“Yo-yo” dieting joins smoking, obesity and high blood pressure as a risk factor for heart disease, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Veterans’ Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System and the University Health System announced last week that as women pursue culturally ideal body images through a cycle of significant weight gain and loss, they are increasing the danger of heart disease later in life.

Cardiologist Claire Duvernoy and her team found that women who gained or lost at least 10 pounds over the course of a year and at least five times during their lives were more likely to have problems after menopause.

The study examined the blood flow to the heart and the effects on blood vessels in post-menopausal women who were already at high risk for heart disease, but did not have it.

“We found that the more obese a woman was, the more she had weighed in her youth – and her dieting history – lead to significantly lower blood flow in the heart,” said Duvernoy, director of the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory at the VA/Ann Arbor Healthcare System and assistant professor of internal medicine/cardiology at the Medical School.

While difficult to measure the exact increase in risk, the study showed lower blood flow caused by extreme fluctuations in weight could be an indication of blockage in the coronary arteries and could lead to a heart attack or stroke.

“Women in their 20s want to look good now,” said Amanda Thomas, a research assistant for the neuropsychology department and aerobics instructor at the Central Campus Recreation Building. “Most are definitely not thinking about how abuse of dieting is going to affect them when they are older.”

Duvernoy said more women than men have died of heart disease in the United States each year since 1984, a phenomenon that she attributed to later diagnosis and treatment and other factors.

She pointed out that the women studied were in their late 50s and 60s, indicating that yo-yo dieting has been a factor for at least 20 years.

Education student Alissa Emmons said yo-yo dieting is a problem among young women.

“Most of the people I know maintain a healthy lifestyle through exercising and watching what they eat,” she said. “But a lot of people are looking for a quick fix – they’ll try anything to get that ideal body.”

People are heavily influenced by media images and popular dieting trends, Duvernoy said. They need to get back to a more common-sense way of dealing with weight and recognize that yo-yo dieting is not a good way to attain long-term health, she suggested.

“It’s more important to maintain a healthy weight than to swing between extremes,” Duvernoy said. “We need to take a more positive approach and healthier attitude towards weight issues in this country.”

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