A while back at the eating disorder center where I worked, I met another wrestler who shares very similar experiences of weight cycling.
Both of us wrestled in highschool.
Part of wrestling culture is losing around 10 pounds before tournaments. So we’d both sweat, restrict, burn and meal skip our way to losing 10-15 pounds.
After the tournament my binge routine looked like this:
- Buy tons of candy
- Lock myself in my bedroom
- Eat until I couldn’t anymore
- Wake up feeling so sick and guilty
- Go to wrestling practice and see the scale bump up 10 or so pounds
- Repeat cycle
We both went through this weight loss and weight gain cycle for 4 years, during wrestling season.
Interesting, even when wrestling season ended I still would weight cycle. It seemed like even though I wasn’t ‘cutting weight’ my body would still fall into the same eating patterns.
This is what I mean by ‘weight cycling’ or yo yo dieting: the repeated loss and gain of 10+ pounds of weight.
Sadly, years later I’m now no longer binge and I’m working at an Eating Disorder Treatment Center and this other wrestler was a patient a while back.
I can’t help but feel odd.
Our places could have been so easily switched! Why him and not me?
He is still struggling with food. His whole life has been impacted.
I mean, you don’t go to an eating recovery treatment center in the wilderness unless something is desperately wrong.
But truth be told, I can easily see myself in the Eating Disorder Treatment Center had things gone differently!
Is Weight Cycling Harmful?
Let’s put ‘weight cycling’ in context.
The CDC found that 49.1% of Americans in 2013-2016 tried their hand at weight loss.
We know other studies show dieting results in weight gain for at least 66% of people, if not more!
So you do the math:
.66 x 49 = 32.33%
That’s basically 33% of Americans who ‘weight regain’. In other words, 33% who are yo yo dieting. That’s 33% of Americans who weight cycle.
Now what’s the science of weight cycling? It’s not good, but perhaps it’s not as bad as you might think too.
Here are three more recent, powerful science studies about weight cycling.
This long term body weight study says yes, weight cycling is associated significantly with your odds of early death.
Over 16,000 people took part in this study. Every two years the scientists followed up with each person.
People who went through more cycles of weight gain and weight loss had significantly more risk of developing fatal heart problems.
On the other hand, this Mayo Clinic study weight cycling may make you fat. But overall conclusion is ‘inconclusive’.
However, this Mayo Clinic study is a ‘meta-analysis’ study. A meta-analysis study generally looks at 30 individual studies and compiles their average results.
58% the studies in this meta-analysis study say there is an “association between weight cycling and increased weight and body fat”.
However, in scientific terms 58% is not enough to be considered conclusive.
So while the official Mayo Clinic line is yo yo dieting may contribute to long term weight gain, we know that the truth is probably closer to yes.
This study says weight cycling is associated with worse mental health and contributes to depression.
This is one of the first studies to look at the mental impact, like depression, of weight cycling.
If you’re wondering why other studies haven’t measured yo yo dieting and mental health, it’s because most of the past research focuses on health implications of weight loss and weight gain – but neglects the mental health piece.
Overall though, I believe the mental health case against weight cycling is the most conclusive, from a scientific standpoint.
So … Is Gaining And Losing Weight Bad For You?
I’m just going to go ahead and say it. Sure, some science says ‘inconclusive’.
But we all know the effects of weight cycling, constantly losing and gaining weight, are not good.
I just remember feeling dread. Knowing before I stepped on the scale exactly what I was going to see.
Knowing this next week I needed to try even harder to fight the war of weight loss and regain, but deep down knowing it was all hopeless.
I think back at my self-esteem, my self-worth, how weight gain caused my stomach to plummet.
No wait, screw self-esteem. Burning self-hatred was the air I breathed. I hated myself. Like at my core.
I was my worst enemy. No amount of arm twisting in wrestling practice could hurt me more than I hurt myself.
I never was good enough. Never. And I always, always, always needed to push myself harder. To go that extra mile.
These days when I see my wrestler-client-friend in treatment, I cannot help but feel some remorse.
It’s almost like survivor’s guilt. I feel bad because I made it.
I escaped these patterns when I became a monk. But what if I hadn’t become a monk? Would I still be trapped?
There’s no question in my mind that weight cycling is dangerous, both physically and mentally.
Three Additional Signs Your Weight Cycling Needs Treatment
Here are three additional signs that your weight cycling habits have gotten out of control.
In the video below I am interviewing Melanie Rogers, a registered dietitian with the largest group nutrition practice in New York City.
I ask Melainie, “How do you know the difference between disordered eating and an eating disorder?”
Melainie lists three signs which equally apply to men and women who are in losing and regaining weight:
- Frequency: You are losing control around food on a frequent basis.
- Amount: When you do lose control, you eat too much.
- Distress: When you lose control and eat too much, you feel very stressed, guilty, and/or embarrassed.
Now in reading this post, if you realize that you are weight cycling and want to stop please know there are many different options for help.
In this video here, for example, I review the top 10 treatment options for binge eating.
You can watch this video and make a more informed decision about which treatment option is best for you.
Perhaps most importantly, and the real intention behind this article …
Please simply be aware of your own weight cycling habits and how they impact you.
As Melainie Rogers mentions in the above video, most Americans have disordered relationships to food!
We obsess. We worry. And when we don’t lose weight, we blame ourselves. Think that we are somehow failing as people.
As if weight loss was a moral obligation and that a miserable life is our just punishment for not being perfect.
Perhaps the worst thing is confusion. We simply don’t know what direction to move towards.
One authority says lose weight this way while another health guru says weight loss is bad.
As you can see in the Mayo Clinic example, even great science can be ‘inconclusive’ and confusing!
My encouragement to you is simple:
Think about those three signs – frequency, amount and distress. Does this fit you?
If so, don’t worry, but keep your eyes open and your heart clear. Believe in yourself and your self worth. It doesn’t matter one iota if you don’t lose weight.
What matters is that you know your self-worth.