Yo-yo dieting is a term that has recently been coined to describe weight cycling, which is the process of continually gaining and losing weight through dieting. The term yo-yo dieting came into play to describe diets that continually raise and lower calories drastically in an effort to achieve the aesthetic goals of an individual, which resembles the up-down motion of a yo-yo.
Dieting in the health and fitness industry is often categorized by “bulking” and “cutting” phases. “Cutting” is a simple idea of lowering calories and increasing cardio to create a calorie deficit within the body. This calorie deficit will force the body to use stored body-fat as an energy source and result in lowering overall body-fat levels. “Bulking” is a term used to describe a state of calorie surplus with the goal of packing on muscle mass.
Bulking can be done using two methods; “clean bulking” and “dirty bulking”. Clean bulking is a technique that incorporates clean, nutrient dense foods with the goal of increasing lean muscle mass while minimizing fat gain. Dirty bulking refers to the technique of eating all foods including junk foods in an effort to put on muscle mass without concern for adding unnecessary body-fat throughout the process.
Yo-yo dieting takes these two stages of dieting to an extreme. Although adjusting calories to create a calorie surplus and calorie deficit is necessary to increase lean muscle mass and decrease body-fat levels in most cases, yo-yo dieting presents numerous downsides with minimal benefits. The body is capable of adding excess body-fat at a much greater rate than it is able to put on lean muscle mass. Muscle is able to be added at a rate of anywhere between .5-2 pounds per month, while body-fat gains can be practically unlimited based on calorie inputs compared to calorie outputs.
Because of this human characteristic it is common to see people ruin long periods of strenuous dieting in a matter of days when switching to a bulking phase by going directly from dieting extremes to bulking extremes. Although muscle mass will be gained during a calorie surplus assuming the training is intense and the body is being continually pushed, this continual process of long strenuous dieting followed by desperate attempts to pack on unrealistic amounts of muscle mass during a bulking phase lead to minimal aesthetic improvements.
Long-Term Health Risks
Not only will yo-yo dieting increase frustration due to not reaching your health and fitness goals, it could also be contributing to higher risks of serious health issues. Yo-yo dieting can potentially lead to a higher risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. The extreme ends of dieting and bulking are where potentially serious health issues can arise.
During a period of an excessive calorie surplus, especially using the “dirty bulk” method, the body is often exposed to significantly higher levels of processed sugars and saturated fats which increase the risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The less common know fact is that maintaining an extreme calorie deficit during a diet can have significant risks of developing heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
Being on an extreme calorie deficit can put the body under high levels of stress which increases the release of the stress hormone, cortisol. Increased cortisol levels lead to decreased immune function, weight gain, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and increased risk of heart disease.
Dieting the Right Way
The key to avoiding the frustration and health concerns that accompany the yo-yo dieting method lies in the ability to be patient. Manipulation of calories is a must when trying to lose body-fat or gain lean muscle mass. However, decreasing or increasing calories by small increments over long periods of time will allow for healthy changes in body composition that will be more permanent. When dieting, weight loss should not exceed more than 1-2 pounds per week. During bulking, gaining weight is a much slower process that should not exceed roughly .5-1 pound per week if lean mass is the desired result. Although this method requires a high level of patience, it ensures that overall health remains a focus, and that the results will be able to be maintained long-term.
The second key part of dieting to improve aesthetics is the transition between dieting and bulking phases. Body-fat percentage and lean muscle mass at the beginning of a fitness journey will determine which phase you should start with. As a general rule bulking should not take place if body-fat levels exceed 12-15 percent for men and 15-20 percent for women. Unless you are a physique competitor planning to step on stage, dieting below 7-8 percent for men and 10-12 percent for women is not necessary and may become stressful or harmful to the body. With these general guidelines and the habits of many aesthetic minded individuals a transition between dieting and bulking can take place up to 2-3 times per year, which makes these transitions crucial.
The idea of “reverse-dieting” is key to the transition between dieting and bulking to ensure that your hard earned progress is not lost. Reverse-dieting is a method used to recover from a calorie deficit by slowly increasing your metabolism in an effort to bring calorie consumption back up to and above maintenance level without gaining excess body-fat.
A successful reverse-diet will allow you to increase your metabolism at the same or greater rate than you are increasing your calories which leads to being able to eat more food while maintaining the body-fat levels you were able to achieve through dieting. This gradual increase in calories should take at least half of the time it took to diet. For example if you start your diet at 2,500 calories and diet for 12 weeks ending at 1,800 calories a reverse diet to get back to 2,500 calories from 1,800 calories should take no less than 6 weeks.
This process is often the hardest part of a diet. At the conclusion of the dieting phase it is easy to splurge and quickly add in a large amount of calories since you have been depriving the body of calories. However, if you are able to have the self-control to adhere to a well-designed reverse-diet the results will speak for themselves.