Is calorie counting the best way to lose weight? You know the drill: Eat less, move more, and you can lose weight, if that’s your goal. It’s common sense, and the CICO diet is all about this basic principle.
If you’re tempted to jump on the CICO bandwagon, though, take a breath – there’s more to consider here, namely whether it’s a good idea, health-wise. Let’s take a deeper dive into what CICO is really all about, and get the experts to weigh in.
The CICO diet isn’t a food plan, exactly. It’s more of a diet theory – CICO stands for “calories in, calories out.”
“The concept is based on the idea you are taking in fewer calories than you are burning, in hopes to promote weight loss,” says Kristen Smith, MS, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and a registered dietitian at Piedmont Healthcare in Atlanta. “CICO requires calorie counting or the use of an app to track how many calories you consume, and how many you burn.”
CICO doesn’t take into account what kind of calories you eat or restrict – you don’t have to eat less fat, for example. You can pretty much eat anything you want on it: You can go to town on cookies, chips and soda throughout the day, if that’s how you choose to use your calories. (Keep reading, though, for the health consequences.)
Is Calorie Counting the Best Way to Lose Weight?
How does the CICO diet work?
1. First, under the CICO diet you need to figure out how many calories you specifically need to stick to in order to lose weight, and to do that, proponents of CICO say that you should first determine your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the basic number of calories your body needs to function. There are online calculators you can use to figure that out, but they’ll only give you a ballpark estimate of what your calorie needs really are, so you’re just guessing in the end.
2. Once you know how many calories your body needs, following CICO would mean you’d eat fewer than that amount. Harvard Medical School data indicates that in order to lose a pound per week, you’d need to cut out about 500 calories per day, never going below 1,200 calories, and exercise for 20 minutes on most days.
Is the CICO diet safe for weight loss?
The expert consensus is no. “I would advise against following the CICO diet,” says Mackenzie Burgess, RDN, a registered dietician nutritionist and recipe developer at Cheerful Choices.
“The sole focus on calories is problematic,” says Burgess. “It could result in poor intake of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Although it could potentially result in weight loss, the nutrient quality of this type of diet is very poor and could actually lead to worse health outcomes.”
The way you have to manage your calories is also pretty iffy, given how much effort it can take and how busy our everyday lives are. “It often isn’t feasible to track the amount of calories eaten in a day; it takes too much time to measure out ingredients and plug foods into a calorie-counting app,” Burgess continues. “These apps also aren’t always 100% accurate. Plus, it’s also challenging to measure how many calories you burn in a day, as this varies so much among each person, and changes from day to day.”
CICO also doesn’t lay the groundwork you need to adjust your eating habits in a healthy, long-term way. “One of its major downfalls is it doesn’t teach people the importance of eating nutrient- and fiber-rich foods that can help aid in satiety,” Smith says. “CICO doesn’t put any emphasis on meal timing, or encourage you to eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables or protein.”
What’s the healthiest way to lose weight?
Take advantage of the expertise of your doctor and/or a nutritionist, know that healthy doesn’t necessarily mean thin, and listen to your body. “Utilize more of an intuitive eating mindset,” says Burgess. “Focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins. These nutritious foods will fill you up and give you the energy you need throughout the day.”
Small changes also pay big dividends. According to Mayo Clinic, cutting one high calorie item from your daily routine – like the bowl of ice cream you have for dessert every night – is a good way to kick off weight loss.
What other factors are important to weight loss?
It’s important to think about things beyond calories and what you’re eating, if you’re trying to get to or maintain a healthy weight. These three things below can help — and they’re all important for your health in general.
Research shows that exercise alone isn’t very efficient in helping people shed pounds, but combined with healthy eating habits, it definitely plays a role (aerobic exercise in particular can be helpful). And exercise helps prevent a wide range of diseases, so moving your body is a critical part of staying your healthiest self.
When you’re deficient in shut-eye, it knocks your body’s systems askew, according to the journal Healthcare, and that can lead to overweight and obesity, among many other things. Learn about the best sleep habits, and practice them.
Focus on easing stress.
The cortisol that the human body produces when under stress has been linked to added weight, studies show — and since getting a handle on stress has many health benefits, it makes sense to find your own path to a calmer life.
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