If losing weight feels more like being a yo-yo than a ball rolling down a gentle hill, then you might want to rethink your approach.
A new study found that people whose weight fluctuated in the first few months of a weight loss program lost less weight over the long run, compared to people with more consistent week-by-week progress.
The Drexel University researchers suggested that this may help identify people early on who need extra support in meeting their weight loss goals.
The dangers of regaining weight that’s been lost is nothing new to health professionals.
“If you’re yo-yoing, that is a clear signal or red flag that it’s about something more than the food you eat and the exercise you’re engaging in, that there are probably ingrained patterns of behavior that we need to look at changing in order for it to stick long term,” said Eliza Kingsford, a licensed psychotherapist and author of “Brain-Powered Weight Loss,” who wasn’t involved in the study.
Yo-yo dieting leads to less success
In the study, published August 28 in the journal Obesity, researchers followed 183 people participating in a year-long behavioral weight loss program.
Researchers found that people whose weight fluctuated more during the first 6 or 12 months lost less weight after one and two years.
For example, people who lost four pounds in one week, regained two the next, and then lost one the next and so on, did more poorly than people who lost one pound each week for the first six months.
While weight variability over the first six months predicted long-term success, researchers found that the 12-month variability was less affected by other factors.
All volunteers were given goals to focus on during the program, such as monitoring their habits, progress, and calorie intake, while also increasing their physical activity.
The first six months of the program focused on weight loss, with weekly small group sessions. The final six months shifted toward maintaining the weight, with less frequent sessions.
People who reported higher binge eating, emotional eating, and preoccupation with food at the beginning of the study showed higher weight variability and lost less weight after one or two years.
This suggests that weight variability is a better predictor of long-term success than a person’s relationship with food.
The researchers pointed out that the study doesn’t show that weight variability causes poorer weight loss outcomes. But it may help target people who aren’t benefitting from a particular weight loss program — before they’ve spent a year trying to lose weight.
Other research has also found that early success in a weight loss program predicts long-term results. But these studies looked at the percent change in rather than how much a person’s weight jumps around week by week.
Although losing ten pounds in the first week can be a big boost of motivation for many people, it may not matter in the long run if your weight yo-yos the rest of the time.
A dramatic example of this comes from a 2016 Obesity study, in which researchers followed 14 people who participated in the “Biggest Loser” competition.
Over the course of the 30-week show, people lost on average 129 pounds each. But six years later, all but one had regained most of their weight — on average, 90 pounds each.
Developing sustainable weight loss
Kingsford told Healthline that while doing things like severely restricting your calories or ditching carbs may give you dramatic upfront weight loss results, they don’t make sense if you want lifelong success.
“Research supports — and will continue to support — the types of behavior changes that are sustainable long term,” said Kingsford. “Of course, these don’t lead to results that are nearly as sexy as losing 10 pounds in a week.”
Sexy or not, sustainable is good if you want to keep the weight off.
One way to approach weight loss sustainably, said Kingsford, is by setting goals that you can actually achieve.
For example, if your approach to weight loss involves running, and you’re currently running one mile, three times a week, the next step needs to be doable. That might mean running 2 miles on one or two of those days, not jumping straight to 10 miles, six times a week.
This approach also provides positive reinforcement for your goal-setting “muscles.”
“The more you set and achieve goals,” said Kingsford, “the more you will be able to set and achieve goals.”
Looking at your food triggers is another sustainable weight loss solution.
Do you eat when you’re bored, stressed, or happy? Do you go out every Friday night with your coworkers out of habit? Do you automatically reach for a bag of pretzels when you sit down to watch your favorite television show?
“Take a look at your current patterns of behavior around food and figure out what those triggers are, be it positive or negative triggers,” said Kingsford. “Then systematically look at changing those patterns of behavior based on the knowledge of the triggers.”
This approach to weight loss isn’t for everyone, though, especially with so many ads popping up online for “sexy” weight loss options.
But many people burn out from always trying the latest diet or the next cool workout.
“People eventually come to me saying: I’m tired of dieting, I’m tired of yo-yoing, I’m tired of being unsuccessful,” said Kingsford. “They get to the point of knowing this is about something more than just food and exercise.”