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CICO Diet Decoded: A Comprehensive Approach to Caloric Control

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Calories and Energy Balance | What is CICO diet | Benefits of CICO diet | Challenges of CICO diet

If you have ever been on a weight loss journey, at some point you’ve probably heard the saying, “Calories in, calories out”. This saying is the foundation for the CICO diet where weight loss is all about how many calories you consume. 

Calories are the foundation of what we eat and how we fuel are bodies. It makes sense that they would be important when it comes to weight loss. 

But, you may have wondered, What is CICO? And what is CICO weight loss? 

You have made it to the right place because in this article we will decode some of the myths surrounding the CICO diet while reviewing what calories are as well as the benefits and challenges of this diet.  

Calories and Energy Balance

Before we dive into the ins and outs of the CICO diet, let’s review some basics about calories. After all, the CICO diet is all about calories, so it’s important to understand some of the science behind the way calories are used in the body. 

A calorie is a standard measurement for energy that comes from our food. The term Calories is used to describe food and is actually a measurement of kilocalories. 

Different foods provide varying amounts of calories which is how our bodies obtain the necessary energy to live.  Depending on the body’s needs at the time that food is eaten, the calories from that food will be broken down and used immediately or stored for later use. 

The body needs calories to function. Not only does the body use calories for walking, talking, and movement, it also uses calories for essential functions like breathing, digesting food, and even thinking. 

Caloric needs will vary based on the individual’s age, gender, body weight, and activity level. While there are many factors that affect each person’s caloric requirements, there are two things that affect whether those calories will be stored for later use or used right away. 

This is what is known as energy balance. First, the amount of calories consumed during the day will result in a calorie deficit, calorie balance, or calorie surplus. 

When more food is eaten then necessary, the extra calories will be stored in the body. If you eat around the same amount of calories that your body needs to function in daily activities, then very few calories will be stored and overall weight will be maintained. 

The second factor that determines energy balance is physical activity. When we move our bodies more, the more energy is expended and the more calories are needed. Besides helping us to maintain or lose weight, regular physical activity is also important for muscle strengthening, better sleep, and improved mental health. 


What is CICO diet? 

The CICO diet stands for “calories in calories out” diet. The idea of this diet is that the number of calories you consume will determine whether you lose weight, gain weight, or maintain your weight. 

In order to lose weight, you will need to consume less calories than your body needs, otherwise known as a calorie deficit. If you eat more calories than your body needs, then you will gain weight. Many popular diets operate on the idea of a calorie deficit in order to achieve weight loss results.

Proponents of the CICO diet believe that the food you eat doesn’t matter as much as the amount of calories you consume day to day. Whether you are eating a piece of chocolate cake or a bowl of carrots, you will still lose weight if you are keeping a calorie deficit. Conversely, if you continuously eat more than your body needs, then you will gain weight.

CICO is not so much a diet as it is a method to the way you eat. There aren’t any foods that are off limits or foods that are recommended. In this way, the CICO diet is similar to intermittent fasting. 

With intermittent fasting there aren’t any foods to avoid, but healthy, whole foods are encouraged. Intermittent fasting, however, does not focus on calorie counting. Instead, this time-based eating strategy has an eating window and a fasting window. Read here for more on intermittent fasting and its benefits. 

Many have tried a CICO weight loss journey. While it is a simple and effective way to lose weight, it doesn’t account for other aspects of nutrition. 

Even though two foods may be the same calorie-wise, they could have completely different nutrition profiles. Foods offer more than just calories, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, probiotics, and fiber. 

Foods also provide different macronutrients including carbohydrates, protein, and fat, all of which our bodies need to survive. 

For example, a small fast food cheeseburger contains about 500 calories. It’s high in saturated fats and refined carbohydrates. It doesn’t contain a significant amount of vitamins and is typically higher in sodium. 

A grilled chicken salad with olive oil dressing is also about 500 calories. However this meal is rich in lean protein, monounsaturated fats, vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants.  The CICO diet would view these two meals as the same, even though nutritionally they are not. 

It’s not hard to see which of these meals has a higher nutritional value, but the CICO diet doesn’t take into account which meal is more nutrient-dense.

Nutrient dense foods are those that contain a greater amount of vitamins, fiber, and minerals while also containing less calories. These foods are often plant-based such as fruits and vegetables. Calorie-dense foods have a significant number of calories per portion without many nutrients. 

Even though you may lose weight by keeping your calories under control while still eating junk food, there are drawbacks to eating junk food for your overall health. Nutrient-dense foods can help with other aspects of your health apart from weight loss. 

For example, antioxidants and certain vitamins can support your immune system. Additionally, calorie-dense foods are often high in saturated fats or added sugar which has been shown to increase the risk of certain diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 


Benefits of the CICO diet 

May help you lose weight

By following the CICO diet for weight loss, you will lose weight if you do not eat as many calories as you need. When starting a CICO weight loss journey, it’s important to be familiar with how many calories your food has. You can use calorie counting apps such as MyFitnessPal to determine calorie amounts in your favorite foods. After a few weeks, you will likely become more familiar with how many calories are in certain foods. 

No foods are off limits

Many find freedom in being able to eat whatever they want while still following a diet. Sometimes if a certain food or type of food is restricted, we may want to eat that particular food even more than usual just because it is “off limits”. It may be easier to stick with an eating plan when we know that we can still enjoy our favorite junk foods from time to time. 

More mindful eating

By calorie counting, you will have to think twice before grabbing a candy bar or bag of chips to make sure it fits within your calorie range. This alone can prevent mindless snacking and cut back on your calories. 


Challenges of the CICO diet

You must know your calorie requirement

Caloric needs are calculated based upon your BMR or basal metabolic rate. This is the baseline amount of calories that you need to survive and accounts for things like breathing, brain function, and digestion. Any physical activity will add more calorie requirements. 

There are also other factors to consider as well such as certain health conditions which affect calorie needs. Online tools are available to calculate your calorie requirements, however these only provide rough estimations.

Doesn’t account for overall health

Many argue that the CICO diet is a simplistic view of weight loss. Weight management is a complex issue and there are other factors that come into play outside of calories alone. 

For example, you could eat a diet consisting only of fried foods but stay in a calorie deficit while following the CICO diet. 

By not including whole, nutrient dense foods, you would be missing out on the other health benefits that those foods provide while also increasing the risk of certain conditions like high blood pressure or high cholesterol.  

Always counting calories

While it may be simple in theory, the CICO weight loss diet does require extra effort when meal planning, cooking, and ordering food. You have to become familiar with calorie amounts in all types of food to ensure you stay within your calorie range. 

Almost every food contains calories so even just a few handfuls of popcorn will count towards your daily calories. For some, this can be very overwhelming at first and may lead to restrictive eating behaviors. 

While the CICO diet may help you to lose weight, it doesn’t take into account your overall health. There are many other strategies to help you lose weight that focus on overall health instead of calories alone. 

Taking a more balanced and individualized approach to weight loss through a combination of techniques will often bring the best results. While you will need to create a calorie deficit to lose weight, you can do so by enjoying whole, nutrient dense foods that will both fuel your body and improve your health.

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