BACKGROUND AND OBJECTIVES: Peoples' attempts to lose weight by low calorie diets often result in weight gain because of over-compensatory overeating during lapses. Animals usually respond to a change in food availability by adjusting their foraging effort and altering how much energy reserves they store. But in many situations the long-term availability of food is uncertain, so animals may attempt to estimate it to decide the appropriate level of fat storage.
METHODOLOGY: We report the results of a conceptual model of feeding in which the animal knows whether food is currently abundant or limited, but does not know the proportion of time, there will be an abundance in the long-term and has to learn it.
RESULTS: If the food supply is limited much of the time, such as during cycles of dieting attempts, the optimal response is to gain a lot of weight when food is abundant.
CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS: This implies that recurring attempts to diet, by signalling to the body that the food supply is often insufficient, will lead to a greater fat storage than if food was always abundant. Our results shed light on the widespread phenomenon of weight gain during weight cycling and indicate possible interventions that may reduce the incidence of obesity.