CICO Diet Guide – Is It Really as Simple as “Calories in, Calories out”?

CICO Diet - Calories in Calories Out

There are numerous approaches that you can adopt to lose weight. However, the best approaches make you understand how your body functions, and how you can cut down on unhealthy habits to make progress. One such approach is called the CICO diet.

The CICO diet is quite simple. All you need to do is track how many calories you’re giving your body and how many calories you’re using.

One of the best things about this approach is how simple and straightforward it is. However, there are some things that you can do that will make following a CICO diet much easier.

This article will go over everything you need to know about the CICO diet so you can determine whether or not you should try it.

What Is the CICO Diet?

One of the key things that separate a CICO diet from most other diets, is that the focus isn’t on the food that you’re eating. The CICO diet is centered on calorie intake and consumption, and the ratio between those two things.

The goal here is to burn more calories than you eat. That way, the body will resort to burning stored fat to make up for the lack of calories.

This approach tackles the problem of weight gain and loss directly by focusing on the root cause, which is the change of energy balance in the body.

To put it simply, in order to follow this diet successfully, you need to make sure that your energy expenditure is higher than energy intake. Energy expenditure happens when exercising and even resting.

While the CICO diet is nothing new in terms of concept, it has seen a surge in popularity as numerous people vouched for its effectiveness on Reddit threads. As of the time of writing, the CICO diet subreddit has 93,800 members.

With that said, the lack of focus on the types of foods means that the CICO diet isn’t as sustainable as other diets as it takes a quantitative approach rather than a qualitative one.

If you intend to follow a CICO diet, we recommend consulting a doctor or nutritionist, so you know what to eat and how you can make your CICO diet sustainable.

How Does a CICO Diet Work?

Our bodies need energy to function. We measure that energy in calories. Every food has a certain number of calories that our body can use. Whatever amount is left unused will be stored in our body as fat.

The CICO diet, which is short for Calories In Calories Out, is based on the difference between calorie intake and expenditure. It relies on creating an energy imbalance in order to lose weight.

By expending more calories than what you take during the day, your body will have to resort to burning stored fats in order to sustain itself. Here’s how the weight gain/loss dynamic works:

  • If Calories In > Calories Out, then you’ll gain weight
  • If Calories In < Calories Out, then you’ll lose weight
  • If Calories In = Calories Out, then you’ll maintain the same weight

The most common way of losing fat is to decrease your calorie intake. In order to lose a pound of fat, your body needs to burn through 3500 calories.

Let’s say a person eats 2000 calories a day, and they burn 2500. This means that each day, they are losing 500 calories. Within a week, they will have lost one pound of fat.

Is Losing Weight Really All About Calories?

When you boil it down to the basics, losing weight is all about calories and shifting the energy balance, so you burn more calories than you take.

This is why the CICO diet can be so effective and is resurging in popularity. Unlike most other diets that force you only to eat certain foods, a CICO diet only focuses on the quantitative side of things and will let you decide what to eat.

Being able to create your own strategy, and eat whatever you want does instill a feeling of freedom, and can motivate people to lose weight by not imposing any limits on what to eat.

However, just because there aren’t any restrictions on what to eat doesn’t mean that it’s okay to eat whatever you want to eat. It’s pertinent to note that your diet will still need to consist of nutritious foods, and you need to avoid empty calories.

Is Counting Calories Effective?

In theory, the CICO diet is very simple. However, it can become complicated once you start following it. There are many factors that you need to take into account in order to count calories effectively and accurately.

When it comes to calorie intake or Calories In, here’s what affects them:

  • Appetite: obviously, how hungry you feel will significantly impact how many calories you consume. Appetite can be affected by hormones, preferences, and body composition.
  • Calories absorbed: How the food is prepared also has an impact on how much calories will be available to your body to absorb. For example, some foods such as starches have more available calories when cooked than if eaten raw. Even your gut microbe can have an impact on how much your body can extract from digestion, along with the nutritional value of the food itself.
  • Psychological factors: your calorie intake can be highly influenced by your mental state. Stress, bad sleep hygiene, and other hormonal conditions can affect your appetite and metabolism.

With that said, it’s extremely hard to count calories accurately. However, you can be more accurate than if you didn’t know these factors come into play.

Additionally, you also need to know that calorie expenditure, or Calories Out, is influenced by the following factors:

  • Energy burned while resting: this is called the Basal Metabolic Rate. It basically indicates how many calories your body needs to function at rest. It’s affected by your biological sex, height, weight, muscle composition, age, etc.
  • Energy burned through NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis): During your day, you’ll be performing doing all sorts of things such as moving around, fidgeting. Even little things like moving your body when you speak, tapping your feet, can increase your NEAT.
  • Exercise: Exercise can have a significant impact on how many calories your body burns.

The factors that we just went over are only the beginning. There is so much more to counting calories than that.

However, knowing these things provides a good enough foundation for you to build on and strategize around.

The most important thing to keep in mind that all of the factors we mentioned are in service to the core principle of the CICO diet, which is creating an energy deficit, so your body burns more calories than it takes in.

You’ll need to play around with these factors, and combine them together in order to come up with your own CICO diet.

For example, proteins have been shown to help people feel full. This means that eating a lot of protein will help decrease your appetite, hence potentially decreasing the number of calories you’ll take.

How Many Calories Should You Eat and Burn?

The recommended calorie intake is mostly determined by weight, height, age, and the amount of activity or calories-out number.

In order to determine how many calories your body is expending, there are three factors to look into:

  • RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate): This is how much energy your body requires to function at rest. This includes things like breathing, blinking, controlling heartbeat, etc. This varies from one person to the next, and it’s largely dependent on age, weight, height, fat mass, biological sex, among other things.
  • TEF (Thermic Effect of Food): This is how much energy your body needs to digest foods. The more you eat, the higher the TEF will be. In most cases, it falls somewhere around 10% of the total amount of food you eat.
  • EEPA (Energy Expended through Physical Activity): This will be the main determining element when it comes to how many calories you should eat. EEPA is the one element you have full control of. It is determined by how many physical activities you do.

It’s also worth noting that when it comes to TEF, the energy needed to digest nutrients will depend on the food you eat.

For example, proteins have the highest energy cost to digest than any other type of food, clocking in at 20-30% of the protein’s energy content. Next, you have carbohydrates, which cost 5-10%, and fats, which cost 0-3%.

With that said, TEF is not that important when you compare it to your EEPA when you’re calculating the total daily energy expenditure, also referred to as TDEE.

Fortunately, you can find numerous TDEE and EEPA calculators online, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep track of your calorie expenditure.

Once you set your TDEE and EEPA goals, you can determine how many calories you should burn in order to create that energy imbalance that will result in weight loss.

Infographic explaining the benefits and risks of the CICO (calories in, calories out) diet

The Benefits of the CICO Diet

The CICO diet has many benefits that have made it rise in popularity:

1.     There Are No “Forbidden” Foods:

This has to be the biggest advantage when it comes to following a CICO diet is that you aren’t limited in terms of what you can and can’t eat.

This diet is all about how many calories you eat vs. how many calories you burn. How you reach that goal is up to you.

The CICO diet is truly one of the most customizable diets out there, which can motivate many people who want to lose weight.

One of the biggest turn-offs for many people is that they fear that they won’t be able to eat their favorite foods anymore. This is where the CICO diet is different.

2.     It’s Eye-Opening

Many people seem to look at diets as an arbitrary set of rules they need to follow to lose weight. Eat this, don’t eat that, do this, don’t do that, etc.

Few diets leave you with as much choice as the CICO diet. It demystifies the whole concept of weight gain and loss and passes the ball to you. It provides you with the main guidelines that you need to follow without forcing anything onto you.

3.     It’s Free and Quick

You don’t need to buy expensive food. You don’t need to buy expensive equipment to track your calories. Everything you need to start following a CICO diet is free and widely available.

4.     It’s Guaranteed to Help You Lose Fat

The CICO diet is based on simple math. As long as you keep your calorie intake less than your calorie expenditure, you’re guaranteed to lose weight. There’s no magic behind it. It’s simply how the human body works.

5.     Weight Loss

Naturally, most people follow diets to lose weight. Losing weight comes with a wide variety of health benefits, some of which are:

  • Less risk of heart disease and strokes thanks to reduced blood pressure
  • Decreased risk of diabetes
  • Lower risk of various cancers
  • Reduced risk of asthma
  • Lower risk of gallbladder disease
  • Stabilized cholesterol levels
  • Improvements in osteoarthritis and chronic back pain

Maintaining a healthy weight doesn’t come down to just following a diet. You also need to:

  • Continuously monitor your calorie intake.
  • Keep exercising and doing physical activities.
  • Maintain a healthy mind. Stress can mess up how your body works, so you need to look after your mental health.

With that said, if you’re already at a healthy weight, you don’t need to lose more weight as the benefits we just mentioned are mostly specific for those who struggle with obesity and weight issues.

The Potential Risks and Problems of the CICO Diet

1.     Quantity over Quality

As we mentioned early on in the article, the CICO diet adopts a purely quantitative approach to weight loss. This means that it doesn’t give you any restrictions or limitations when it comes to what you should and shouldn’t eat.

While this can be extremely liberating, it is a double-edged sword, and you might find yourself eating unhealthy foods and doing your body a disservice in the long term.

In theory, you can live on junk food and still manage to lose weight. This doesn’t mean that you’re becoming healthier; it just means that you’re losing weight.

Maintaining a healthy body is not just about weight; it’s also about eating healthy foods.

However, this isn’t a huge problem since it’s mostly up to the person following the diet to eat what they like, and as long as they keep in mind that a healthy body needs healthy food, they should be alright.

2.     Tracking Calories Can Be Tedious

The core pillar of the CICO diet is counting calories. As you might have already seen, counting calories can be very hard, and there are many things you need to take into account. This makes the whole process tedious and hard.

With that said, there are many apps that you can use to make the process easier. The great thing is that most of these apps are free and widely available.

3.     Not Recommended for People with Eating Disorders

If you have a history of eating disorders, following a CICO diet can instill an unhealthy mindset and might even backfire in some cases.

4.     Nutrient Deficiencies

Nutrient deficiencies are not uncommon when following any diet. The CICO diet is not different, and some individuals might find themselves falling into the same trap. Nutrient deficiencies can lead to many dangerous problems, such as:

  • DNA Damage
  • CED (Chronic Energy Deficiency)
  • Heart Disease
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Hair Loss
  • Depression (Among other mental health problems)
  • Osteoporosis

5.     Inadequate and Unhealthy/Empty Calories

Some foods have a lot of empty calories. Empty calories are calories that hold no nutritional value. Fried food, sweets, processed foods, etc., are notorious sources of empty calories.

Some individuals also think they’re taking a shortcut by not eating enough calories. This is a dangerous thing to do as it leads to malnutrition and its ensuing effects and long-term problems.

Both of these things can lead to the following issues:

  • Fat Gain
  • Weakened Immune Response
  • Cancer
  • Heart Disease
  • Stress
  • Stunted Growth

6.     Difficulty Exercising

The best way to lose weight quickly and efficiently is through exercise, especially cardio. However, trying to exercise while following a diet can be hard. The CICO diet is no different.

With that said, it might be easier to maintain a consistent exercise schedule when following this diet if you carefully plan out what to eat and when to eat.

Verdict: Should You Try the CICO Diet?

If you’re struggling to lose weight, then the CICO diet is a great way to do so. It offers a free form approach that gives you control over what to eat.

More importantly, it’s an eye-opening diet that is straightforward. As long as you eat healthy foods and be smart about it, this diet will surely lead to great results.

With that said, if you find counting calories to be too tedious and hard, you can opt for a more grounded diet. The most important part of losing weight is consistency and discipline.