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Study Urges People to Think Twice Before Going on a Diet

photo shows a plate on a pink background. The plate has a frowny face drawn on it. A knife and fork rest on the plate.
Image credit: Thought Catalog.

For Immediate Release

Lynsey Romo

A new qualitative study highlights the negative interpersonal and psychological consequences associated with “yo-yo dieting,” also known as weight cycling. The work underscores how toxic yo-yo dieting can be and how difficult it can be for people to break 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.”

For the study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 36 adults – 13 men and 23 women – who had experienced weight cycling where they lost and regained more than 11 pounds. The goal was to learn more about why and how people entered the yo-yo dieting cycle and how, if at all, they were able to get out of it.

All the study participants reported wanting to lose weight due to social stigma 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.

The study participants also reported engaging in a variety of weight-loss strategies, which resulted in initial weight loss, but eventual regain.

Regaining the weight led people to feel shame and further internalize stigma associated with weight – leaving study participants feeling worse about themselves than they did before they began dieting. This, in turn, often led people to engage in increasingly extreme behaviors to try to lose weight again.

“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. “Individuals who were able to understand and address their toxic dieting behaviors were more successful at breaking the cycle. Strategies people used to combat these toxic behaviors included focusing on their health rather than the number on the scale, as well as exercising for fun, rather than counting the number of calories they burned.

“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.”

However, the researchers found the vast majority of study participants stuck in the cycle.

“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.”

The paper, “A Qualitative Model of Weight Cycling,” is published in the journal Qualitative Health Research. The paper was co-authored by Sydney Earl, a Ph.D. student at NC State; and by Mary Obiol, an undergraduate at NC State.


Note to Editors: The study abstract follows.

“A Qualitative Model of Weight Cycling”

Authors: Lynsey Romo, Sydney Earl, Katelin Mueller and Mary Obiol, North Carolina State University

Published: Jan. 25, Qualitative Health Research

DOI: 10.1177/1049732323122166

Abstract: Weight cycling is a likely consequence of striving to lose weight after internalizing body image ideals, making upward social comparisons, and experiencing weight stigma. Despite weight cycling’s potential physical and psychological consequences, the interplay of weight cycling, social pressures, and experienced and internalized stigma have not been qualitatively explored. Thus, through in-depth interviews of 36 weight-cycling adults, this study sought to understand how people negotiate weight cycling. Interviews informed the development of a qualitative model of weight cycling, which was derived from a theory-neutral inductive analysis. The model’s stages included entering the cycle, undergoing the cycle, and challenging the cycle. Participants were triggered to enter the cycle due to weight stigma caused by social pressures. Within the cycle, interviewees internalized weight stigma and engaged in disordered weight management behaviors. Some participants challenged the cycle by becoming more self-aware and mitigating their toxic dieting behaviors. However, it was very difficult, if not impossible, for many to fully exit weight cycling and the restraints of previous weight management thinking and patterns. Our investigation underscores the seriousness of weight cycling and suggests ways to combat weight cycling on both macro and individual levels. It may also be useful to consider weight cycling as disordered eating in hopes of shifting society’s dangerous focus on rapid weight loss.