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Breaking the Yo-Yo Dieting Cycle: A perspective from psychology


Welcome to the seventh in the series on Client Retention – A Psychological Perspective provided by psychologist, Kate Swann. Kate is a co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Training Overweight and Obese Clients (available free for FITREC professionals). This on of the best in this series and recommended for all Trainers. Over to Kate…

As a personal trainer you meet them every day – the clients who are desperate to lose weight and achieve the perfect figure. So they embark on the latest fad diet – no carbs, no sugar, no protein, and even the no food diet.

And yes the weight comes off. However, it doesn’t take long for this person to regain all their previous weight and more. This is the world of the yo-yo dieter. As a PT, how can you help to break this cycle?

The simple answer usually provided to the weight conscious client is to eat less and exercise more. It’s all about energy consumption versus output. However, this is over simplifying the problem. Often the basic problem of eating too much is only a symptom of what is really going on in a person’s mind.

As psychologists specializing in working with overweight and obese clients, we know yo-yo dieting is often only a sign of a larger issue.

Eating for some people is closely connected with emotions, such as sadness or depression. Yo-yo dieters seem to believe they can drop an instant amount of weight quickly, and that this in turn will change the way in which they are perceived both by themselves and by others.

However as fast as they lose the weight they regain it, leading to increased feelings of depression and anxiety about their inability to keep the kilos off.

For a personal trainer to be able to help their client, it is very important to have an understanding of the psychological issues involved. It is essential for someone trapped in the yo-yo diet cycle to understand why they overeat, and this is where you as a personal trainer have the ability to support your client in maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Yo-yo dieting can be very harmful for a client’s long term wellbeing. Initially, this person may set out to eat less and eat right, and begin a fitness campaign. However, this success is often short lived for a number of reasons usually involving emotional issues.

A yo-yo dieter can often begin to feel deprived of what they have given up in order to achieve their weight goal, and may find themselves reverting to the bad habits that led to them gaining weight in the first place. This can set up a vicious cycle of quick weight loss followed by rapid weight gain when the diet is abandoned.

Research into yo-yo dieting even suggests that a person who is quick to lose weight will not only regain the previous amount but also an 10 percent.

However, it is not only feelings of deprivation that can cause a client to regain weight. Yo-yo dieting is often associated with reactions to stressful situations. These people are more likely to eat when they find themselves in a tough place and need some form of support. Unfortunately this support comes in the form of food. Beyond the physical symptoms, a yo-yo dieter will quickly become depressed about their inability to keep the weight off.

Yo-yo dieting can also be found amongst people who suffer from low self-esteem. For a variety of reasons a person may feel ashamed and lack confidence within themselves. This in turn can lead them to turn to food as a way of providing themselves with an easily accessible form of comfort.

So how do you as personal trainers work with a yo-yo dieter?

Clients who are emotional binge eaters need to understand their motives for eating the way that they do if they are to successfully overcome the problem. This may mean learning to identify the emotions that lead them to reaching for that block of chocolate. You can help your client in this situation by advising them to stop and think about why they are eating. Are they feeling sad, lonely or anxious? Are there other reasons? Being able to recognize a pattern of emotions experienced before, during or after a binge is a good way to start to learning to manage binge eating.

A personal trainer can suggest alternative strategies that can help the client stay on target. Once a person is able to identify the feelings they are experiencing it will be easier for them so find an alternative activity that can make them feel better. These activities can include a range of things such as socializing with friends, reading a book, going for a walk or even a session at the gym. Regardless of what their alternative is, you can help them work at finding another activity that can soothe their overwhelming emotions just as well (if not better than) eating.

It’s also a good idea for your client to write down or keep a diary of the feelings they experience before or during a binge. Once again this strategy can help them identify what they are doing and why, helping them to empower themselves with the ability to recognize their behavior and the reasons why they engage in it. Understanding leads to change.

It is important for a yo-yo dieter to receive the support they need to deal with this kind of problem. As a personal trainer you are in a unique position to offer one-on-one support as well as alternative strategies for dealing with this particular dieting issue.

Personal trainers therefore have a very important role to play in assisting people who want to lose weight. Trainers can help them explore the lifestyle changes which can help them to permanently overcome this frustrating and emotionally debilitating problem.

Don’t forget, a FREE copy of The Ultimate Guide to Training Overweight and Obese Clients and ‘Do You Really Want to Lose Weight?’ is available to all FITREC professionals. If you’re not FITREC, it starts here.


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