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How Yo-Yo Diets Damage Metabolism and What to Do About It

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It’s common knowledge among yo-yo dieters that when you lose weight and gain it back, it comes back with vengeance!

What’s more, with every cycle of weight loss and weight gain, the weight comes back faster; and, in the long-term, the scale increments up above baseline.

But why? Why does losing weight again and again make it easier and easier to gain weight, even if you eat the same foods? The answer has to do with the bugs that live in your gut.

How Does the Gut Microbiome Affect Weight Loss?

In a famous study in mice, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science showed that when mice gained weight and lost weight, despite returning to their baseline weight, they retained the “microbiome fingerprints” of fat mice. Furthermore, transplanting the microbiomes from mice that had undergone weight cycling, but were currently lean, into mice without microbiomes caused the latter group to also become more susceptible to weight gain.

These experiments suggested that the memory of being fat was encoded in a change in the balance of the gut bug ecosystem.

Importantly, this change in the gut ecosystem translated into a decrease in metabolic rate and increased propensity to gain weight. And, with each cycle of weight gain and weight loss, the “fat fingerprint” was reinforced, leading to faster and faster weight regain.

This is exactly what seems to happen in human yo-yo dieters: with each up-down, the metabolism slows down more and more…

Ahh! So, is that it? If you’ve gained and lost weight, are your doomed to have a slow metabolism? Not necessarily.

Yo-yo dieting alters the gut’s microbial ecosystem to slow metabolism. With every cycle of weight loss and subsequent weight gain, the negative change in the gut ecosystem is reinforced.

How To Break the YoYo Dieting Cycle

Months to years of healthy eating (tip: just follow Martina!) can recover your microbial balance and metabolism. But if you’ve been a yo-yo dieter and want to accelerate your metabolism’s recovery, there may be something you can do…

The researchers in this study noticed that the microbial ecosystems of the yo-yo diet mice made fewer “flavonoids,” molecules that signal to our human cells and act as antioxidants. Therefore, they hypothesized that supplementing the mice with flavonoids could compensate for their impaired gut balance and recover their metabolisms. They tried the experiment and… it worked! The flavonoids boosted the yo-yo mice’s metabolisms!

Now I know your next question: “What foods have flavonoids?!” Well, lots of keto-friendly vegetables are rich in flavonoids. But, according to this study, the two flavonoids you really want to focus on are called “apigenin” and “naringenin,” which are found in chamomile tea, onions, parsley, cilantro, celery, pistachios, and almonds.

Check out some of these recipes:

So, if you’ve been a yo-yo dieter, I advise you not to panic. Simply, prepare a cup of chamomile tea, pop a pistachio (which are bizarrely rich in the sleep hormone melatonin), and sleep on this information (oh… if only you could hibernate off fat).

Want to stop yo-yo dieting and lose weight without gaining it back? Include flavonoid-rich foods such as chamomile tea, onions, parsley, cilantro, celery, pistachios, and almonds.

Take Home Message

Yo-yo dieting alters the gut’s microbial ecosystem to slow metabolism.

With every cycle of weight loss and subsequent weight gain, the negative change in the gut ecosystem is reinforced.

Flavonoids, specifically those found in chamomile tea, onions, parsley, cilantro, celery, pistachios, and almonds, are thought to help speed up the recovery of an obesogenic gut ecosystem.

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Nicholas Norwitz
MD-PhD candidate at Oxford University

Nicholas Notwitz

Nicholas Norwitz is a Harvard medical student and Oxford PhD researcher who specializes in ketone metabolism. He a rising star in the scientific community, with peer-reviewed publications on topics ranging from brain health to bone health to heart health to gut health.

Informed by his own medical history, he has an infectious passion for food as medicine and a drive to find innovative ways to teach the general public about the latest nutrition science.

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Comments (11)

Hello there!
Such an interesting, thought-provoking article. I am the queen of dieting. I had been on keto for 2 years with pleasing results after the first 8/9months. But, even though I remained (religiously) on keto for a further 14 or months, the weight started creeping back on. I became so upset and sadly with lockdown etc I really lost my way and it’s ALLLLL gone back on! With vengeance!
I am an evening eater; I sit in front of the tv after a hectic day and treat a chocolate bar/biscuit/cake as my reward! I think my downfall was that even on keto, I was making keto cookies, mug cakes etc. My gut must be cursing me! I have enough medical/ hormonal issues as it is! 😩
What strategy could you suggest going forward as I make my return (and hopefully for good!) to keto to stop the weight gain? How can I break this habit!!
Really great study... thank you!
😊

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I'd start with this link and think carefully about what tools would be useful to employ to build new habits! Sustainable diets are about knowing yourself and hacking your habits! https://mdlingo.com/how-to-build-healthy-habits-top-7-tips/. If you like that content, let Martina and I know and we can do something similar for this website.
Beyond that, I would cut out completely keto sweeteners. Just try going a couple months with no sweets. After a while, you'll stop missing them. Keep in mind that, while erythritol and stevia may not cause an insulin spike, they do contribute to the hyperpalitability of food, driving you to eat more. They also keep you accustomed to sweet tastes. But, if you don't have sweet foods for long enough you completely lose your taste for them. If I have anything sweeter than a bell pepper or scallops now, I really am put off. I used to love things like frosting and ice cream when I was eating SAD, long ago. Now, if I were to have frosting (which I accidentally did once because I thought it was hard boiled egg yolk) I would want to / want to vomit. It's funny.
Last suggestion would be to try a reset with a highly restrictive diet like carnivore (nose-to-tail, if you're okay with organ meats). It's quite simple, which makes it easy. And it teaches you quickly you don't need sweets or carb substitutes or complicated hacks and tip and tricks to eat sustainably on low carb. Think about all the things you can do with eggs, fish, chicken, bacon, fish & shellfish, lamb, different steaks and burgers, and different cheeses. Personal fav: slow-cooked brisket or cow's heart with ghee-Roquefort cheese sauce. Eggs and bacon... a delicious classic. I can never get enough wild alaskan sockeye, salmon!
Those are just some thoughts. if you get nothing else from my reply, take a look at the habits link and introspect.
Best of luck my Queen!

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This is so interesting! I wonder if this is why I've been finding it so hard to maintain weight loss. I lost 20 pounds on keto but gained 8 pounds back. I think I may be eating too many carbs... About two weeks ago I switched to a paleo diet so no dairy but added back some foods like sweet potatoes and summer fruits. Now I'm thinking that introducing all those "good" carbs was a bad idea. Is there anything in these foods apart from their carb count that may be affecting my gut biome? Thank you!

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With regards to your question about the impact of "healthy" carbs on the microbiome, my answer is that anything change in what you eat is going to impact your microbiome. Since everyone's microbiome is different, it's impossible to say if certain foods are going to help or hurt you. Think of it this way, if you throw a new species into an environment, its impact on the environment will depend on both the animals identity and the new environment. It's an interaction, an ecosystem.
With respect to whether or not you should have introduced those "healthy" carbs, if you're trying to lose weight then I'm not sure what the rationale would be? All carbs (net carbs) stimulate the release of insulin, which causes fat to grow. Sweet potato and summer fruit are no exception. Some summer fruits, like water melon, are particular problematic because of their extremely high glycemic index. Glycemic index indicates how much a given quantity of food will spike you blood sugar, which is associated with a spike in insulin. Watermelon, as an example, has a glycemic index of ~72. Sweet potato GI is ~70. As a comparison, that's similar to graham crackers. The extremes of the spectrum are carb-free foods, like an egg with a GI of 0 and pure glucose sugar with a GI of 100.
The trouble with high glycemic index foods is that they tend to cause larger insulin spikes which are followed by larger insulin drops and when that happens, you brain freaks out and makes you think you're hungry. This is "hormonal hunger" not true hunger. In any case, people then tend to overeat (or continue to eat), leading to weight gain. It's precisely the insulin roller coaster that causes most people to become overweight or obese. This is a good study I you're interested in the effect of glycemic index values on the brain and hunger drive: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23803881/.
Another comment I will make is on fructose. Fructose is fruit sugar. Yes, it's natural, but it has a problem. Fructose is even better than glucose at what is called "de novo lipogenesis" which means "new fat." Basically, fructose is really good at getting turned into fat, particularly the visceral fat that is within your abdominal activity and which is pro inflammatory. This is the least healthy type of fat. And, circling back to your microbiome question, high levels of visceral fat can cause inflammation, which can itself negatively impact your microbiome and whole body health.
Phew, I'll get off my soap box now. I'm not saying sweet potato and summer fruits on a paleo diet is "wrong." But, if your goal is to lose weight, then perhaps you're better off swapping the sweet potato for a Keto bread (Martina's of course) and watermelon for a few strawberries dipped in whipped coconut cream?

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Hi there,
I would be interested in your opinion on taking nutritional yeast while following a keto diet? I see many people recommending it, but I just saw a blog by Dave Asprey strongly advising against it. On the same subject of a healthy gut, is it recommended to take organic plain yogurt/kefir for the probiotics?

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Dear Josephine,
With respect to nutritional yeast, let’s start with the macronutrient scale: nutritional yeast is a good source of fiber and protein. The protein itself is a complete protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids. With respect to micronutrients, yeast is rich in a wide variety of B-vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, B6 and B12. Therefore, on the surface, it looks like a decent keto food to enjoy, particularly if you use it strategically to add a cheesy bump of flavor to your dishes in place of real cheese.
Having said that, we are all highly individual and not everybody tolerated nutritional yeast for various reasons, which I won’t go into. I myself don’t. It irritates my IBS symptoms; however, I have a particularly sensitive gut. I will also note, since you seem interested in probiotics, the yeast itself is deactivated so it shouldn’t be growing inside you or competing with the bugs in your system.
In brief, if you tolerate nutritional yeast well personally and you find it to be a useful addition to your diet in that it adds variety and enables you to make foods you like (keto breads, dairy free cheeses, etc.) I see no reason to avoid it. That advice, tough, comes with a caveat. I won’t pretend to be an expert on all things nutritional yeast and don’t know why specifically Dave Asprey recommends against nutritional yeast. Rather than say, “he’s wrong,” I’d invite you to share the links (including podcasts, which I enjoy) that are of concern to you and if I have time I’ll do some homework in the matter and reply with further thoughts.
Finally, on the topic of nutritional yeast, I’ll warn you about the possible side effect of what’s called “niacin flush.” Some people, when they have enough yeast, turn tomato red in about 30 minutes. This lasts for about two hours. The reason for this reaction is that niacin (vitamin B3) is extremely high in yeast. This niacin binds to GPR109A receptors in the skin to cause a flushing reaction. Ketones bind to the same receptor (which is why B3 is used as a control in some ketone experiments). Therefore, if you’re keto and have nutritional yeast, you’re more likely to get niacin flush. It’s not dangerous, but just a heads up because if it happens and you don’t know what’s going on it’s quite alarming.
Now, turning to your question about kefir and probiotic yogurts. I’m for them, personally. I myself have a glass of goat milk kefir every morning after my workout with breakfast. I do recommend the goat and sheep varieties because of the absence of pro inflammatory and gut-disturbing A1 casein. Point being, if you tolerate dairy, I’d be hard pressed to come up with a reason to say no to good kefir and yogurt (whole milk and free of added sugars, of course). Hope that helps.

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I read the Dave Asprey blog to which I think you were referring. This is an instance where the blog author makes leaps of faith that don’t appear to be fully supported by the scientific literature. He cites to literature that nutritional yeast consumption is associated with microbiome imbalances, negative changes in biomarkers, or negative health outcomes. (There actually may be an association yet-to-be published upon, but even in that instance it would probably be mediated by the fact that nutritional yeast is a vegan staple and veganism can lead to poor health. That’s another topic. Let’s NOT CONFUSE nutritional yeast with veganism.)
Dave IS CORREC IN his statements that the gut biome is important to health, that things that cause microbiome dysbiosis and bad for whole body and brain health, and that Candida infections are associated with mental illnesses. However, he doesn’t appear to cite strong evidence for HIS MAIN CONCERN which is that nutritional yeast is often infected with mycotoxins and these mycotoxins, or mold toxins, cause problems.
He states, “As I say in “the bulletproof diet,” yeasts almost always contain high levels of mold toxins (7).” Thus, he cites himself and reference 7. But if you go to REFERENCE 7, it directs you to the Bacteriological Analytical Manual (BAM). The relevant section is chapter 18 on Yeast, Molds, and Mycotoxins. In this section, nutritional yeast is mentioned 0 times. Instead, this chapter discusses live yeast, NOT the deactivated form of relevance to the question: is nutritional yeast bad for you?
The only semi-relevant sentence I could pick out was, “Occasionally, a food appears mold-free but is found upon mycological examination to be contaminated.” So, if you want to be super cautious, sure, avoid nutritional yeast. I’m not sure that this sentence really sells me on his argument.
Again, this isn’t a topic I pretend to be an expert on. Maybe Dave has done more homework and actually has references better supporting his claims. A strong reference that nutritional yeast consumption leads to negative changes in biomarkers or negative changes in the microbiome would be awesome. Even a reference showing store-bought nutritional yeast has lots of mycotoxins would be a start. I have not seen those references. If they exist and I have missed them, I apologize to you and Dave. I never mind being wrong. Still, I’ve yet to come across them.
All that said, I do AGREE with Dave that, if you can, it’s probably better to get your cheesy flavor from healthy real dairy. The less processed the better (also, best to avoid A1/cow’s milk if you struggle with constipation or inflammation). Furthermore, I share his “intuition” that nutritional yeast probably isn’t the superfood is chalked up to be. But, as a scientist, I never like to go purely off “intuition.” When people do that, nutrition because very, well, religious.
https://blog.daveasprey.com/nutritional-yeast/#ref-7

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I CANNOT thank you enough for this info! I’m Keto 3 1/2 years now and have “gone waaay off the reservation” for Christmas and vacation the first year, and didn’t struggle a lot to lose it again. Less extremely the second year, but had to work longer to lose what I’d gained. This last year I’ve only gone “off script” for special occasions and gain weight right away and can not lose it..
Do you wear a cape, ‘cause I think you might be my HERO!
Love from Holland!

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Puppi,
Does a lab coat count as a cape? What about the long hair in sporting curtesy of the lockdown?
Cheers mate!

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I love you Mr Nicholas Norwitz❤️.
I'm a typical yo-yo dieter. Especially when I'm under stress. Quarantine hasn't been kind to me. Plus other life circumstances..
I really needed this article and it's like you read my mind. I can do chamomile tea in the evening served with the activated rosemary and paprika salt almond and pistachios. I love pickled red onions w/ parsley & cilantro, I could make a celery smoothie with parsley, cilantro and lemon juice for breakfast. And of course there are delectable recipes that contain the two flavonoids;  "apigenin” and “naringenin,” in this app also, as you kindly pointed out.
Thank you, thank you.xx
Thank you to Martina for always updating us with the latest research and supporting us in our health journey.x

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So nice to hear Amina! Thank you for helping to make my day. I will just reinforce, however, supplementing with these flavonoids isn’t a replacement for sustaining a healthy well formulated keto diet. If you’re having trouble sticking to your keto diet (or whatever carb appropriate diet you choose for yourself), have you considered seeking some help, i.e. someone to help you figure out the source of your yo-yo habit? In my experience  working with people, once the origin of the problem is resolved, the yo-yo stops bouncing as if gravity were just turned off!
Consider your triggers and how you can reconstruct your habits and environment to help sustain a healthy eating lifestyle that keeps you happy. Just my two cents.
Best of luck and that you for your compliments.

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