Weight loss is hard, but weight maintenance might be even harder. If you can relate to that sentence, you’re not alone. Yo-yo dieting (which doctors call weight cycling) is a frustrating yet common problem many people struggle with.
“The problem with yo-yo dieting is that it can wreak havoc on your metabolism,” says Candice Seti, PsyD, CPT, CNC, and owner of The Weight Loss Therapist. “When you lose weight, your metabolism can drop … This is your body’s normal response to the ‘famine’ you have created by going on a diet.”
Your metabolism is how your body converts food into energy, according to Dr. Seti, and it can speed up or slow down based on different factors. This is known as the resting metabolic rate, or RMR.
When your metabolism slows down during a diet, it burns fewer calories to support your body’s needs. An extreme diet is tough to sustain, and when you inevitably start eating more again, your metabolism doesn’t immediately jump back up to its previous speed.
“The weight you lost is much easier to regain and even harder to lose again,” says Dr. Seti. “This cycle only gets worse and worse the longer you continue to be an on-again, off-again dieter.”
If your weight is always inching down and then creeping back up again, here are the tips experts recommend to stop yo-yo dieting for good.
1. Find what’s best for Y-O-U.
“Do what’s best for you, not because your friend is doing it,” says Chelsey Amer, MS, RDN, CDN, virtual dietitian based in New York City and creator of CitNutritionally.com.
“Instead of following the fads (which don’t work!), figure out what works best for your body,” says Amer. “More often than not, this means balancing your plate with lean protein, an abundance of veggies, and whole grains to keep you full and satisfied.”
2. Check your mealtime habits.
Figuring out *why* you’re overeating can be empowering and help you tweak your habits. One possible cause is your dining environment. For example, think of how easy it is to polish off several servings of Doritos while watching your favorite TV shows. You zone out, hardly noticing how many chips you’ve crunched on or how full you are.
The following habits could help you eat more mindfully, according to Becky Kerkenbush, MS, RD-AP, CSG, CD, state representative for the Wisconsin Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics:
Don’t skip meals.
Use the MyPlate method to balance your meals.
Use the hunger scale to assess your appetite before, during, and after eating.
Eat in a relaxed environment with minimal distractions.
Give yourself 20 to 30 minutes to eat. (Here are benefits of eating more slowly.)
3. Resist the urge to label foods as “good” or “bad.”
“We know that what we restrict or avoid only becomes more tempting, so allowing ourselves to enjoy any food is critical to rejecting the diet mentality,” says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, at Street Smart Nutrition.
Instead of banning foods, Harbstreet suggests “for the most part” thinking. This means creating flexible guidelines for yourself such as “For the most part, I’ll choose water when I feel thirsty” as opposed to “I will no longer drink sweet tea.”
4. Take it slow.
A 2012 study by researchers at Harvard Medical School found that people using “diet products,” liquid diets, and fad diets were less likely to achieve 10 percent weight loss than those using traditional methods—i.e., changes to diet and exercise.
When the motivation hits and you want to lose weight fast, it’s an understandable urge to want to try the most efficient route. But severe restriction (or excessive exercise) rarely works in the long run.
“It is not uncommon for women to eat egg whites or a low-fat yogurt for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and then an entire sleeve of cookies when they get home from work,” says Melissa Groves, RDN, LD, dietitian specializing in women’s health. “Restricting what you eat is what sets you up for bingeing.”
That’s not to say you can’t eat egg whites or salad, but be smart about it: Make sure you have a good balance of protein, fats, and fiber with every meal. (Here are more salad mistakes you might be making.)
5. Find a holistic approach (and ditch the calorie counting).
You’ve probably heard someone say, “To lose weight, calorie intake needs to be lower than calorie expenditure. It’s that easy!” That might have some scientific truth to it, but energy balance is far more complex than a simple math equation.
“Traditional ‘diets’ don’t address the psychological components of overeating, obesity, and weight management problems,” says Farrah Hauke, PsyD, licensed psychologist in Scottsdale, AZ, and owner of ArizonaPsych.com.
Instead of simply counting calories, try enlisting professional help from someone who advocates for a holistic approach that nourishes your body, mind, and spirit, suggests Dr. Hauke. This might include improving how you talk to and think about yourself, and building up a support network to help you on your journey.
6. Be kind to yourself.
“My clients may not lose weight quickly or they may still overeat at times, but the most important thing they can do is forgive themselves and move on,” says Megan Keyser, MS, RD, LDN, founder of Full Living Nutrition.
In addition to making you feel rotten, beating yourself up can actually increase your cortisol levels, which can further make healthy choices difficult, according to Keyser. In fact, a 2014 study found that those with higher levels of perceived stress were more likely to gain weight within a five-year period. (Here are all the ways stress is making you gain weight.)
“Food is meant to be enjoyed, and we are only human,” says Keyser. “My clients learn to savor their food, indulge mindfully, and then get back to their life and all it has to offer.”