YOU YO-YO dieters know who you are. You might go on a diet in the fall in a burst of enthusiasm, lose 10 pounds by Thanksgiving and then gain it all back over the holidays. By New Year's Day you weigh as much or even more than you did in September.
You might try losing the same 10 pounds all over again, in time for swimsuit season, but this time the process is slower and you don't lose as much.
The Yo-Yo Syndrome generally refers to losing weight, regaining weight and losing it again--repeatedly. Each time you diet it seems harder to drop the pounds. And when you regain weight, you seem to regain it more quickly. It doesn't matter whether you're 10 to 15 pounds overweight or 30 to 40 pounds; the effect is the same.
The problem with repeated dieting is that, over the long run, it can wreak havoc on your body, not to mention the emotional frustration of repeated "failure."
"One thing yo-yoers have in common is that they often go on crash, fad diets" in an effort to lose weight quickly, says Dr. Neil Solomon, a Baltimore internist and endocrinologist who specializes in weight control. Solomon says the term "yo-yoing" was coined in 1962 at Johns Hopkins Hospital where he was studying a particular patient struggling with repeated weight losses over a year's time.
"Any time you go on a diet that's nutritionally unsound--that is, one that's not well-balanced and that has too few calories--your body thinks you're starving it" and reacts by slowing your metabolism, says Solomon. When you decide to stop dieting, your metabolic rate--the rate at which you burn calories--won't have recovered in time to handle the amount of food you're again burdening it with. So you easily regain the weight you lost and sometimes even more.
Exacerbating the situation is loss of muscle tissue, or lean body mass, says Patty Morgan, a registered dietitian and consultant on therapeutic dieting. "One of the most significant things contributing to a Yo-Yo Syndrome is that people diet in such a way that they don't preserve lean body mass," she says.
They adopt a very low calorie diet with too little protein and then fail to exercise--a guaranteed way to lose crucial muscle tissue, she says. When the diet ends and they resume their old habits of eating high-fat foods and avoiding exercise, they regain fat, not muscle. Their weight may be the same as before they began dieting, but the muscle-fat percentage has changed and they are literally "fatter."
Repeated bad dieting leads to a progressive loss of muscle. The less muscle you have, the less active your metabolism and the fewer calories you burn. It's a sadly repetitious process familiar to too many people.
A recent Gallup poll indicated that 31 percent of American women between 19 and 39 diet at least once a month and 16 percent consider themselves perpetual dieters. The overall recidivism rate for weight loss today is more than 90 percent, says Solomon. That means that fewer than 1 out of 10 dieters is able to keep the weight off.
Despite the metabolic effects of yo-yoing, failed dieters should not lose heart, says Morgan, who was a bit of a yo-yoer herself in younger days. "It doesn't mean you throw in the towel. It just means you diet sensibly and knowledgeably."
And, more significantly, it means you put as much effort into maintaining your new weight as you did in reaching it. Unfortunately, that's not what most struggling weight-watchers really want to hear.
"It's not as exciting to keep the weight off as it was in losing it," she says. "There's not as much motivation." But people have to learn to change their behavior permanently.
Morgan learned from personal experience. At 15 she weighed almost 200 pounds. A career in nutrition and some hard work at changing her attitudes about food have helped her lose weight and keep it off for the most part. Today, at 31, she weighs 130 and says she's only had two bouts with minor yo-yoing in the last 15 years.
"Weight management is not a temporary thing," she says. "If you want a different weight you have to change the behavior that's supporting your weight." That means changing the way you think about and behave around food as well as changing what you eat. Morgan is a frequent lecturer on weight management and nutrition at the GBMC Women's Resource Center and is program director for the hospital's Optifast program.
But behavior change is easier said than done. "Many people are willing to make changes to get the weight off, but then go right back to the lifestyle that they had before, or it creeps back over the course of several months," she says.
"Our society prefers a quick fix," says Lou Lyon, an exercise physiologist and director of the health fitness program at Mercy Hospital. "Even though it took you 20-some years to gain 30 or 40 pounds, you want to take it off fast."
But the best diet is a slow one in which you lose only 1 to 1 1/2 pounds a week, Lyon says. "The body adjusts to it in a slow manner so you don't lose muscle mass."
Just as important as your diet is exercise, he says. Not only does it help preserve your metabolic rate, allowing you to burn more calories, but it encourages the body to use up fat rather than muscle tissue as you lose weight.
Exercise becomes even more important as you age because your metabolic rate slows down naturally as you get older. In addition, your body produces a higher percentage of fat cells than muscle cells the older you get. Exercise works to inhibit both natural processes.