This is going to be a different text to my usual topics: yo-yo dieting otherwise known as weight cycling. The following text is my dissertation, so it will be more formal than usual. Nevertheless, still easy to read as I skipped or cut down more scientific, boring parts. I really hope some of you will find it helpful. I spent ten days (literally just slept, ate and took a few breaks) fully immersed in weight related research and I am happy to share it with you here.

Struggles women experience during weight cycling: a phenomenological analysis.



Due to cultural pressures, women often find themselves engaging in dietary practices. It is relatively hard to maintain the lost weight and weight regain occurs. This leads women to yo-yo dieting, or weight cycling which is defined as repeated cycle of weight loss and weight regain. The literature in the field mainly focused on psychological outcomes of weight cycling. The present study aims to explore what struggles women identify during their weight cycling experiences. Following hermeneutic phenomenological analysis of semi-structured interviews, I identified psychological (cognitive and emotional) and social (family, friends, cultural environment) struggles as experienced by women in this study. Analysis suggests that some psychological struggles are influenced by socio-cultural environment.


According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in 2016 39% of adult population was overweight and 13% was obese (2018). Despite increased scientific attention to the issue, many people find themselves going through weight loss and weight gain cycles in the long-term (Grant & Boersma, 2005; Green et al., 2009; Faw, 2014; Elfhag & Rossner, 2013). More women than men engage in dieting practices, due to cultural pressures to be thin (Tish, 2013). This results in women experiencing body dissatisfaction (Lin and Kulik, 2002) hence the wish to lose weight (cited in Putterman and Linden 2004). However, weight loss is often difficult to maintain and weight gain occurs (Williams et al., 2007). As a result, women find themselves in weight loss and weight regain cycles. The term that describes this process is weight cycling, popularly referred to as yo-yo dieting (Tish, 2013).

In psychological literature, most researchers focused on psychological outcomes of weight cycling. Whilst some suggest it might have negative psychological outcomes, others do not find associations between weight cycling history and significant psychological issues. Foreyt et al. (1995) surveyed normal-weight and obese individuals who self-reported as either fluctuators (those who responded ‘yes’ to ‘Do you lose and regain weight often?’) or non-fluctuators. It was found that the irrespective of weight, fluctuators reported lower levels of well-being, self-efficacy and stress than non-fluctuators. Interestingly, Friedman et al. (1998) indicated that self-perceived weight cycling appears to be more related to psychological issues (body image dissatisfaction, life satisfaction, self-esteem), in contrast to actual times of weight cycling history. In contrast, research on weight cycling in obese individuals did not find relationship between weight cycling and significantly negative psychological outcomes (Bartlett et al., 1996; Foster et al., 1996). However, weight cycling can be a source of frustration, disappointment and shame (Bartlett et al., 1996).

However, Tish (2013) adds that not only psychological, but social, cognitive and emotional factors contribute to weight cycling. To find relevant discussion of these factors I also looked at weight loss, its maintenance and regain literature, since weight cycling is essentially weight loss and weight regain. One of the cognitive factors that influence relapse is dichotomous thinking (black and white thinking: one wishes to weigh x, but after dieting finds weighing x +2, hence is still ‘fat’) (Byrne et al., 2003, Byrne et al., 2004). This type of thinking was more characteristic of relapsers of weight loss than weight loss maintainers (Byrne et al., 2003). It was also found that dichotomous thinking was significantly higher among relapsers in comparison to maintainers (Byrne et al., 2004). Furthermore, emotional eating was more frequent among relapsers too (Byrne et al., 2003). Whale et al. (2014) identified wider (societal pressure) and immediate (friends and family) social factors that have impact on weight loss struggles. It has been suggested that participants’ motivations to lose weight were primarily influenced by media pressures to be thin. Participants struggled to find motivations to maintain weight due to lack of support from immediate social environment.

There are many more factors that influence weight cycling: in her master thesis, van de Pol (2015) identified psychological, social, emotional, environmental, physical and lifestyle factors. Although exploring that many factors is beyond the scope of this research project (due to the word limit), I expected to at least find psychological, cognitive and social factors present, but did not specify this in my research question so as that not to miss what participants came up with. The literature on weight cycling I reviewed appears to mainly focus on overweight and obese individuals. Tish (2013) noted that much less research focuses on weight cycling in normal weight individuals. Furthermore, most of the research relied on self-report measures and statistical associations between factors. I identified a lack of reports that focus on individual experiences of weight cycling. Qualitative phenomenological approach seemed the most appropriate as it provides an in-depth understanding of the person as an active actor who is also socially and culturally embedded (Stenner & Lazard, 2015). Ability to study a person in context is important for this topic, as weight-related issues often arise in response to sociocultural expectations and are not merely individualistic (Bessenoff & Del Priore, 2007).

In this research, I intended to explore what it is like to go through cycles of weight gain and weight loss, and what struggles come up in relation to this experience. My research reflects both the struggles discussed in weight-related literature and a sense of struggle I got while reading the transcripts: what are the struggles that women identify in relation to their weight cycling experience?

Methodology and method

I aimed to explore the relational and embodied meanings of women’s experiences of their own weight. I thus decided to choose a hermeneutic phenomenological approach as described by van Manen (1990). This approach focuses on lived experience and the meaning given to the phenomena is found within participant’s account (van Manen, 1990).

To get a better understanding of the research question that focused on weight experience I needed to gather detailed and rich descriptions of this particular experience. As I was interested in subjective experiences, the best data collection method to do that seemed to be individual interviews. It provided more intimacy and a deeper understanding of an individual experience, something that might be lost in a focus group dynamics. I came up with the questions myself. I aimed for it to reflect my interest in both struggles and experience of one’s weight more generally (see appendix 5).


I initially planned to recruit male participants but I was unsuccessful. This could have been affected by several factors. My gender, age, men being less inclined to talk about their weight or the fact that fewer men than women take part in research generally (Glenn, 2012).

When I tried to recruit male participants for my study I asked people around if they knew anyone suitable for the research. Many women said they did not but would gladly participate in a female version research on this topic. When none of the male participants I found could actually do the interview, I decided to look for women. That was relatively easy as I referred back to the women who expressed the wish in the first place. All 3 women (including pilot) were my clients with who I have a professional but friendly relationship with.

Participant 1 is 24-year-old and participant 2 is aged 58. Both identified as normal weight individuals, but someone who have struggled with their weight on and off throughout their lives so far.


I have identified 4 themes: food, drink and social environment, time, clothes and emotions. Some themes highlighted different aspects of participants’ experiences within the theme. I briefly introduce a theme, a few quotes, followed by my interpretation, summarise the theme and identify dimension of a lifeworld where appropriate.

Theme 1: Food, drink and social environment

Both participants identified food and drink as sources of weight gain and struggle. Paradoxically, food and drink was also reported to be an intrinsic part of social life, a bonding experience.

Participant 1 reported that depending on whether her second half would look after his diet or not, she would lose or gain weight:


         I just adapted and I tried to maintain it (weight) <…> I don’t want him to break up with me if  

         I’m not from the same kind of circle of people <…>. (176-180).

         I’m also happy when I’m dating a guy who’s not fit, who’s not <…>. I’m happy even though I        

         eat a lot, but I feel happy inside. But when I look in the mirror I don’t feel that happy… (48-50)


Participant describes feeling insecure about her weight in a relationship with a ‘fit’ guy. Dating not a ‘fit’ guy, however, seems to bring some dissonance. She describes feeling happy about the relationship but unhappy about her weight. This possibly indicates the internalised societal pressures around being slim. It seems that she tries to model herself onto her social environment but has some culturally-induced internalised insecurities about her weight.

Participant 2 on the other hand, experienced peer pressure to drink and eat unhealthy:


     <…> if I said ‘no I can’t eat that <…> I’m on a diet’. It’s a ‘oh, don’t be ridiculous that doesn’t

    matter, of course you can <…> A lot of peer pressure around drinking <…> I have periods when I

    try not to drink alcohol. But the minute you get into any social situation or setting, that’s it. (55-61).


It seems that her personal weight goals seem incompatible with behaviours of her social circle, thus she receives no support. Peer pressure is experienced as negative as she wants to fit in at the cost of giving up on her goal of weight loss.

Participants also noted the abundance and availability of unhealthy food which makes it even harder to resist their ‘biggest struggle’.


      <…> another real difficulty is the abundance of food and drinks. So everywhere you go. <…>

      P2: I’ve got to go and pick up my newspaper from the corner shop. <…>

       the whole shop is just full of sweets and chocolates and biscuits and cakes <…> (68-78).


Participant describes experiencing difficulty in a space (shop) and its objects that stand out to her (cakes, biscuits). It appears that even mundane tasks become a struggle because of having to face unhealthy food. This seems to extend beyond just one shop. The shop is just a representative of a wider obesogenic environment that she has to face everywhere she goes.

This theme points out to the importance of one’s social circle: it can have a positive and negative effect on one’s weight struggles. Although it seems that a degree of insecurity about weight remains. Similarly, more immediate social and cultural environment seem to encourage increased consumption and thus continuous cycle of weight loss attempts and weight gain behaviours.

Theme 2: time

This theme is concerned with time markers for dieting, length of diets and experience of own weight in time.

Mondays, summer and upcoming holidays seem to be the catalysts for weight loss:


    P1: <…> I’m going on holidays in a month, let’s say. So I need to lose this amount in a month <…>

    <…> I’ll do it quickly and then hopefully it will stay like this. Of

    course it never does<…> to me main struggle is long-term goals. (106-110).

    I don’t even know how many diets I’ve tried and probably the longest one, was I don’t know,    

    probably a week. Or maybe two weeks (110-111).


In these extracts, participant hopes that short-term weight loss results will continue long-term. It seems that participant experiences cognitive dissonance: she knows that short-term attempts will not bring long-term results and yet she struggles to commit long-term.


      P2: <…> here I am, back in the same position… but I’ve been in this position for <…>

      twenty years up and down up and down. (131-133).


Participant describes her ‘position’ in time. Her weight struggles are experienced as stretching over a long period of time. It is like her weight cycling is cyclical and there is a sense of being stuck in that cyclical pattern.

This theme suggests that time is experienced both as transient and reiterative. The effects of weight loss are short-lived hence in time the weight gain occurs. Because participants struggle to commit long-term, they experience continuous weight cycling.

Theme 3: clothes

Clothes represent body changes during weight loss and weight gain. It can also reflect personal and social standards.


     P1: <…> when you lose some weight you’re skirt spins around. If you gain it, you can barely do

     the buttons and do the zip. So… I don’t feel good about it. (253-255).


Clothes are described as important items through which participants experience their weight loss and regain. It seems to bring positive or negative experience depending on the cycle (loss or regain) participant is in.


  P2: <…> I would like to stay, be in size sixteen. But <…> I do have size eighteen in my

  wardrobe that I have to go into. Which is a shame. (89-91).


It seems that a bigger size clothing is experienced as a ‘bigger’ body and suggests a shift from personal body standard as reflected in preferred size. The changes in the body can also produce discontent.


P1: <…> if you go to shops, all the mannequins are <…> the smallest sizes like models are. So,

that makes you, compare yourself. <…> ok, you see a pair of jeans on a skinny size 6 model <…>

when you get your own size <…> I look quite fat. <…> they put in your mind that you should be

more like that<…> Because (that’s whom) they design clothes for. (282-291).


Participant describes a space (a shop) and objects (clothes) which seem to create a struggle between social standards that are reflected in clothes and her own size. It seems that because of internalised standards she finds it hard to judge her own size (hence body) correctly, therefore she experiences her body as fat.

In this theme, clothes seem to reflect both changes in the body and social standards. The physical items bring about physical and emotional struggles that are to some extent affected by wider socio-cultural environment as reflected in shopping experiences.

Theme 4: emotional status

This theme describes emotional states in relation to their current weight and weight cycling in general. It further divides into subthemes where participant 1 describes her emotions and family whilst participant 2 discusses emotional eating.

Talking about their current weight, both participants described feeling hopeless and disappointed:


   P1: <…> I think, I’m weighing most than I ever did in my life and, I feel like I’m hopeless to

   change it. Because I’ve tried. Maybe not hard enough, maybe I don’t have enough motivation    

    <…> (207-209).

    P2: Because the worst thing in my life is something that I’ve got control over. <…> I decide what

    I put in my mouth. <…> I am disappointed with myself about this on a regular basis. (143-145).


It appears that disappointment and hopelessness are experienced as a result of not ‘being motivated enough’. Both participants seem to experience self-blame and feel like it’s their fault that they cannot control their eating behaviours and weight.


      P1: So I think there were two times when I was quite happy about my weight. But let

      me mention that I was never perfectly happy about it because <…> most of the

      time the skinnier you are the fitter you are the fitter you want to be (127-129).


In this excerpt participant suggests that achieving her ‘happy’ weight still did not make her happy. It seems that she strives for perfection but never quite gets there. It might be that that perfection mindset contributes to the weight gain. As participant 2 describes when talking about why she struggles to maintain weight after diet:


      P2: You know, I put (a little) weight on and almost go to the other extreme. (141).


It seems to be an expectation that the ‘perfect’ weight must be maintained, otherwise any weight gain is considered a failure and thus leads to weight regain. It might be that such black and white thinking contributes to weight cycling experiences.

Participant’s 1 emotions and her family

On a weight gain occasions, participant reported receiving comments from her parents:


    <…> I actually received a few comments from my parents, not my mum but my dad. He’s quite

     harsh and he just says  everything directly (74-76). it just made me feel… sad. (79)

     <…> she looked at some pictures from previous times, from when I was quite fit,

     <…> And said ‘oh, look at you <…> you look so skinny <…> I really didn’t need her to point this

     out. Especially my mom who would never say anything, so that already means a lot to me.

     And it made me feel sad <…>


In these excerpts participant mentions mom and dad who’s opinion seems important to her. The events include two different weight regain time points where participant describes feeling sad and there is a sense of being hurt by these comments.

Participant 2: emotional eating

Participant described joining a diet club at age 18 and indicated that this changed her relationship with food:


     <…> it made me analyse what I was eating too much and thinking ‘oh, am

     I allowed to have this chocolate or maybe I won’t have this chocolate’. So, for a day, two days,

     three days, I wouldn’t have a chocolate bar. And then on the fourth day because I was so

     desperate, I’d eat three chocolate bars. Whereas, I’d never done that before. (20-23).


Participant describes feeling deprived of eating treats. It seems that this feeling then triggers emotional eating to comfort herself for experiencing discomfort. It seems that she attributes this struggle to joining a diet club that made her overanalyse food which in turn creates tension and negative emotions.


   <…>if I feel a bit bored, or fed up, or lonely <…> I cheer myself up, have my nice little

   treats <…>. I just use it as a way of sort, making myself feel better. (81-84).


Participant seems aware of her emotions and what triggers her to overeat. These feelings are a struggle in that she cannot override her habit of comforting herself with food instead of dealing with emotions some other way.

In general, this theme described negative emotions that women struggle with in weight cycling. In weight gain stages, participants experience disappointment and self-blame that seem to prevent them from moving forward. Weight loss, however, never brings quite enough satisfaction either, possibly due to cultural pressures.  For participant 1, family was a source of negative emotions in terms of her weight while participant 2 used food for emotional regulation.


In terms of research question, the present study identified two broad themes: psychological and social struggles. Psychological struggles also involve cognitive (black and white thinking, experience of time) and emotional (emotional eating, reaction to environment) struggles whilst social struggles are experienced in immediate social (family, friends) and wider socio-cultural (social standards, obesogenic environment) environment. It seems that most psychological and emotional difficulties are influenced by social and cultural environments. Additional two themes, time and clothes, also reflect psychological and social struggles. This suggests that women experience psychological and social struggles in relation to their weight cycling.

Links with the literature

The findings of my analysis resonate with some research findings in the field. Although Foreyt et al. (1985) suggested that people experiencing weight cycling reported lower-levels of well-being and depression, participants did not explicitly discussed that. It could be argued, however, that weight fluctuation brings a certain degree of dissatisfaction as reported by participants which may affect general well-being. When asked about their current feelings about their weight, participants did report experiencing hopelessness because they have tried and failed so many times. This suggests that they might have lower self-efficacy as Foreyt et al. proposed.  Similarly, suggestion that weight cyclers experience more body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem (Friedman et al., 1998) are reflected in participants’ reports of never being fully satisfied no matter how much weight have been lost as well as trying to lose weight to stay in a relationship with a ‘fit’ boyfriend. It is difficult to say whether women in the present study experienced more psychological issues due to self-perceived or actual number of times of weight cycling. It seemed that at this point, especially for participant 2, weight cycling has become something she has been doing since 18, so the number of times and experience of weight cycling over time has combined. This relates to Enriquez et al. (2013; cited in van de Pol, 2015) findings which suggest that onset of dieting that begins at earlier age is associated with repeated weight cycling episodes in the future. Furthermore, weight cycling did appear to be a source of frustration, disappointment and shame as indicated by Bartlett et al. (1996).

Cognitively, both participants seemed to struggle with dichotomous thinking which supports the findings by Byrne et al. (2003) and Byrne et al. (2004). The black and white thinking was apparent in participants’ reports of not being fully satisfied with weight loss and/or putting a little weight after weight loss. Such mind set created dissatisfaction and inadequacy with oneself and hence abandonment of efforts as well as produced negative emotions (self-blame, dissatisfaction, frustration). In line with Byrne et al. (2004) findings, weight cycling and emotional eating did seem to correlate with participant 2 experiences. It is possible that participant’s 2 emotional eating could be associated with attending Weight Watchers after which she reported having experienced tension around food. Similar experiences were put forward by participants in Green et al. (2009) research.

In contrast to individualistic view of person’s weight cycling as discussed in the studies above, my research suggested that weight cycling experiences are also influenced by more immediate social and cultural environments. Women in Whale et al. (2014) study reported that they attempted weight loss due to external cultural pressure to be thin. This reflects participant’s 1 experiences of feeling fat when the clothes on a mannequin looked better than her own body. She seemed aware that such ideal was unrealistic and yet this undermined her competence and self-esteem. Such psychological experiences could contribute to her weight cycling as discussed above. The same study also reported that lack of support from immediate social context was also a struggle for participants who tried to lose and maintain weight. Similarly to participant’s 2 experiences, women in Whale et al. study reported that their friends were unsupportive and undermined their goals. This poses a conflict between cultural (thin body as desirable) and social norms that require food and drink consumption at social occasions (Whale et al., 2014). Similar to this study, participant 1 also received negative comments from her family which in turn undermines one’s sense of relatedness and can have negative emotional outcomes (Whale et al., 2014). Arguably, the negative emotions experienced pose a struggle that increases chances of relapse (van de Pol, 2015).  

Both participants seemed to engage in dieting for different reasons. Although both experienced immediate social struggles, 24-year-old participant 1 appeared to experience more cultural pressure that is concerned with appearance while 58-year-old participant 2 suggested she wanted to lose weight for health reasons (‘I have got a good friend who is pre-diabetic and it’s the type 2 diabetes which is all around lifestyle. So I have got to do something’ (148-150)). This is in line with the findings of Putterman and Linden (2004) who reported that younger participants dieted due appearance reasons while older women were more concerned with health. Although this might be one of the reasons, it is definitely not the only one. Besides, Putterman and Linden suggested that older cohort’s eating was less restrained which is not supported by participant’s 2 comments on restraining herself from certain foods and then ‘breaking down’ and eating it. One of the physical factors that influence yo-yo dieting in van de Pol’s thesis (2015) was obesogenic environment (environment which constantly encourages people to consume large amounts of unhealthy food) that is reflected in shops and supermarkets. Participants in the present study also reported to be struggling with the availability of unhealthy food ‘everywhere you go’. Both proximity and availability contribute to weight cycling (Giskes et al., 2011; cited in van de Pol, 2015).


I chose this topic for personal reasons. I myself have struggled with weight cycling as well as have some people in my circle who have. In my experience, it is primarily women who struggle and we seem to share similar experiences regardless of age. Perhaps that is why I first decided to study men’s experiences, as I wanted to see if theirs were any different. I did not succeed in recruiting males, perhaps due to my gender.

 I already knew the women I interviewed. Furthermore, we have discussed weight issues and struggles in the past. It is likely that what they reported could have reflected some of our conversations. I also live in a Western society where thin body culture is very prevalent among my friends as well as media. This could have affected the struggles I detected in participants’ accounts.

Evaluation and future research

Although most of the research in the field focused on psychological outcomes of weight cycling, the findings in this research suggest that we should start addressing the struggles that women face during the process. Van de Pol (2015) suggested that weight regain prevention is extremely important as it could prevent repeated cycles of weight loss and weight gain. By knowing what women struggle with during both weight loss and regain stages, we could devise some preventative advice for women which they could use for social, cognitive or emotional situations they struggle with. In theory, this study contributed to a growing number of studies which have argued for a more definitive definition of weight cycling. As of now, the biological definition is primary, however there is no official definition that is agreed upon (Tish, 2013). From this and other psychological studies, it seems that weight cycling definition should consider involving biological and psychological outcomes as well as social and cultural influences.

The present study found that participants experienced psychological, emotional, cognitive and social struggles during their weight cycling. This research could have benefited from focusing on struggles of a specific weight cycling cycle (either weight loss or regain) as some of them differ. For instance, after weight regain participants reported struggling with disappointment and self-blame whilst during or after weight loss, more difficulties in social environments arose. The present study is one of the few that studied normal weight women. However, ‘normal’ weight was self-reported by the participants and I should have asked for BMI’s to establish a baseline for comparison with other studies. The literature seems to have established that weight cycling has psychological consequences, but has focused very little on social and cultural factors that are present in this study. Further research should address the lack of causes of weight cycling as well as focus on the effects of ‘thin’ body culture represented by the media, obesogenic environment and more immediate social environment.


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