If you’re one of the millions of Americans who made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight, here’s some extra motivation to make it last: A recent study found that “yo-yo dieting” may have negative effects on your heart health.
“Yo-yo dieting” is losing and regaining weight. While you might assume that losing excess weight, even for a short period of time, is better than no weight loss at all, science seems to show otherwise. The study found that for adult women, yo-yo dieting, or weight cycling, can increase their risk for coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death. The study followed more than 150,000 women over 11 years and recorded deaths related to coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death.
So if you have been fighting crowds at the gym or trying to make your diet healthier, stick with it and commit to a lifestyle, not a date on the calendar.
Some 40 percent of people commit to making changes with the New Year, according to statisticbrain.com, and of those, as many as one third commit to losing weight. Fast-forward a year, however, and just nine percent of people report success in their resolutions.
That may not be a big deal if you resolved to learn something new or be a better friend, but physical goals are a different story.
The study found that women of normal weight (a body mass index of less than 25) who had lost and regained at least 10 pounds were three-and-a-half times more likely to suffer sudden cardiac death than women who maintained stable weights. Women who reported yo-yo dieting also had a 66 percent increased risk for coronary heart disease death.
“We’ve known for years that weight cycling is just hard on the body,” says Nicholas Rusciolelli, a Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Certified Cardiac Rehab Professional at SCL Health. “It causes issues with the endocrine system and body composition.”
The study was only observational and didn’t investigate why weight cycling might be associated with poor heart health. But the study’s author offered one explanation, called the “overshoot theory.” Gaining weight can increase blood pressure, cholesterol and body fat. When the person loses weight, those levels will come back down, but not necessarily to the levels they were before the weight gain.
Cycles of losing and gaining weight can gradually push these levels up to an unhealthy state. Rusciolelli believes this makes sense.
“For example, somebody gains 20 pounds of weight in body fat and then they lose that 20 pounds, it’s not 20 pounds of body fat that they’re losing,” he says. “It’s a portion of body fat, plus a portion of lean muscle mass that they’re losing. Even though the weight might get back to their baseline, their body composition has changed in a negative aspect.
“That’s especially true with yo-yo dieting because people tend to lose the weight primarily through calorie restriction or calorie restriction combined with increased aerobic activity.”
So what do you do? Give up and assume it’s safer not to try? Not at all.
Stay away from the extremes and fads, and resist making vague goals. Rely on the basics of healthy eating and exercise, and be realistic and set short- and long-term goals that are specific and are meaningful to you.
Simply reducing calories by eating less – the will power approach - can rob you of important nutrients for heart and overall health, says Rusciolelli.
“Instead of just saying ‘I’m going to get in shape,’ what does that really mean to you?” asks Rusciolelli. “By having the short- and long-term goals you’re more likely to stick with it and be successful.”
When working with patients, he gives this advice: “Let’s modify your diet so it’s healthy and not just a caloric restriction so you’re getting the appropriate heart-healthy diet, and let’s increase your activity.”
Creating a heart-healthy diet includes staples you’ve likely heard before: less refined food; more fruits and vegetables; replace high fat consumption with good fat consumption.
If you want to be one of the “9 percent” who commits to a change and sticks to it, Rusciolelli has three more pieces of advice for a heart-healthy advice to help you get started the right way:
Get a physical and consult with your doctor before starting any new exercise and diet regimen. Make sure you don’t have any hidden heart concerns that could be dangerous during new activity.
Aim to lose about two pounds a week or fewer. That’s a healthy pace your body can handle.
Shortness of breath with activity, chest pain or pressure, nausea, and profuse sweating or dizziness with activity are big red flags for a heart condition. Consult a doctor if you experience any of these.