Most Americans have heard of calories before, and a large percentage of us have “counted calories” to lose weight. CICO is an acronym for calories in, calories out,” and it is far from a new idea. Since roughly 1920, women, especially, have carefully tabulated the calories in the food that they consume. Yet, the rate of obesity continues to skyrocket across all genders, ages and races.
CICO isn’t a diet per se. You won’t be given a list of foods to eat and another to avoid. You won’t have to eat a certain number of servings from any single food group. Instead, you just count calories. A calorie is simply a unit of measure that calculates how much energy a food produces. To be precise, one calorie in food will raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one-degree Celsius. Originally, scientists would literally set food on fire to make this determination.
[Read: Calorie Reduction vs Fasting.]
The Potential Pitfalls of CICO
When it comes to nutritional value, calories are not created equal. So, when someone practices CICO, there’s the risk that they will eat 1,500 calories worth of Twinkies and soda instead of an equivalent amount from salads and lean protein. Even though one is more nutritionally replete, CICO advocates believe these individuals will lose the same amount of weight at the end of the day.
Experts are concerned that the focus of CICO is solely on calories, without any regard to nutrient content or other health concerns. Satisfaction is also not considered with CICO. You could, for example, eat a large grilled chicken salad or a king-size candy bar for the same number of calories. Obviously, the salad will keep you satisfied and feeling full for much longer, thanks to the fiber, protein and water it contains.
Another CICO drawback is that it doesn’t take into consideration the timing of when we eat throughout our day, according to Molly Kimball, the founder of Ochsner Eat Fit, a nonprofit nutrition initiative, and a nutrition writer, speaker, host of the FUELED Wellness + Nutrition podcast and consultant in the New Orleans area. “So there may be certain things that strategically make sense for how to fuel after a workout or different things that just can really help optimize our mental and physical performance and recovery and how we’re feeling throughout the day.”
A preoccupation with calories or other individual nutrients can also lead to disordered eating habits. Kimball says, “It saddens me when we live our lives by that ongoing calculator so it can have us feeling that we are living in a tallied up world throughout the day. So I think freeing ourselves from counting calories can be very liberating. Becoming more mindful instead of the quality of the types of foods that we are choosing to put into our bodies.”
“The macronutrient content of your foods will have a big impact on satiation (how full you feel at the end of your meals) and satiety (how long before you get hungry again). So, the same number of calories may “feel” really different to you, depending on the macronutrient content,” adds Monica Reinagel, a nutritionist, behavior change coach and host of the Nutrition Diva podcast, co-host of the Change Academy podcast and co-founder of the Weighless program, a program designed to help individuals lose weight without dieting, by changing their mindset and habits.
“Rather than have people running around with a spreadsheet and calculator, I’d rather have them focus on how different foods and meals affect their appetite, energy and weight loss, so that they can start developing a healthier relationship with food and eating instead of a dieter’s mindset.”
Understanding Basal Metabolic Rate
If you want to try the CICO diet, you’ll first need to determine your basal metabolic rate, or BMR. This is the number of calories you burn, essentially staying alive daily — breathing, maintaining a heartbeat and digesting food. It’s the number of calories you’d burn each day if you were immobilized and on bed rest.
Then, you’ll add the number of calories you burned through non-exercise movement and planned physical activity. For an average adult, the BMR in one study ranged from 1,027 to almost 2,500 calories in a day. For anyone who’s counted calories, you know this represents a considerable difference in the amount of food one can eat and lose weight or maintain their current weight.
There are calculators online that can help you calculate your BMR. However, as Kimball explains, “unless someone is living in a metabolic chamber in a lab, it’s only a guess.”
“The biggest misconception is that this is a number that you can accurately determine with some sort of calculator, where you input your age, height, activity level and so on,” according to Reinagel. “These calculations are merely estimates and often, extremely inaccurate ones. This error is then compounded by calculators that tell you how many calories you burn doing various activities. Again, these may be extremely inaccurate. Basing your caloric intake on these estimates often leads to a lot of frustration and disappointment because it doesn’t produce the results that you’re told it will.”
Some fitness centers also offer testing, which generally requires you to breathe into a handheld machine early in the morning while you’re still sleepy and before eating, drinking or exercising.
Many are surprised to learn that physical activity generally accounts for only 15% to 30% of the total calories burnt daily. And there’s no consistency either — two people of the same age, sex and size can do the same workout and use up to 20% fewer or more calories than the other.
It’s More Than Calories
Although there are many critics of the CICO method, very few people argue that it can’t lead to weight loss. However, research has proven that many factors influence weight gain or loss other than calorie intake, including age, sleep quality, stress level, individual metabolism, fluid intake, physical activity, genetics and hormonal influences.
“Calories are not the only, and probably not the most important, part of the picture,” according to Kimball. “Even timing might differ. Intermittent fasting might work for others, while eating small, frequent meals throughout the day might work for others. And both of those can be really nice fits for the individual.”
Calorically Dense Ultra-Processed Foods
Experts know that ultra-processed foods increase the risk for many health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke and kidney disease. Ultra-processed foods have sugar, salt and fat added, as well as artificial colors and preservatives. They often contain artificial flavoring and stabilizers to increase their shelf stability, as well. Examples of ultra-processed foods are corn chips, frozen lasagna, hot dogs and snack cakes. Some studies have shown that people who eat a diet rich in ultra-processed foods consume many more calories and experience more weight as a result. This is mainly a result of the much higher caloric density of ultra-processed foods compared to less processed foods.
Caloric density refers to how many calories are contained in a gram of food, for example. Three small slices of cheese (commonly referred to as cracker cuts) contain as many calories as six cups of cucumber. Because of the growth of processed foods, it’s been estimated that the average person now eats roughly 300 more calories a day than in 1970.
Kimball describes the “energy roller coaster” that results from eating a diet high in these ultra-processed foods, which causes people to believe that they are addicted to carbs and sugar and to experience frequent food cravings. This is a result of erratic blood glucose caused by a diet rich in highly-refined foods.
Instead of focusing solely on calories and numbers, Kimball recommends being mindful of how we feel 20 or 30 minutes after eating. For example, if you choose to have a piece of cake in the breakroom at 10 in the morning, it’s not the grams of sugar or calories that you should think about, but instead how tired you might feel in a couple of hours when your blood sugar comes back down. Energy level can be the barometer of how food affects us if we pay attention to it throughout the day.
“Are we getting enough protein and fats, preferable plant-based fats, at our meals? These things can greatly affect our energy and mood. Tuning in to how we’re feeling can really lead us to choose more nourishing foods.”
More from U.S. News