For those who frequent online discussion groups about nutrition, the conversation always takes a familiar turn around the subject of weight loss. "Weight loss is easy!" someone will insist. "Just burn more calories than you take in!" That idea is espoused by everyone from doctors to fitness gurus and has recently become popular under a new name: the CICO Diet. It seems logical, but it has proven to be controversial. How do you know if the CICO diet is for you?
CICO stands for Calories In/Calories Out. The diet uses the longstanding practice of counting calories, a system many people once found burdensome and difficult to do accurately. However, with a plethora of food-tracking apps available, more people are keeping a closer eye on what they consume during the day, making it much easier to count calories. The CICO diet’s main premise is that if you keep yourself in a calorie deficit, spending more calories than you consume, you are sure to lose weight. For the CICO diet, it doesn't matter what form the calories take, as long as you are spending more than you eat.
Burning calories is an important part of weight loss, whether someone follows the CICO diet or not. In fact, burning calories is an important part of life, since the human body burns calories no matter what it does. The most relaxed activities, such as sleeping, sitting, or simply breathing, burn calories. When it comes to the CICO Diet, it’s important to be much more intentional about burning calories, since the goal is to burn more calories than you take in. There are many activities and exercises that burn significant calories, including walking, dancing, yoga, rowing, and tai chi.
There are some grand claims for CICO, all of them sounding something like “The only diet that CAN work is the CICO diet!” For true believers in CICO, the logic is inescapable and unassailable: you can only lose weight if you take in fewer calories, forcing your body to burn stored fat for energy. However, weight gain and loss are very complex issues. A calorie is not just a calorie; different types of calories are metabolized in different ways and affect people’s bodies differently. For many people, nutrients are far more important than calories, and the CICO diet doesn’t address nutrients at all. The bottom line is, the CICO diet may work for you if your problem is that you eat too much or exercise too little. If there are any other reasons for your weight gain, though, CICO will not be enough.
Not always. First of all, people tend to overestimate how many calories they burn. Exercise is beneficial for many reasons, but not primarily because it burns calories. A hamburger patty is about 354 calories, and some intensive forms of exercise burn a similar amount in about an hour: cycling for an hour burns about this many calories, but most people don't cycle for a full hour. Even if you do manage to maintain a calorie deficit, that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically lose weight. For one thing, fewer calories means less energy, which leads to less activity. Plus, the body adjusts to having fewer calories and will start to slow down the rate at which it burns them. Your body is actually working against operating at a calorie deficit. So, burning calories doesn’t always lead to weight loss.
The CICO diet may not work for everyone, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits for some people. According to nutritionists, the CICO diet can, in fact, promote weight loss. In many cases, operating at a calorie deficit forces the body to burn fat for energy, resulting in weight loss. CICO also helps people become more aware of their food intake, which is always a positive thing for both weight loss and general health. Another benefit is that CICO is very simple, especially if you have an app that will track calories for you. As long as you keep in the range of 1200-1500 calories, it doesn’t matter if you eat low carb and high protein, low fat, and high fiber, or any other combination. Just enter it into your Fitbit and stop eating when you reach your limit.
That said, there are also drawbacks to CICO. A lower caloric intake prompts the body to reduce the rate at which it burns calories, so in some cases, following CICO actually works against weight loss. In addition, caloric content varies in foods depending on how they are processed and cooked. For example, a raw sweet potato has fewer calories and takes more calories to digest, than a cooked one, resulting in a higher caloric deficit. Furthermore, the CICO diet does not take into account people’s nutritional needs. So, according to CICO, it’s perfectly reasonable to eat four Snickers bars a day and nothing else, because you will consume less than 1500 calories. But will four candy bars a day and nothing else result in both weight loss and good health? According to nutritionists and multiple medical studies, it’s highly unlikely.
In addition to the fact that the CICO diet may not work, it could be downright dangerous. CICO only counts calories, and it does not require or forbid any specific foods, so those following it -- particularly people coming into the diet with bad eating habits -- may be consuming excessive amounts of sugar and saturated fats, or far less fiber or other nutrients, than they need. These dietary issues can lead to serious health problems, including elevated insulin levels, digestive issues, vitamin deficiencies, and anemia. Your energy levels will also drop, which means productivity, focus and even reaction time decrease as well.
Many nutritionists are not on board with the CICO Diet. They almost universally object to the central premise of CICO, that it doesn’t matter what form your calories take, as long as you are burning more than you’re ingesting. This approach does not guarantee either health or weight loss, and it’s not an efficient way to burn calories. Nutritionists point out that whole foods, raw foods, and proteins take more energy to digest than highly processed or nutritionally empty foods, even if they have the same number of calories. Therefore, it’s almost impossible to get a good sense of how many calories you’re burning, even if you can measure how many you’re consuming.
Nutritionists do consider weight loss when they help their patients formulate meal plans, but they are also concerned about overall health and quality of life. According to most nutritionists, both weight loss and health can be achieved by eating a healthy balance of nutritious foods. You don't have to strictly count calories; once you've established a good understanding and habits, it’s enough to eyeball your plate and see whether you have reasonable portions of proteins, unrefined carbohydrates, fats, and vegetables. Eating healthy, balanced foods is actually easier than counting the calories of everything you put in your mouth.
There are many diets on the market. Some of them work for some people or work for a short amount of time but, ultimately, the best diet for weight loss is a healthy lifestyle that includes whole foods, lots of vegetables and proteins, and moderate exercise. It’s not about following one fad or another, but making consistent healthy choices and enjoying the benefits.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.