The Diet Cycle: What Is It & How Can You Heal From It?

Do you find yourself constantly trying the hottest new diet, only to find it impossible to follow? If so, you might be caught up in the diet cycle, and you are definitely not alone. We collectively spend billions of dollars a year on dieting annually, yet the majority of dieters remain frustrated, confused, and stuck in this repetitive cycle.1

But why? The diet industry is, like any other industry, a business. Unfortunately, this particular business is inherently flawed and chock-full of false promises and unsustainable protocols. They’re very, very good at sucking in consumers with the latest trendy diets, promising rapid results as long as you have the “willpower”.

Spoiler alert: It’s really NOT that simple, and we cannot boil it down to such without doing a potential disservice to our mental and physical health.2

Enter the diet cycle, which provides a comprehensive outline of what ACTUALLY happens to the majority of restrictive dieters. Read on to learn the ins and outs of the cycle and how to break free of it and take control of your health and happiness.

What Is The Diet Cycle?

Picture this. The scale is creeping up and your jeans are fitting a little tighter, so you decide to try that new diet everyone’s been raving about. It seems a little intense, but the results are so promising you feel it’s worth the sacrifice.

It’s week 1. The motivation is there. Your fridge is gleaming with low-calorie foods. You’re feeling good and maybe even seeing some short-term results.

It’s week 2. You’re now starting to understand just how intense the diet is. The initial high has worn off, and you’re finding yourself feeling hungry, tired, cranky, cold, and dreaming of pizza. You tell yourself to stay strong and suck it up.

It’s week 3. You’ve tried every strategy in the book to fight off the cravings, to no avail. The fatigue has gotten worse, but now you can barely sleep due to the hunger pangs. You’re finding it difficult to concentrate at work. Friday night rolls around and your family orders in pizza. It’s off-limits, but you’ve been so adherent lately so you treat yourself to a small slice. You take that first bite and cannot remember a time in your life that something tasted so good. One slice turns into multiple which turns into a weekend of “forbidden” foods. You’ll get back on track on Monday, you say.

It’s week 4. Monday morning rolls around and you’re filled with guilt and shame after the weekend. You force yourself on the scale, horrified to see that you’ve gained the weight back. You feel like an utter failure and blame your lack of willpower for the regression. To compensate, you start dieting again. 

The cycle begins once more. As you can see, the diet cycle is a vicious one. It perpetuates negative self-image, a poor relationship with food, and unexpected physical side effects. 

Risks of Chronic Dieting

Long-term dieters are at high risk for chronic hormonal, metabolic, and psychological issues that reduce quality of life and make it even harder to lose weight, Including but not limited to:

  • Decreased resting metabolic rate
  • Increased hunger hormones, decreased satiety hormones3
  • Anxiety, depression, and eating disorders
  • Trouble concentrating, mood swings, irritability
  • Dehydration and electrolyte imbalances
  • Fatigue, weakness, loss of muscular strength, endurance, and coordination
  • Osteoporosis and stress fractures
  • Thyroid dysfunction
  • Fluctuations in blood pressure
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Irregular menstrual cycle or loss of cycle, fertility issues
  • Thinning of hair and brittle nails
  • Internalized weight stigma and poor body image 
  • Weight regain

How Does the Diet Cycle Impact Your Weight?

While the cycle itself is a pretty universal experience for dieters, its effect on weight can be variable.

Dieters will generally find that their weight fluctuates, but the amount and timeframe is individualized. Research has shown that ongoing weight loss and regain, known as “weight cycling”, can increase risk of issues such as hypertension and type 2 diabetes when compared to those who maintain a stable weight.4

In the cycle, many will initially drop a few pounds, but sustained weight loss in the cycle is often negligible. 1,2 In general, weight gain and weight maintenance are much more commonly seen in chronic dieters.

It’s important to note that fluctuations in weight are never solely due to changes in fat and muscle mass, as water contributes to more than half of body weight, and research has shown that weight cannot be used as the sole metric to determine success in any type of lifestyle intervention.3,2

When we make aggressive changes to our diet, particularly our carbohydrate intake, our total body water will fluctuate. The body will hold onto ~2-3 grams of stored water for every gram of stored carbohydrate (known as glycogen) which will cause scale fluctuations independent of fat/muscle composition.5

How to Break the Diet Cycle

Breaking the diet cycle does not mean giving up on any weight loss efforts for the rest of your life. In fact, if we are able to exit the cycle, examine our relationship with food, and focus on realistic lifestyle changes, our chances of sustained, true, HEALTHY weight loss are much greater. And, while this is not an overnight process, any step in the right direction will be beneficial in the long run.

Here are some tips for getting started:

  • Make sure your desire to lose weight is rooted in health promotion.
  • Ditch the diets with a laundry list of forbidden foods. Instead, focus on what you can ADD to your diet to make it more conducive to your goals, such as adding more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and protein to your plate.
  • Focus on slow but sustainable progress. A modest reduction in total calories will always work better than a crash diet.
  • Recognize you don’t have to be perfect all the time! Kale is good for your body but ice cream is good for your soul. Moderation is key, but allowing yourself to eat the foods that you are craving will help you to remove them from a pedestal and prevent future binges.
  • Find movement that you truly enjoy. Honor your body with movement, don’t punish it. When you find activity that feels good, you’re more likely to be consistent.
  • Stop allowing the number on the scale to determine your self-worth. Weight tracking might have its place, but you need to take a more comprehensive approach by tracking other metrics such as how your clothing is fitting, health metrics such as labwork, strength/endurance during exercise, and how you truly FEEL. Your relationship with gravity cannot tell you any of these things.
  • Consider using a Non-Scale Victories approach to recognizing progress outside of the number on the scale.

Getting out of the cycle can be scary but your health is worth it. There’s no better time to start than now. Apply for a FREE get-to-know-me call by filling out the form on my Work With Me page

Written: Emily Ventura, RD, CNSC

Edited: Caroline Thomason, RD CDCES

Sources

1.       National Eating Disorders Association. Know Dieting: Risks and Reasons to Stop. UC Berkeley. 2005. Accessed January 31, 2023. https://uhs.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/bewell_nodieting.pdf

2.       Warsaw H. Lifestyle Changes That Keep Pounds Off: An Examiniation of the Clinical Trials That Have Spawned Successful Strategies for People with and without Diabetes. Today’s Dietitian. August, 2020; 22(7): 30. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/AS20p30.shtml

 3.       Evert AB, Franz MJ. Why Weight Loss Maintenance Is Difficult. Diabetes Spectr. 2017;30(3):153-156. doi:10.2337/ds017-0025

4,      Rhee EJ. Weight Cycling and Its Cardiometabolic Impact. J Obes Metab Syndr.

2017;26(4):237-242. doi:10.7570/jomes.2017.26.4.237

5.      Mahan LK, Raymond JL. Krause’s Food & The Nutrition Care Process. 14th ed. Elsevier Inc; 2017.

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