People should think twice before dieting, according to researchers behind a recent study who identified negative consequences of yo-yo dieting or weight cycling.

Weight cycling describes the cycle of losing weight through dieting, regaining it and reentering a diet to shed the pounds once again.

"Yo-yo dieting — unintentionally gaining weight and dieting to lose weight only to gain it back and restart the cycle — is a prevalent part of American culture, with fad diets and lose-weight-quick plans or drugs normalized as people pursue beauty ideals," said Lynsey Romo, corresponding author of the study published in the journal Qualitative Health Research.

The study highlights how toxic yo-yo dieting can be and how difficult it can be for people to get out of the cycle. Based on their findings, researchers recommend avoiding dieting unless medically necessary.

"Based on what we learned through this study, as well as the existing research, we recommend that most people avoid dieting unless it is medically necessary. Our study also offers insights into how people can combat insidious aspects of weight cycling and challenge the cycle," Romo said.

To investigate the reasons behind people entering the yo-yo dieting cycle and examine if people managed to break free from it, the team interviewed 36 adults (13 men and 23 women) who experienced weight cycling. All the participants lost and regained more than 11 pounds.

From their interviews, researchers noted that participants opted to shed pounds either due to social stigma linked to their weight or by comparing themselves to celebrities or peers.

"Overwhelmingly, participants did not start dieting for health reasons, but because they felt social pressure to lose weight," Romo said.

Because the intention behind weight loss stemmed mainly from societal stigma, participants tended to feel worse about themselves when they started regaining weight. This prompted them to restart dieting, sometimes resorting to extreme measures for weight loss.

"For instance, many participants engaged in disordered weight management behaviors, such as binge or emotional eating, restricting food and calories, memorizing calorie counts, being stressed about what they were eating and the number on the scale, falling back on quick fixes (such as low-carb diets or diet drugs), overexercising and avoiding social events with food to drop pounds fast. Inevitably, these diet behaviors became unsustainable, and participants regained weight, often more than they had initially lost," Romo said.

Katelin Mueller, co-author of the study, pointed out that this weight gain cycle eventually made the participants "obsessed" with their weights. "Weight loss became a focal point for their lives, to the point that it distracted them from spending time with friends, family and colleagues and reducing weight-gain temptations such as drinking and overeating," Mueller said.

The undue obsession and addiction led them to toxic dieting behaviors. However, participants who were able to understand this were successful at breaking the cycle. Participants who shifted their focus from the calories and numbers on the scale to having fun and exercising to be healthy could break free from the cycle.

"Participants who were more successful at challenging the cycle were also able to embrace healthy eating behaviors — such as eating a varied diet and eating when they were hungry — rather than treating eating as something that needs to be closely monitored, controlled or punished," Romo said.

However, a vast majority of participants remained caught in the cycle due to factors such as deeply ingrained thought patterns, societal expectations, influence of diet culture and the stigma surrounding weight, researchers noted.

"Our findings suggest that it can be damaging for people to begin dieting unless it is medically necessary. Dieting to meet some perceived societal standard inadvertently set participants up for years of shame, body dissatisfaction, unhappiness, stress, social comparisons and weight-related preoccupation. Once a diet has begun, it is very difficult for many people to avoid a lifelong struggle with their weight," Romo added.