NEW ORLEANS — Yo-yo dieting — repeatedly losing and regaining weight — increased the risk of dying from heart disease among postmenopausal women who started out at a normal weight in a new study.

“Weight cycling is an emerging global health concern associated with attempts of weight loss, but there have been inconsistent results about the health hazards for those who experience weight cycling behavior,” said the study’s lead investigator Somwail Rasla, M.D., of Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island.

The research was presented Tuesday at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions.

Previous studies indicate that being overweight in midlife increases the risk of dying from coronary heart disease and sudden cardiac death. But it’s unclear whether losing and regaining weight in adulthood also increases the risk of death from these heart diseases.

Researchers classified self-reported weight history from 158,063 postmenopausal women into four categories: stable weight, steady gain, maintained weight loss and weight cycling. During a follow-up of 11.4 years, they found:

  • Women considered normal-weight at the start of the study who lost and regained weight had about three and a half times higher risk for sudden cardiac death than women whose weight remained stable.
  • Weight cycling in the normal-weight women was also associated with a 66 percent increased risk for dying from coronary heart disease.
  • No increase in either type of death occurred among overweight or obese women reporting weight cycling.
  • Similarly, no increase in deaths occurred among women who reported that they gained weight but did not lose it or, in the opposite scenario, that they lost weight without gaining it back.

The study has several limitations. The study was observational, meaning it could only show an association and not a cause-and-effect relationship. In addition, the study relied on self-reports, which could be inaccurate and included only older women. Since sudden cardiac death occurred relatively infrequently, the cases that did occur could have resulted from chance.

“More research is needed before any recommendations can be made for clinical care regarding the risks of weight cycling, since these results apply only to postmenopausal women and not to younger-aged women or men,” Rasla said.