lose weight," Romo says.
Participants reported trying a variety of weight loss strategies that initially resulted in some weight gain that they eventually regained. Participants also reported that the weight gain left them feeling shame and further stigma associated with the weight, making them feel even worse about themselves than they did before dieting. This in turn often led the participants to engage in increasingly extreme unsustainable behaviors to try to lose more weight again, and they became stuck in a cycle.
"For instance, many participants engaged in disordered weight management behaviors, such as binge or emotional eating, restricting food and calories, memorizing calorie counts, being stressed about what they were eating and the number on the scale, falling back on quick fixes (such as low-carb diets or diet drugs), overexercising, and avoiding social events with food to drop pounds fast," says Romo. "Inevitably, these diet behaviors became unsustainable, and participants regained weight, often more than they had initially lost."
"Almost all of the study participants became obsessed with their weight," says Katelin Mueller, co-author of the study and graduate student at NC State. "Weight loss became a focal point for their lives, to the point that it distracted them from spending time with friends, family, and colleagues and reducing weight-gain temptations such as drinking and overeating."
"Participants referred to the experience as an addiction or a vicious cycle," Romo says. "Participants who were more successful at challenging the cycle were also able to embrace healthy eating behaviors -- such as eating a varied diet and eating when they were hungry -- rather than treating eating as something that needs to be closely monitored, controlled or punished."
"The combination of ingrained thought patterns, societal expectations, toxic diet culture, and pervasive weight stigma make it difficult for people to completely exit the cycle, even when they really want to," Romo says. "Ultimately, this study tells us that weight cycling is a negative practice that can cause people real harm," Romo says. "Our findings suggest that it can be damaging for people to begin dieting unless it is medically necessary. Dieting to meet some perceived societal standard inadvertently set participants up for years of shame, body dissatisfaction, unhappiness, stress, social comparisons, and weight-related preoccupation. Once a diet has begun, it is very difficult for many people to avoid a lifelong struggle with their weight."
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine. This article is not intended to provide a medical diagnosis, recommendation, treatment, or endorsement. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
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