The Surprising Heart Risks of Yo-Yo Dieting
Doctors have long known that repeated weight gain and loss, often called yo-yo dieting or weight cycling, wreaks havoc on metabolism and energy levels. What’s less known is that this pattern may set the stage for cardiovascular disease or worsen existing heart ills.
In a surprising new study from New York University School of Medicine, heart patients whose weight repeatedly fluctuated were at a significantly greater risk of poor outcomes, including death. The study followed nearly 10,000 patients with a history of heart attack, a bypass procedure or documented coronary disease. Those who experienced the greatest fluctuation in weight—an average of 8.5 pounds either way on the scale—were 64 percent more likely to suffer a coronary event and 85 percent more likely to have a cardiovascular event, overall.
Frequent weight cycling was linked specifically to a 117 percent greater risk for heart attack, a 136 percent increase in stroke risk and a 124 percent greater likelihood of dying. And it was associated with the new onset of diabetes: Compared to people whose weight changed the least, those whose weight fluctuated more dramatically had a 78 percent greater risk of developing diabetes, which itself can lead to heart-related problems.
This study follows a similar study presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions last November that involved more than 150,000 women from Alpert Medical School in Rhode Island. Over the study’s 11 years, researchers found that normal weight postmenopausal women whose weight fluctuated by ten pounds had a 3½ times greater risk for sudden cardiac death—when the heart’s electrical system abruptly stops working—than women whose weight was stable. They also had a 66 percent increased risk of dying from heart disease.
Frequency of weight fluctuations made a difference. Those who had more than seven weight cycling episodes were at higher risk, compared to those who had four to six episodes, for instance. Overweight and obese women whose weight cycled did not see this type of risk increase.
The data make a strong case for keeping weight on an even keel and avoiding dramatic shifts, which rarely lead to lasting weight loss, anyway. A reasonable approach is to aim for something more effective and sustainable.
In fact an NIH-funded study showed that modest weight losses of 5 to 10 percent of body weight (10-20 pounds in a person weighing 200 pounds) were associated with significant improvements in cardiovascular risk factors after a year’s time, though those who dropped more pounds got even greater benefits. And recent research from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that obese patients who lost just 5 percent of their body weight lowered their risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes and improved their metabolic functioning.
Changing eating habits is never easy, but modest weight loss isn’t as challenging as it might sound. Try adding a couple of extra servings of vegetables and fruits, which help satisfy hunger, cut down on added fats, favoring healthy plant oils over butter and margarine, or limit sweet and fatty treats.
One small change with a particularly big benefit is substituting water or unsweetened tea or coffee for sweet beverages like soda. If you do nothing else, you’ll feel better, boost your heart’s health and gain a sleeker physique in the process.