Dealing with overweight. Part 4: The story behind “yo yo dieting”

If you are not familiar with the phrase “yo yo dieting” it means the tendency to start a diet, often with great enthusiasm, to lose weight for a while, then to stop the diet and regain the weight lost, often ending up weighing even more than before starting the diet.  This sequence becomes a “yo yo” when it keeps happening, much like the child’s toy that keeps going up and down at the end of the yo-yo string.

This kind of experience is very, very common.  In fact, it is probably more the rule than the exception for most people who find themselves having to work at trying to control their weight.  There are several factors that bring this frustrating yo yo pattern into our lives.  I will describe them so you can avoid them.  The first is the ubiquitous presence of diet fads in books, on TV, on the internet, etc.  These fads have a sort of life of their own.  They are born, grow, reach a peak and die out.  I will describe for you what could be called “The life cycle of fad diets.”

Most diet fads are very unusual modifications of the way we usually eat.  They usually greatly limit the foods allowed and have timing rules about what you can eat when.  They are often well marketed and may have celebrities helping to promote them.  If they are strange enough or restricted enough, they will almost always produce significant weight loss — for a period of time.  They usually promise dramatic weight loss which raises the expectations of those interested in them and, for a while, especially when they first appear on the scene, there are reports and testimonials circulating about how effective they are.  The initial effectiveness helps them become very popular, but over time they don’t live up to expectations.  Usually, about several years later, they are gone.  A list of past diet fads would be quite long indeed!  They all go through this cycle, some last longer than others, but very few are based on sound nutritional principles.

These fads have a couple very unhelpful consequences.  First, they raise expectations about how fast a person can successfully lose weight and still keep their loss going.  Most people have a very unrealistic idea of how quickly one can lose and keep it off. This sets people up for “yo yoing.”  The peculiar and un-physiologic fad diets, if they work at all, cause taste fatigue and get quite boring.  They also often cause a degree of malnutrition that the body will only tolerate for a while.  Ironically, the more effectively they cause rapid weight loss, the less likely they are to be continued (this is a good thing, since too rapid weight loss can be fatal).  The second consequence is frustration on the part of the initially enthusiastic dieter who, after succumbing to the taste fatigue and the malnutrition, stops the diet and feels physically spent due to the poor nutrition his body has endured.  The yo yo pattern is quite discouraging; usually people eventually just give up completely.

There are two solutions to this problem.  First, be sure your expectations are realistic for what you are trying to do.  Second, understand what your body needs so you do not allow  yourself to become malnourished while you are trying to promote your long term health.  This article will help you with the first goal.  The rest of the articles in this series are designed to help you with the much more difficult second goal.

What, then, are realistic goals?  What I am about to tell you is based on about twenty five years of experience treating thousands of people, many for long periods of time.  Listen carefully and take it to heart.

The heaviest people can lose the fastest.  As a point of reference, let’s place people that weigh twice as much or more compared to ideal, in this somewhat arbitrary “heaviest” group.  When first starting a new weight loss strategy they can lose a lot of water for a month or even two, but long term they can rarely exceed about 6 pounds per month.  What?  Six pounds per month!  Am I crazy?  What about all those super diets that promise 10 pounds in a week?  I hope I have answered that question already.

Now, what about an intermediate group, I will define this group, again somewhat arbitrarily, at less than twice their normal weight for height, but still more than about 30 or 40% over their ideal.  This is the group I most frequently treat.  They can expect about four pounds to be lost per month.  Some do a little better and some don’t do this well, no matter how hard they try.  This is an average which has a long term view built in.  There are very, very rare individuals that can significantly exceed this rate and keep it of, but not very many.  This is what you can reasonably accomplish and still keep going and going without getting yourself into problems and having to quit.  This also implies that when you start in a heavier group and lose successfully, your rate of weight loss will slow as your weight comes down.  This is the way your body responds to weight loss.  It is built that way to survive periods of starvation.

The last group is the mildly overweight people (but they often don’t see themselves as mildly overweight, though).  They are fairly close to ideal weight and their degree of overweight usually does not cause health problems.  These folks can generally expect to lose only one or two pounds per month if they are to maintain what they accomplish.  This requires a lot of patience!  It is also easy to misinterpret what your bathroom scale is telling you when you are losing weight this slowly, since you can easily gain or lose three or four pounds of water in just one day.  But if you get impatient and try to lose faster, you run the risk of starting the yo yo pattern I just described.

The unrealistic expectations of how much weight can be successfully lost AND MAINTAINED is probably the major cause of failure for people trying to reduce their body weight.  If you are in this group with unrealistic expectations, readjust your sights and you will be in a much better position to succeed.  I will restate this as a maxim for easier recall.

  • Unrealistic expectations about what is a reasonable rate of weight loss almost eliminates the chance of long term success.

There is another source of unrealistic ideas concerning weight loss that I will be discussing in the next article: the role of exercise in a weight control program.

Finally, here is a little bit of an interim summary that includes this article and the others we have covered so far:

  1. You need to understand that successful weight loss is a long term endeavor (life long).
  2. Your goals need to be realistic in their expected speed of accomplishment.
  3. Your long term food plan must be based on sound nutritional guidelines (much more to come on this).
  4. You must have a plan tailored to your specific needs, your likes and your realistic goals (also much more to come on how to do this).

Please place any comments or questions below.

Wishing good health to all,


About Chuck Gebhardt

I am a physician specializing in internal medicine. I sub-specialize in nutritional medicine. I am very interested in all areas of healing research, not necessarily limited to traditional medicine topics.
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4 Responses to Dealing with overweight. Part 4: The story behind “yo yo dieting”

  1. Oldooz says:

    I really enjoy reading your blogs. Your writing style makes it VERY easy for my mind to follow what you write.

    Looking forward to the next article,

    • Thanks for your kind comments, Oldooz.

      It really feels good to be able to put this information out on the web for others to see. I have long felt that what I am learning from my patients would be very useful for many others who struggle with similar issues. Of course, I also feel this way about many of the other articles I have posted. This blog seems to be the answer for me to get these ideas out and see if they will be as helpful as I imagine them to be. Only time will tell the whole story, but nicely expressed support like yours, Oldooz, sure is encouraging!


  2. hunkasebnest says:

    I am a former special education teacher and I wrote a children’s picture book that tackles the issue of childhood obesity. Hunka Chunka Monkey Shapes Up entertains children without being preachy. It places a simple truth as a foundation in their hearts… cut back on their favorite snack, become active and make new friends.

    Chris Powell of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition reads my book to his children every night. He stated on his FaceBook, “The kids are requesting Hunka Chunka Monkey Shapes Up for their bedtime story tonight….AGAIN! This is the third in a row, but I love it. What a great message of healthy living for children:). Nicely done, Sam E Bromley!” Chris’s wife, Heidi Powell, used such words as ‘amazing’ and ‘brilliant’ when describing my story! I am excited about getting this message out. You can go to and type in my book’s name: Hunka Chunka Monkey Shapes Up and see a brief message about my story! Please pass this on for all to see and partner with me and let us stop the obesity problem in America by encouraging the very young to skip, run and jump their way to a better life and a better future!

    Sam E Bromley

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