Yo-Yo Weightloss Can Hurt Your Heart

Study found that erratic weight gain and loss increases risk of cardiac events.

Crash diets can hurt your health, even if you lose weight. Getty Images

Crash diets can seem tempting if you’re looking to take weight off fast, but they may be doing more harm to your body than good.

The resulting fluctuations in weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels can come with some serious repercussions, new research suggests.

Yo-yo weight loss — also known as weight cycling — can put you at more of a risk of suffering from a heart attack, stroke, and early death, according to a study published earlier this month in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation.

In order to measure the full effect weight cycling can have on the body, researchers from the Catholic University of Korea reviewed the data of 6,748,773 people from the Korean National Health Insurance system.

The patients evaluated were generally healthy, and at the start of the study, did not suffer from diabetes, elevated blood pressure, or high cholesterol levels, nor did they have any previous heart attacks.

From 2005 to 2012, the researchers tracked the participants’ weight, blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels.

By the end of the study, 54,785 people had died, 22,498 had a stroke, and 21,452 had a heart attack.

Those whose weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels fluctuated, were 127 percent more likely to die, 43 percent more likely to have a heart attack, and 41 percent more likely to have a stroke.

Because the study was observational, it cannot provide an explanation as to why, specifically, the fluctuations in the participants’ measurements increased the risk for heart attacks and strokes.

However, there are some potential explanations as to why weight cycling can take such a toll on the body.

Sudden weight loss — and subsequent weight gain — can put a lot of stress on the body, some dietitians believe.

During restrictive diets, the body receives only a portion of the calories it needs to thrive, causing it to work hard to burn fat and muscle mass for energy.

As a result, the body experiences elevated levels of inflammation and cortisol, the hormone involved in stress and the body’s fight-or-flight response.

“Cortisol is the body’s alarm system, when the body is in danger, cortisol levels rise. It is well known that long-term elevation of cortisol can cause weight gain, increase anxiety or depression, increased cholesterol, blood pressure, and triglycerides,” Matt Edwards, a registered dietitian and a director of dietetics and nutritional science at GenoPalate, told Healthline.

The persistent fluctuations in cortisol that come with weight cycling could very well be contributing to the root cause of heart disease, Edwards suggested.

Those who are prone to participate in crash diets may be less likely to maintain long-term healthy lifestyle habits — alternating between binge eating and fad diets and healthy habits like exercise.

Instead of getting caught up in the immediate results that crash diets promise, many dietitians recommend taking a more long-term, healthful approach to weight loss.

“More research is certainly needed, but it adds to the growing body of evidence that yo-yo dieting isn’t healthy for the body,” Dr. Nicole Harkin, a board-certified cardiologist and lipidologist with Manhattan Cardiovascular Associates, said. “This should not deter individuals who are overweight or obese from attempting weight loss, but rather encourage them to select a dietary pattern that they can maintain.”

Some dietitians recommend following a plant-based diet — such as the Mediterranean diet or DASH diet — as there’s a growing pile of evidence suggesting that it’s the healthiest way to maintain a healthy body weight and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

“In my practice, I recommend patients adhere to a whole food, plant-based diet that is high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. I encourage patients to minimize animal products, particularly processed meats, and refined/processed carbohydrates,” Harkin said.

If you aren’t ready to give up meat quite yet, Harkin recommends taking baby steps toward a plant-based diet. Perhaps this means abstaining from animal products during the week or simply cutting out meat one day at a time.

Lastly, make an effort to cook at home rather than dining out for every meal. All of the salt, oil, and butter used at restaurants — not to mention the oversized portions — can quickly add up and have a negative impact on your overall health.

Doctors and healthcare providers should keep an eye on their patients’ blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose level measurements, the researchers suggested.

If doctors detect any variability, it may be time to step in and assess the patient’s eating patterns and lifestyle habits.

“Trying to stabilize these measurements may be an important step in helping them improve their health,” Dr. Seung-Hwan Lee, senior author of the study and a professor of endocrinology at the College of Medicine of the Catholic University of Korea, said in a statement.

This is the first study to suggest that high variability in weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels can have negative consequences on heart health in otherwise healthy individuals.

More research is needed to understand the cause-and-effect relationship between the fluctuations and cardiovascular health issues, and help doctors determine new, effective ways of managing weight.

We already know yo-yo weight loss is very stressful to the body — now we just have to figure out why.

A new study finds that fluctuations in weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar points to increased risk of cardiac events.

This is the first study to suggest that this kind of high variability can have negative consequences on heart health in otherwise healthy individuals.

More study is needed, but experts point out that these findings underscore how important it is for people to find a way to pick up healthy habits they can adopt for the long-term, not just a few weeks at a time.

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