Kirstie Alley regained the 70-plus pounds she lost on Jenny Craig. Maureen "Marcia Brady" McCormick got even heavier after she was on Celebrity Fit Club. Oprah—well, we all know about her weight loss struggles. Janet Jackson, Kelly Clarkson...the list goes on and on.
It doesn't help that the statistics are grim: By some estimates, more than 80 percent of people who have lost weight regain all of it, or more, after two years. Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles analyzed 31 long-term diet studies and found that about two-thirds of dieters regained more weight within four or five years than they initially lost.
Women who want to lose weight know these painful numbers all too well. "I've been on a roller coaster for the past two years, " says Leigh Moyer, 31, of Philadelphia. In 2003, she lost 25 of her 155 pounds by diligently counting calories and logging daily sweat sessions at the gym. Four years later, busy with graduate school and her job at a software company, Leigh blew off her workouts and stopped monitoring her portions...and shot up to 175. "It was so sad, so frustrating, " she says. "I let myself down."
Along with the emotional toll is a physical one: Not only is the extra weight a health risk, but recent studies have linked the gain-lose-gain cycle to such potentially life-threatening conditions as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, depression, heart disease, and cancer.
Understanding Metabolic Math
While small fluctuations on the scale are normal, the unhealthy behavior that experts refer to as "weight cycling" is not. Cycling is defined as a significant increase or decrease of body weight (generally 10 pounds or more) that occurs multiple times.
Experts believe a yo-yo pattern is often the result of a diet that's too restrictive, and a study reported in the journal Obesity backs that up: It found that people who followed a very low-calorie diet regained significantly more weight than those on a more forgiving plan. Desperate for quick results in a culture of instant gratification, "women try to lose weight on diets with too few calories, " says Judith Beck, Ph.D., director of the Beck Institute of Cognitive Therapy and author of The Beck Diet Solution. "If you lose weight on 1, 200 calories a day, the minute you go up to 1, 300 is the minute you start gaining weight."
It happened to Tracy Srail. The 24-year-old from Atlanta has watched the scale bounce between 130 and 160 pounds for the past four years. "At one point, I was eating only one or two meals a day and chugging Rockstar energy drinks because I heard that caffeine increases your metabolism. I lost 15 pounds, but it didn't stick, " she says. "I weigh about 155 now."
Even on a sensible diet, your body sheds pounds reluctantly. "One reason it's difficult to keep weight off is because there is a metabolic overcompensation for weight loss, " says Gary Foster, Ph.D., director of the Center of Obesity Research and Education at Temple University in Philadelphia. "If you decrease your body mass by 10 percent, you would expect your metabolic rate to decrease by 10 percent, but it actually slows down more than that, by about 11 to 15 percent."
Why does your own metabolism thwart you? Simple, says Kelly Brownell, M.D., director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University: "The body may perceive dieting as a threat to its survival. It might not know the difference between Atkins and famine."
What's more, says Brownell, who coined the term "yo-yo dieting" in the 1980s, weight cycling can actually change your physiology. So the more diets you've been on, the harder it becomes to lose the weight. A hunger hormone called ghrelin increases, and a fullness hormone called leptin decreases, so you feel hungrier and less satiated.
Born to Rebound?
It's bad enough that your body fights you when you try to lose weight. Now there's compelling research to show that some people may be hardwired to yo-yo.