Up. Down. Repeat. Watching the numbers on the scale fluctuate can make your head spin. Yo-yo dieting is a vicious cycle that doesn't just jeopardize appearance—it can take a toll on your wellbeing, too.
Yo-yo dieters often feel helpless, stressed, and frustrated. "It's a lot of mental anguish. And it sets people up for failure," says Madelyn Fernstrom, founding director of the UPMC-University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center and author of The Real You Diet. Researchers aren't sure whether yo-yo dieting damages the body in addition to exacting an emotional toll. Does yo-yoing harm your heart by raising blood pressure and triglycerides, as some studies have hinted? Can it make subsequent weight-loss efforts more difficult or even futile? Could it hasten death? Maybe, maybe not. "It's a mixed bag right now," says Kelly Brownell, who studies yo-yo dieting and heads up Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
What experts do know is that being overweight heightens the risk of a long list of health issues like heart problems, type 2 diabetes, liver and gallbladder disease, certain cancers, and even premature death. If you're overweight, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your current weight can help stave off some diseases. Eating right and sweating more are always must-do's. These tips can help you take control of your weight—once and for all.
1. Recalibrate. For at least a moment, forget about wanting to lose X pounds in a week. Your goal should be getting healthy, says Fernstrom. If you're overweight, adopting any sound diet and exercise plan will almost certainly help you slim down. (See our Best Diets rankings.) Just be sure to start when you know you can commit long-term, says Brownell.
2. Identify your motivation. Especially at first, dieting and exercising can feel nothing short of excruciating. Motivation is key to success. "That is the No. 1 most important thing," says Judy Caplan, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. List out why you want to get healthy, and refer to those reasons during moments of weakness.
3. Set realistic goals. For a woman who's 20 pounds overweight, a goal of losing two pounds a month is probably too easy. Two pounds a day? Too tough. Find something in between. "Really the bottom line is to choose a weight that is realistic for you with moderate effort, not heroic effort. And that's where you want to stay," says Fernstrom.
4. Try small, consistent changes. A few swaps a day—yogurt and fruit instead of ice cream, black coffee instead of a mocha, skim instead of 2 percent—can really add up, and small changes are less daunting than, say, a complete menu overhaul.
5. Plan ahead. No matter how much you like to snooze the alarm, make time for breakfast so you won't be famished by lunch. And bring healthy fare like veggies and salsa to work, "until you feel confident enough to go out into the world and make [good] food choices," says Caplan.
6. Don't make any change you can't keep long-term. Cutting out an entire food group is a good example. "If it's that objectionable to you that you can only see yourself doing it for a little while, that's a surefire sign that you're going to be [regaining] that weight," says Ellen Liskov, a registered dietitian and nutrition specialist at Yale-New Haven Hospital. "Slow and steady wins the race."
7. Seek out support. Adopt an eating plan that's right for the whole family so you don't have to go it alone. If they won't join in, get professional help from a registered dietitian or your doctor—research suggests solo dieters are more likely to give up. Support is often key to success.
8. Reward yourself. But not with food. Think about how much you typically spend on junk food, says Liskov: "At the end of the month, if you had an extra 100 bucks, what would you do with it?" Shopping spree? Two tanks of gas for a weekend getaway? "People can get very motivated to change their habits for that type of reward," she says.