DRAMATIC FLUCTUATING CYCLES IN BODYWEIGHT, OR “YO-YO DIETING” IS CONSIDERED UNHEALTHY BY EXPERTS.
As a rich and powerful woman, Oprah Winfrey has a lot that most people want. Money, fame, control of a media empire, and hair – ever changing, often supplemented.
But no one envies Oprah for being the poster celebrity for yo-yo dieting. The talk show host’s weight has fluctuated, repeatedly, over the last twenty years between 160 and 237 pounds, and not an ounce has escaped media attention – including on her iconic television show and in her magazine.
Dramatic loss-regain cycles in bodyweight is dangerous, according to the research of Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Dr. Brownell first coined the phrase “yo-yo dieting” when he found that laboratory rats cycling through loss-regain episodes tended to put on weight faster and have a harder time losing it again the next time through. Other ill effects can include an increased risk in gallstones for men, as rapid weight loss increases cholesterol concentration in the bile, as identified by research on 25,000 men who had fluctuating weight over 14 years. (Tsai, et al, Archives of Internal Medicine)
It’s no small wonder that western culture fosters the yo-yo phenomena. The media is packed with stories and advertisements on dieting and weight loss tricks (um, this website too, although we try to focus on long-term, healthy lifestyle habits over fads). And the same media is packed with reviews of restaurants, recipes for comfort food, and advertisements for products that help us pack on the weight we’re trying to lose. We go to gyms for exercise, yet avoid walking and physical labor in all kinds of ways. A product sold this year is the Topsy-Turvy tomato grower, which television commercials tell us averts “back-breaking work!” of gardening.
The irony is lost on many.
The problem with rapid weight loss
For the person who yo-yos, how do they break the cycle? Susan Grober, a clinical psychologist at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa, told the New York Daily News that the underlying factor is unrealistic expectations. People have a fixed idea of what they weigh and look like, even if their natural physiology doesn’t accommodate it. This is exacerbated by technology: most of the celebrities and magazine cover models don’t truly look like their pictures – even before digital editing, model’s images were always enhanced.
Chasing what is often not even possible, the yo-yo dieter embarks upon an “unlivable eating plan,” says Grober. This is where the diet is a radical departure from what the individual was eating previously, from snacks and convenience meals to Spartan soups low-calorie fruit (e.g., grapefruit) or vegetables (e.g., cabbage, celery and undressed lettuce). With a significant calorie reduction – for some people this is as much as 80% less when dieting – the pounds do come off, but with unintended consequences.
In other words, losing weight is easy. Keeping it off is the hard part.
The goal is not about looking good in two or three months. It’s to look and feel good in five, ten and 20 years, and to have an extended lifespan beyond that. Therefore, the changes you make to achieve weight loss necessarily need to be sustainable and permanent.
Which suggests a change in structure. How you think about food, and your cooking skills – meals made outside of the home average 55 percent more calories than those made in. The best way to do this is record on paper what you’re eating currently. Then, check the list for the worst nutritional offenses – 10 a.m. muffins, perhaps, or full-sugar sodas throughout the day – then come up with smarter substitutions.
Structure your physical life differently as well. If you engage very little physical activity, or your gym routine is the same as it was a year ago, you need to rethink that. Every day optimally includes 10,000 walking steps, which for most people is in excess of three miles. Everyone but the exercise-converted fails at this.
Here’s an inside tip from someone who works in the fitness industry: We quietly chuckle about the people who routinely ride a stationary bike or walk on a treadmill for, say 30-45 minutes three to five times a week – often while reading a book. If you’ve done this for more than a month, the muscle gains from this exercise were made long ago. You are burning some calories, for sure, just not very many. The trick to increasing your metabolism is to challenge other muscles in new and different ways – and the quickest way to do that is to change your routine. Take a new class at your gym, or, do seasonal yard and housework. If you’re sore from washing windows, great – it means you’ve made new muscles work hard, causing muscular development, which affects your metabolism.
Restructure – no need for counting
Crash dieters generally operate off numbers such as calorie, carbohydrate or fat gram counts, making meals seem like a math or science equation. Switching to a healthier structure is more likely to stop the yo-yo.
What is that structure? To start, eat more fruits and vegetables in any forms (frozen, dried, fresh, raw or cooked) – naturally eliminates calories by filling you up on fiber and water. A friend subscribed to a farmer’s coop a few summers ago, putting more vegetables on her plate than she had ever eaten previously. Without conscious effort, she lost 12 pounds in three months.
Change your gym routine or other physical activities in your workaday life, and similar things result. If you’re feeling sore from walking or housecleaning or new workouts, great! Soreness (not pain from injury) is a measure of exercise success, increasing muscle mass that raises metabolism.
It might not make you rich and famous, but finding a way to manage weight over the long term certainly will get you noticed.