Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Ups and downs? Not all is lost, yo-yo dieters (a.k.a. 'weight cyclers')

Is it better to have lost weight and regained it than never to have lost it at all?

If you're a chronic dieter, a yo-yoer, a "weight cycler," the short answer is probably yes.

If the weight loss is healthy — done slowly with nutritious foods, plenty of exercise and the right attitude — you'll still benefit in the long run, says Weight Watchers chief scientific officer Gary Foster.

All that stuff you've heard or imagined over the years — that the fat moves from your butt to your belly, that you'll regain more weight every time you give up on a diet, that you're better off just giving in to the weight than trying over and over again? "It's all mythology," Foster says.

Yes, you'll see articles that say otherwise, but the studies they cite are usually inconclusive. When you find five different studies that say five different things, it's the quality of the studies that matters, says Foster, a psychologist who has spent his career researching weight loss and obesity.

Most of that bad stuff that's happening to you — how you look and feel inside and out — is from being overweight. It's not from trying to stop being overweight, he says. "There's no adverse effects from that."

Of course, every weight-loss effort isn't healthy. And that's where weight cyclers run into trouble, says Maurice Bonilla, a board-certified doctor of bariatric medicine based in Tampa.

"It depends on the diet," he says. A medical plan designed and monitored by a skilled physician is safer than a fad that depends on some magical ingredient — grapefruit, cabbage, cookies, baby food — and excludes everything else. And yet desperate dieters tend to latch onto that next big thing, hoping for quick and easy results.

And here's what happens.

If you aren't getting enough protein and other nutrients: A nutrition deficiency in your daily diet can cause symptoms that range from unpleasant (a change in your skin or hair texture) to serious (bone, muscle or hair loss) to dangerous (a compromised immune system).

If you're losing too fast: When you drop weight too quickly, you may not be losing as much fat as you hoped, and you might be losing lean tissue. Your body will slow its metabolism to reserve incoming calories. And you could even damage your heart, kidneys and other organs. (The Mayo Clinic recommends that any rapid weight-loss program be monitored by a physician.)

If you're overdoing it with your workout: Too much exercise and too little nutrition puts your body in starvation mode. It makes losing harder, and you'll feel irritable and fatigued.

These dieting downsides not only make you less healthy, counteracting the reason many of us want to lose the weight to begin with, but they also contribute to the rebound that makes us so miserable.

And make no mistake, weight-loss success isn't just a physical thing. Emotions play a major role.

"We let ourselves down when we fall off the wagon, and we beat ourselves up," says Madeira Beach-based certified fitness trainer, weight-loss coach and nutrition specialist Debbi Doughty-Lewis. Anger, disappointment, embarrassment — she has seen the full range of emotions from clients who have slipped — and as a former weight cycler, she has experienced them herself.

There's also fear.

"People think when they're trying to lose weight, they have to give up their whole life," Doughty-Lewis says. But they can go and have just as much fun in the real world, at parties, on vacation, at a ball game. It takes some time to realize it, she says, "But food really is a small part of it."

Foster says people often develop an all-or-nothing attitude about losing, or make weight a moral issue that requires blame and punishment.

An extremely regimented approach may work in the short-term, he says. "But it's only going to take one slip or two, and all hell's going to break loose and you're going to end up right back where you were."

It's one of the reasons Weight Watchers is putting less emphasis on what the scale says and more on NSVs, or "non-scale victories": Your favorite jeans fit. You didn't have to ask for a seat belt extender on the plane. Or maybe you finally got down on the floor with your grandkids … and got back up.

"Those, in fact, are the most important benefits of a weight-loss journey," Foster says. "Not that I got below 200 today. That number is meaningless in itself. It's what that change in weight and change in lifestyle does for people."

Which is why most weight-loss doctors, dietitians and fitness advocates say it is better to lose, regain and lose again — if the ups and downs aren't extreme — than to give up and stick to an unhealthy weight.

Of course, it's their business to say so. But the argument is sound when applied to most people. As long as you can maintain that healthier weight, even if it's only half the loss you had hoped for, you're more likely to keep your blood pressure and blood sugar under control, cholesterol usually improves and sleep apnea often goes away, among other perks, Bonilla says. Even if the loss doesn't last, those good years will have benefited you in the long run.

You'll also be happier with yourself when you put on clothes that fit and look in the mirror, which, if nothing else, means you'll have one less thing to fret about every day, Doughty-Lewis says. For those who regularly battle their bulge — whether it's 10 to 20 pounds that keep sneaking back or a more serious problem with weight gain — that's no small thing.

"I think the science is pretty clear," Foster says. "(Every organ system in the body) is adversely affected by excess body weight. There's not an exception.

"Once you have that knowledge, you have to say, okay, if I can decrease my risk by decreasing my weight, and I don't have the guarantee that it will stay off forever, would I still do it? I think the answer is a clear yes."

There's also a case to be made for good old-fashioned optimism.

Everybody has a "set point," Bonilla says, a level of weight the body wants to maintain. It takes the body about two years to adjust to a lower weight, and during that stretch, you're going to struggle to lose and maintain.

It's why so many people plateau in the sixth to eighth week of weight loss, he says. Your body is comfortable at that old weight and it wants it back.

But if you can make it past that two-year point, you'll struggle less. And if you can maintain your goal weight for five years, you can be pretty sure your body will reset to that new weight, Bonilla says.

That doesn't mean you can retire to your recliner with a big bag of chips and a liter of soda, however.

Your weight-loss doctor is going to want you to check in occasionally. Your Weight Watchers leader is going to urge you to stick with the program. Your trainer is going to insist you keep showing up for workouts.

But you might be able to relax just a little and maybe consider the cycle broken.

Contact Kim Franke-Folstad at

7 tips to maintaining

a healthier weight

For many weight cyclers, maintenance is as tough, if not tougher, than losing. We asked three weight-loss experts — physician Maurice Bonilla, trainer Debbi Doughty-Lewis and Weight Watchers chief scientific officer and psychologist Gary Foster — for advice on how to keep the weight off once you reach your goal.

1 You're a smaller person. Eat like one. Don't go back to eating like the person you were, Bonilla says. Determine the correct number of calories for a person your height, preferred weight and age. (You can find a calorie calculator online at Or, if you're in the Weight Watchers program, find out how many points you can add to your daily intake without going overboard.

2 Keep your focus. If you're prone to slipping, it's likely because you're not making your health a priority, Doughty-Lewis says. If you need motivation, put up a photo of yourself looking fabulous in a bikini or little black dress. (And don't hang on to your "fat clothes," she warns.)

3 Don't skip your workout. Exercise is a crucial part of weight loss, and all three of our experts agree that it's just as important to maintenance. Muscle tissue burns more calories — even when you're at rest — than body fat. Doughty-Lewis recommends including weight training in your workout and changing it up for a challenge so you don't get bored.

4 Don't let a slip become a slide. Everybody messes up. Don't let one bad decision lead to a binge. If you're a snacker, be prepared with sensible treats, including fruits and vegetables. If you like to dine out, check out the menu in advance for your best options.

5 Weigh yourself regularly. Some studies, including a brand-new one from the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, have found that stepping on the scale daily helps keep weight off. Doughty-Lewis prefers once or twice a week, always on the same day or days.

6 Keep your support system going. Stick with the people who "knew you when." They'll keep you accountable.

7 Ask yourself "Is it worth it?" Is that slice of pie worth the calories or points? Is that TV show worth skipping your workout? Probably not, but you may need this mantra for a reminder, Foster says. And if it is worth it, he says, give it your full attention and savor every moment.

Ups and downs? Not all is lost, yo-yo dieters (a.k.a. 'weight cyclers') 09/01/17 [Last modified: Saturday, September 2, 2017 1:20am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Mueller casts broad net in requesting extensive records from Trump White House


    WASHINGTON — The special counsel investigating Russian election meddling has requested extensive records and email correspondence from the White House, covering the president's private discussions about firing his FBI director and his response to news that the then-national security adviser was under …

    In a photograph provided by the Russian foreign ministry, President Donald Trump meets with Sergei Lavrov, left, the Russian foreign minister, and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, May 10, 2017. Special counsel Robert Mueller is interested in this meeting, where Trump said dismissing FBI Director James Comey had relieved "great pressure" on him, the New York Times reported on Sept. 20. [Russian Foreign Ministry via  New York Times]
  2. 'We will find our island destroyed': Hurricane Maria demolishes Puerto Rico


    SAN JUAN — Sleepless Puerto Ricans awoke Wednesday knowing to expect a thrashing from the most ferocious storm to strike the island in at least 85 years. They met nightfall confronting the ruin Hurricane Maria left behind: engorged rivers, blown-out windows, sheared roofs, toppled trees and an obliterated electric …

    Rescue vehicles from the Emergency Management Agency stand trapped under an awning during the impact of Hurricane Maria, after the storm  hit the eastern region of the island, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. The U.S. National Hurricane Center says Maria has lost its major hurricane status, after raking Puerto Rico. But forecasters say some strengthening is in the forecast and Maria could again become a major hurricane by Thursday. [Carlos Giusti | Associated Press]
  3. Obamacare repeal bill offers flexibility and uncertainty


    The latest Republican proposal to undo the Affordable Care Act would grant states much greater flexibility and all but guarantee much greater uncertainty for tens of millions of people.

  4. Manafort offered to give Russian billionaire 'private briefings' on 2016 campaign, report says


    Less than two weeks before Donald Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination, his campaign chairman offered to provide briefings on the race to a Russian billionaire closely aligned with the Kremlin, the Washington Post reports.

    Paul Manafort, then Donald Trump's campaign chairman, talks to reporters on the floor of the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. [Associated Press]
  5. Tampa girl, 4, dies of gunshot reaching for candy


    TAMPA — One day last week, 4-year-old Yanelly Zoller reached into her grandmother's purse looking for candy, her father says.

    Yanelly Zoller, also known as Nelly, snuggles with her grandfather’s dog, Venus. “She loved to help daddy work on the car,” her father, Shane Zoller, 22, said.