The “damaging” effects of yo-yo dieting have been highlighted by researchers who say that dieting for non-medical reason can set people up for “years of shame”.

The findings have prompted those behind the study to recommend that most people should avoid dieting unless it is medically necessary.

A team from North Carolina State University carried out in-depth interviews with 13 men and 23 women who tend to yo-yo diet – known as weight cycling – which saw them lose and regain more than 11 pounds.

The aim was to find out more about the reasons why people yo-yo diet and where applicable, how they stop.

Corresponding author Lynsey Romo, an associate professor of communication at the university, said of their findings: “Ultimately, this study tells us that weight cycling is a negative practice that can cause people real harm.

“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.”

Every person interviewed in the study reported that they did not start dieting for health reason but rather because they felt social pressure to lose weight, including the social stigma attached to weight or because they compared their weight to peers or celebrities.

The participants also revealed that when they regained the lost weight, they felt ashamed and worse than they did before trying to lose weight.

These feelings often resulted in extreme behaviours as participants sought to lose the weight again.

Associate Professor Romo explained: “For instance, many participants engaged in disordered weight management behaviours, such as binge or emotional eating, restricting food and calories, memorising 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.

“Inevitably, these diet behaviours became unsustainable, and participants regained weight, often more than they had initially lost.”

Co-author of the study Katelin Mueller said the result was the participants became fixated with losing weight, saying: “Almost all of the study participants became obsessed with their weight.

“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.”

Associate Professor Romo went on to say: “Participants who were more successful at challenging the cycle were also able to embrace healthy eating behaviours – 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.

“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 normalised as people pursue beauty ideals.

“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.”

Read the study in Qualitative Health Research.

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