Is It Better to Go On and Off Diets Than Not Diet at All?

The ups and downs of weight loss may not be so bad after all

Anyone who has tried Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers or any of the myriad get-slim programs is likely all-too-familiar with the highs and lows of dieting. As soon as the numbers on the scale come down, they seem to bounce right back up. When it comes to weight, the phrase, “what goes up must come down,” definitely does not hold true for most people.

And if you’ve been told once, you’ve been told 100 times: yo-yo dieting is bad for your health. While that may be true, new research suggests that “bad,” in this case, is relative. Turns out, you could be better of ricocheting between your scale’s highs and lows than not dieting at all.

Some yo-yo dieting mice may change opinions about how repeating the cycle of losing and gaining weight really affects your health. So far, researchers at Ohio University have found that the perils of being obese far outweigh the risks of going on and off diets. The research is pointing to the idea that yo-yo dieters are healthier and will live 25 percent longer than those who stay obese, and have better blood sugar.

According to the study’s lead author Edward List, Ph.D., a scientist at Ohio University's Edison Biotechnology Institute, the conventional wisdom on yo-yo dieting may prevent people from trying to lose weight. After all, what’s the point in fighting with your scale if its wild fluctuations are doing damage (not least of all to your self-esteem)?

"The new research shows that the simple act of gaining and losing weight does not seem detrimental to lifespan. I would hope that this encourages people to not give up," said List in a written statement.

Of course, past studies have found that yo-yo dieting does not improve overall health in everyone. While short-lived thinness could be better for obese people, it may not have the same benefits for people who are slightly overweight.

And then, there are the emotional repercussions.

Last year, another study on yo-yo dieting (also in mice), published in The Journal of Neuroscience, found stressed-out rodents with a history of dieting had a greater tendency to pig out on high-fat foods than similarly stressed mice that had never dieted. Researchers have known for some time that restrictive dieting is extremely stressful – to humans and mice alike. This study suggests that it may even reprogram how the brain reacts to stress and strengthen the emotional drive for food when faced with trying situations.

It’s no wonder then that a similar study (albeit this one in rats) found that repeated bouts of dieting and binging activated the brain's stress system and generated overeating, anxiety and withdrawal-like symptoms. In other words, the rats were acting like junkies who’d had their fix taken away from them. So while bouncing between a size 8 and a size 16 may be better for you than staying put in the plus sizes, it doesn’t really sound like that tempting of an existence.

The trick, of course, is to kick fad diets to the curb, and learn how to lose weight by adopting a healthy eating pattern where you don’t feel deprived. If you’re used to high-fat and high-sugar everything, then vegetables and whole grains are probably going to taste pretty damn insipid for awhile until your taste buds adjust.

A month ago, I slashed sweets from my diet. When I recently tried to eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s (which used to serve as a dinner substitute more times than I can recall), my throat ached from all the sugar. I made it halfway through the pint, because I was determined to eat my way out of a bad mood. Shocker: it didn’t work. Instead, I felt sick for the rest of the night. Hey, we all have our disastrous diet days. Instead of feeling badly about it, I realized anything that makes you feel that bad just can’t be good for the body. We just have to learn from bad food days, and be okay with ourselves if we falter. And if we gain a few pounds back that we worked so hard to lose, well, just congratulate yourself for keeping it off for that long. After all, it may just keep you around on this earth for a few extra years. If that gives us more time to spend with our loved ones, well, I’ll take that over a bucket of fries any day.

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