Most Americans have heard of calories, and a large percentage of us have “counted calories” to lose weight. CICO is an acronym for Calories In, Calories Out, and it’s far from a new idea. Since about the 1920’s, women in particular have carefully tabulated the calories in the food they eat. Nonetheless, obesity rates continue to rise across all genders, ages and races.
CICO is not a diet per se. You don’t get a list of foods to eat and another to avoid. You don’t have to eat a specific number of servings from a single food group. Instead, you simply count calories. A calorie is simply a unit of measurement that calculates how much energy a food produces. In fact, one calorie in food raises the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. Originally, scientists would literally set food on fire to make that determination.
The potential pitfalls of CICO
When it comes to nutritional value, calories are not always the same. So if someone practices CICO, they risk consuming 1,500 calories worth of Twinkies and soda instead of an equivalent amount of salads and lean protein. Despite being more nutritious, CICO advocates believe these individuals will lose the same amount of weight at the end of the day.
Experts are concerned that CICO’s focus is solely on calories, with no regard for nutritional content or other health concerns. Satisfaction is also not taken into account at CICO. For example, you could eat a large grilled chicken salad or an oversized candy bar for the same number of calories. Apparently, the lettuce keeps you full and full for longer thanks to the fiber, protein and water it contains.
Another CICO downside is that it doesn’t take into account when we eat throughout the day, according to Molly Kimball, founder of Ochsner Eat Fit, a nonprofit nutrition initiative and nutrition author, speaker and host of the FUELED Wellness + Nutrition podcast, and consultant in the area from New Orleans. “So there can be certain things that are strategically useful to help fuel post-workout, or different things that can really help optimize our mental and physical performance and recovery and how we feel throughout the day. “
Preoccupation with calories or other individual nutrients can also lead to disturbed eating habits. Kimball says, “It saddens me when we live our lives by this rolling calculator so that we can feel like we’re living in an added up world throughout the day. So I think breaking the calorie count can be very liberating. Become more mindful instead of the quality of the food we put into our bodies.”
“The macronutrient content of your food has a major impact on satiety (how full you feel at the end of your meals) and satiety (how long before you feel hungry again). So the same number of calories can really “feel”. different than you depending on macronutrient levels,” adds Monica Reinagel, 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 people lose weight without Help dieters by changing their mindset and habits.
“Rather than have people walking around with a spreadsheet and a calculator, I’d like them to focus on how different they are groceries and meals affect their appetite, energy, and weight loss so they can begin to develop a healthier relationship with food and eating, rather than a dieter’s mindset.”
Understand basal metabolism
If you want to try the CICO diet, you must first determine your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR. This is the number of calories you burn, essentially staying alive each day – breathing, maintaining a heartbeat, and digesting food. It’s the number of calories you would burn each day if you were immobilized and on bed rest.
Then add the number of calories you burned from non-workout exercise and planned physical activity. For an average adult, BMR ranged from 1,027 to almost 2,500 calories in a day in one study. Anyone who has counted calories knows that it makes a significant difference in the amount of food you can eat and lose or maintain your current weight.
There are online calculators that you can use to calculate your BMR. However, as Kimball explains, “Unless someone lives in a metabolic chamber in a lab, it’s just a guess.”
“The biggest misconception is that this is a number that you can pinpoint with some kind of calculator where you put your age, height, activity level and so on,” Reinagel says. “These calculations are only estimates and are often extremely inaccurate. This error is then compounded by calculators that tell you how many calories you burn doing different activities. These can also be extremely inaccurate. Often basing your calorie intake on these estimates leads to a lot of frustration and disappointment because it’s not producing the results you’re told.”
Some fitness centers also offer tests that require you to breathe into a handheld device, usually early in the morning while you’re still drowsy and before you eat, drink, or exercise.
Many are surprised to learn that physical activity generally accounts for only 15% to 30% of the calories burned each day. And there’s no consistency either — two people of the same age, sex, and height can do the same workout and burn 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 cannot lead to weight loss. However, research has proven that many factors other than calorie intake influence weight gain or loss, including age, quality of sleep, stress level, individual metabolism, fluid intake, physical activity, genetics, and hormonal influences.
“Calories aren’t the only and probably not the most important part of the picture,” says Kimball. “Even the timing can be different. Intermittent fasting might work for others, while eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day might work for others. And both can be really good for the individual.”
High-calorie ultra-processed foods
Experts know that ultra-processed foods increase the risk of many health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke and kidney disease. Ultra-processed foods contain sugar, salt and fat, as well as artificial colors and preservatives. They often also contain artificial flavors and stabilizers to increase their shelf life. Examples of ultra-processed foods include corn chips, frozen lasagna, hot dogs, and snack cakes. Some studies have shown that people who eat a diet high in ultra-processed foods burn a lot more calories and, as a result, put on more weight. This is mainly due to the much higher calorie density of ultra-processed foods compared to less processed foods.
For example, calorie density indicates how many calories are in one gram of food. Three small slices of cheese (commonly referred to as cracker chunks) contain as many calories as six cups of pickles. Due to the increase in processed foods, it is estimated that the average person today consumes about 300 more calories per day than they did in 1970.
Kimball describes the “energy roller coaster ride” that results from a diet high in these ultra-processed foods, which leads people to believe they are addicted to carbohydrates and sugar, and often experience cravings. This is the result of erratic blood sugar levels caused by a diet high in highly refined foods.
Instead of just focusing on calories and numbers, Kimball recommends paying attention to how we feel 20 or 30 minutes after eating. For example, if you decide to have a piece of cake in the break room at 10 a.m., you shouldn’t be thinking about the grams of sugar or the calories, but about how tired you’ll feel in a few hours when your blood runs out of sugar coming back down. Energy levels can be the barometer of how food is affecting us if we pay attention to it throughout the day.
“Are we getting enough protein and fats, preferably vegetable fats, in our meals? These things can greatly affect our energy and mood. Adjusting to how we’re feeling can really push us to make more nutritious food choices.”