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Getting Out of the Yo-Yo Cycle

Note: Learn more about the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program here or at

As a facilitator for the Am I Hungry? (AIH) program, I talk about different eating cycles (instinctive, restrictive, and overeating), and how it’s possible to go between them. Many people know this as yo-yo dieting, where they overeat until they feel guilty or uncomfortable enough that they go on a diet and into a restrictive eating cycle. But eventually they leave that, too, because it’s too restrictive and they feel deprived, and they end up overeating again. This can happen over months or even within a meal.

When I experienced this myself before I finally lost weight, the cycles usually lasted at least a week, sometimes months. I never experienced going back and forth within a shorter timeframe until, ironically, after I had lost weight and was just maintaining.

The most recent example of this was a couple of weeks ago when I deliberately overate in preparation for a fasting cholesterol test. I knew from experience that if I didn’t eat more than I needed the night before, I wouldn’t make it to the test without feeling ravenous and then nauseous all day, even if I ate right afterward.

The problem was that I went a little too far on the overeating. As we talk about in AIH, if you start eating when you’re not hungry, you have no clear signals of when to stop. Furthermore, if you’re eating out of fear of getting hungry, how do you know you’ve had enough?

While I successfully got through my appointment and the day feeling okay, I started bouncing back and forth between restrictive and overeating cycles. Even though I know better, my initial reaction is to severely restrict my intake to recover from the overeating. Except I was too careful and got very hungry in the evening. That meant when I started eating, I ate too fast and too much. Then I did the same thing the next day.

This doesn’t happen to me often, and maybe that’s why it always takes me a few days to remember that this is not the best way to get back into my instinctive eating cycle. Instead of cutting back drastically on food, I need to pay attention while I’m eating and stop when I’m not hungry (rather than full). Or I may stop while I’m still a little hungry, knowing that once the food settles I won’t feel hungry anymore. If I do this, it results in gradually tapering down my food, and then after another few days I’m fine.

While this isn’t something I particularly enjoy, it does have benefits. For one, it reminds me in a small way of what life was like before, and helps me relate to those I’m working with from more direct experience instead of just memory.

It also clarifies for me just how wonderful it is to eat only what I need. When I’m in the overeating part of the cycle, I don’t tend to sleep well, I’m more lethargic, and my mood fluctuates more dramatically. Once I get back to the instinctive eating cycle, I feel lighter, happier, energized, and just generally healthier and able to enjoy my life. It’s something I can take for granted too often, so I consider this experience a useful reminder to appreciate it anew.

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