Yo Yo Dieting

  • The pitfalls of trying to lose weight fast
  • I didn’t realize I was yo yo dieting
  • Pairing language with action breaks the yo yo dieting cycle

Yo yo dieting is a term I’ve heard for years. For ages I didn’t know what it meant. I just knew yo yo dieting was considered bad and had something to do with trying to lose weight fast.

For some reason I had it in my head that the reason people said not to lose weight fast was because they thought speedy weight loss was hard.

Hard? Bring it on! I was up for the challenge.

I didn’t know taking extremes lead to yo yo dieting

At 14 years old, losing weight became my new project. One that fell within my bigger, ongoing goal of self improvement. The idea of pushing myself to the limit, trying my best and making the most of everything, energized me. If losing weight fast was supposed to be difficult, I wanted to prove to myself I could do it.

Now, all these years later, I understand why you shouldn’t lose weight fast. Put simply, it sets you up to fail.

You must take extremes to lose weight quickly. Extreme behaviour, like under-eating and over-exercising are hard to keep up long term. The result? You’re on and off diets. Being on and off diets is yo yo dieting.

Why is it difficult to stop yo yo dieting?

I had no idea I was yo yo dieting. I simply thought I was “good” when I exercised willpower and stuck to my strict diet. And “bad” when I had a “weak moment” (when I was overwhelmingly hungry and ate too much). Then I’d try to be good again.

It took someone else asking me if I saw any patterns in my life (which I didn’t!) When my doctor pointed out my repeated behaviour I realized I’d been yo yo dieting for years.

It is difficult to fix a problem if you can’t identify it in the first place. After yo yo dieting for nearly a decade I could finally address this problem.

What is yo yo dieting?

Wikipedia describes yo yo dieting as follows:

Yo yo dieting or yo yo effect, also known as weight cycling, is a term coined by Kelly D. Brownell at Yale University, in reference to the cyclical loss and gain of weight, resembling the up-down motion of a yo-yo. In this process, the dieter is initially successful in the pursuit of weight loss but is unsuccessful in maintaining the loss long-term and begins to gain the weight back. The dieter then seeks to lose the regained weight, and the cycle begins again.

Here’s the cycle of yo yo dieting:

What yo yo dieting looks like

1. By following a set diet, you lose lots of weight quickly

2. Finding the diet overly restrictive you quit your diet

3. You return to eating as much or more food as you did before your diet
Often people overeat or binge after a strict diet. In addition, your metabolic rate is likely lowered due to the chronic dieting.

4. As a result, you gain back weight beyond what you previously weighed

5. Feeling frustrated and depressed, you go back on a diet

… and the cycle continues …

Each time you restrict your energy intake for a period of time and then over-eat when you can’t take it any longer, your body gets better at holding onto stored energy you have on your body (fat) and more efficient at grabbing energy more quickly, when you eventually eat.

I didn’t realize how much I was jerking my body around by yo yo dieting. Or that following strict diets were setting me up to fail.

How do you break the yo yo dieting cycle?

Your body was built to keep you alive. In order to run properly it needs energy and nutrients. As well, your food choices need to be flexible so you can eat in everyday situations. Rigid diets are hard to keep up long term.

When a doctor pointed the yo yo dieting pattern out to me, it was much easier to identify when I was heading down the wrong path. Pairing language with action helped me understand what I was actually doing.

I’d say to myself: “You aren’t eating enough and it’s going to make you extra hungry later. Then you’ll over-eat.”

Recognizing this pattern and putting it into words, prevented me from continuing to make the same mistake. Talking through the inevitable series of events that would follow extreme behaviour made it easier to set myself up for success.

The good news is once you break the yo yo dieting cycle your metabolism bounces back.

The yo yo dieting approach to problems happens in so many parts of our lives when we try to fix big problems with big solutions that are hard to keep up. It’s amazing what a big change tiny improvements make.

The power of pairing language with action

It wasn’t until I saw the significance of pairing action with words, in another part of my life, that I became aware of how key this strategy is in changing behaviour.

A number of years ago I was doing my standard presentation of Who Is NOBODY? to a school board. This classroom kit helps young people build their identity by using their interests to help others. The feedback from the educators was fantastic (I love constructive criticism)! Basically they were excited about the concept and suggested one way to further strengthen the impact of the program would be to include something that would allow students to reflect on their actions. Then participants could put into words what they were actually doing.

Pairing language with action helps you learn

For example, if a student’s Who Is NOBODY? project was collecting towels to donate to an animal shelter, they’d feel good. But if they pair language with action they’d understand that they exercised:

Initiative to knock on their neighbour’s door, explain their cause and ask for help

Empathy to stand in another living things shoes (or paws!) and try to understand what they’re going through

Courage to believe they could make a difference (rather than being a bystander)

Responsibility to support an animal shelter – something bigger than themselves

… and so on.

Asking Who Is NOBODY? participants to pair language with action helps them recognize the character attributes they exercised and connect their rewarding, exciting and fun experiences with taking initiative, feeling empathy, being courageous, taking on more responsibilities, etc. Then students have a deeper understanding of their actions and how to duplicate them.

This feedback inspired me to make character attribute stickers to include in the kit so students could choose which virtues most represented their project. The stickers are placed around their scrapbook story and pictures.

You can break the cycle of yo yo dieting

Next time you find yourself slipping into the yo yo dieting cycle – or any self-defeating cycle (dating, deadlines, down time …) press pause. Then use words to describe what you’re doing and where your choices are taking you. For instance, you may find yourself saying: “I’m doing this because I’m procrastinating.” Acknowledging your choices can help you short circuit the cycle and get back on track.



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When you pair language with action do you see a yo yo dieting pattern in your life?

Do you see other people around you yo yo dieting?