The Physical and Psychological Effects of Yo-Yo Dieting

What really happens to your body when your weight fluctuates. (Photo: Getty Images)

I love my body. Well, I do now. I must confess I was at war with myself for far too long. It’s the war I see declared on magazine covers and in locker rooms daily, one I waged with myself in strained, silent hours over decades. I am a recovering yo-yo dieter, and I have the skin to prove it.

My relationship with dieting started as a teenager. I can point to a thousand emotional paper cuts that started the internal bleeding, but my way of dealing with family and personal strife emerged as a twisted relationship with food. I gained a lot of weight in junior high, and before I transferred to a public high school, I decided the clean slate meant a new identity. I lost 30 lbs. the summer before I started classes, and suddenly a whole new world was open to me. It started a pattern I’ve had for years: Any time of emotional upheaval found me unconsciously eating to salve a wound, only to try the newest fad diet to remove it as quickly as possible.

It was like that for years until I finally decided to get off the ride about two years ago. Slowly but surely, I’ve learned to deal with the emotional damage that led to all those years of food-fueled self-flagellation. Inch by inch, I’ve worked my way toward my goal. But as I move toward a doctor-approved healthy weight, I’m seeing the battle scars of my decades-long fight: Excess skin and stretch marks are mine for the keeping from years of yo-yo dieting.

It turns out, stretch marks are often genetic. “Some women can tolerate large weight fluctuations without getting stretch marks, others who are hereditarily prone can get them with just 10 to 15 lbs. in weight fluctuation,” says Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, board-certified dermatologist and co-director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery. “Some people are lucky; their skin tends to be more elastic than others, but more dramatic weight swings one way or another will push the skin limits of even those not genetically predisposed to stretch marks.”

Believe it or not, the stretch marks don’t bother me at all. I don’t really care. What surprised me was the pocket of drooped, saggy skin below my belly button.

“You want to gain or lose weight at a moderate pace to allow the skin to react and catch up,” says Tanzi. “Dramatic swings in either weight direction — gain or loss — in short periods of time are more damaging to the fibers of the skin than if you were to do it at a more moderate pace.” I thought I could avoid this problem by taking this last bout with major weight loss quite slowly, but years of weight spikes and even faster weight loss have made that almost impossible. “If the fibers of the flesh have been stretched to the point where they’re not going to snap back, then you can have issues with excess skin,” says Tanzi. “It’s a difficult thing to deal with once it happens. We have good treatments to create collagen, but we don’t have a lot of great treatments to repair elasticity.” Essentially, once you have excess skin, you either remove it or learn to live with it.

Which brings me to my main point, and the reason I decided to voluntarily admit the condition of my body: Find a manner of eating that works for you and stick with it. There are no magic bullets. There are no short cuts without long-term detriment.  

At first I figured my arsenal of beauty products would make a difference, but that thought was quickly shot down. “Quite frankly, all the moisturizer in the world is not going to help you,” says Tanzi. But what about skin tightening creams and over-the-counter stretch mark solutions? I thought about buying stock, but according to the good doctor, they’ll do no good either. “I know there are a lot of anti-stretch mark creams out there that are claiming to help with this condition, but it’s a lot of hype. There’s no scientific proof that they help.” Same goes with the claims of firming creams. “Just be gentle with the skin if you can once you’re losing weight.”

For me, I’ve learned to love the skin I’m in. I ignore the stares in the dressing room at fitness facilities. I know they’re there. But to bring those into my skin starts the war all over again, and the cease-fire in my mind is already in place.

Let my scars be a lesson to all: The vicious wars we wage against our bodies as women must stop. We have to stop persecuting ourselves and others over unrealistic expectations of beauty. There is no diet that can make you thin enough to cure what’s eating you. No more food as reward and deprivation as punishment. Your soul — and your skin —are begging you to stop.

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