Why the CICO Diet Isn’t a Healthy Way to Lose Weight, According to Dietitians
Dropping pounds isn’t always as simple as “calories in, calories out.”
Whether it’s keto or intermittent fasting, there’s always a trendy weight loss plan people are buzzing about, but one simple approach that doesn’t seem to be going out of style is the CICO diet, which stands for “calories in, calories out.”
While the concept isn’t anything new, the diet re-emerged when a popular Reddit thread began sharing stories from people who have lost weight following the CICO diet.
“Weight is coming off slower this past month, but now I see a slight difference. Exercise seven days a week and CICO to supplement,” wrote one Reddit user.
What is the CICO diet, exactly?
The idea behind the CICO diet is that you can eat whatever you want, but you have to make sure that the number of calories you eat is less than the number of calories you burn. Scientifically speaking, when you burn more calories than you consume, you’ll begin to lose weight. And thanks to the invention of fitness trackers and weight loss apps, people are able to easily calculate how many calories they eat in a day and how many they’ve burned through exercise.
Sounds pretty easy, right? But wait, there are several reasons this type of dieting isn’t a realistic way to maintain a healthy lifestyle, which is what ultimately keeps the pounds off.
Why you should focus on the quality of your calories
Sure, someone who consumes fewer calories will drop pounds quickly, but losing weight isn’t as simple as a mathematical equation. “We don’t burn calories the same way every day. For example, we burn calories from carbs more quickly than those from fat or protein. That’s why when you eat fat or protein, you’ll feel more satisfied,” explains Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com, and author of Read It Before You Eat It – Taking You from Label to Table. “This way of eating promotes the idea that you can eat gigantic portions of something only if you could live in a gym to burn off these kinds of meals,” Taub-Dix says.
Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, LDN, CPT, author of 2-Day Diabetes Diet, further breaks it down: “For instance, following a 1,500-calorie diet packed with simple sugars will not only leave you hungry, but you’d see slower results as your body doesn’t have to work very hard at all to digest sugar.”
Instead, Taub-Dix and Palinski-Wade say you should focus on the quality of your the foods you’re eating versus their calorie count. If you’re eating a balanced meal that includes healthy fats, lean protein, and good carbohydrates, then you don’t have to worry about exactly how many calories you’ve consumed.
But it’s important to note that dietitians aren’t saying that calories don’t matter at all. There’s a way to be more mindful of the calories you eat every day without driving yourself crazy. Keri Gans, MS, RDN, CDN, author of the The Small Changes Diet, says, “It doesn’t hurt to be calorie aware. If you’re enjoying ice cream, then maybe you can make a more health-conscious decision to stick with a small cup instead of a huge cone. It’s all about paying attention to the foods you are choosing, rather than the amount of calories you’re eating.”
The drawbacks of the CICO diet
Since the CICO diet allows you to eat whatever you want, it doesn’t teach you good eating habits and how to make healthy food choices. Many people lose sight of the fact that food is meant to be nourishing and that the foods you eat provide essential vitamins and minerals you need to function optimally, Gans says.
“Focusing only on calories can be damaging to your health. Not all calories provide nutritional value,” says Palinski-Wade. “If you remember the Twinkie Diet from a few years ago, you can lose weight eating junk food if you reduce your overall calories, but just because you lose weight, it doesn’t mean your health is improved,” she says.
Low-calorie diets lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber, increasing your risk of disease. Moreover, solely paying attention to calorie counts can lead to disordered eating behaviors, Palinski-Wade says. “You start to avoid nutritious foods, like nuts and avocado, for fear they are too high in calories. But including them as part of a balanced diet has been linked with numerous health benefits, such as improved cholesterol levels and body weight.
Bottom line: The CICO diet could be a useful tool for weight loss, but it’s not a healthy way to reach your goals
The CICO diet can help you shed unwanted pounds, but weight loss isn’t just about the weight. Approaching weight loss holistically can help you identify barriers that are preventing you from improving your overall health. “We have better things to do with our time than count calories. The most important thing to learn is how to build a healthier plate,” Gans says.
Taub-Dix also adds that the CICO diet gives the illusion of representing balance, but it’s not that at all because you’re not selectively choosing what foods you’re eating.
“If you want to count something, focus on getting enough fiber each day. Research has found that by just eating 30 grams of fiber per day, with no change to diet or exercise, significant weight loss occurs,” Palinski-Wade says. “In addition, diets high in fiber are linked with improved longevity and reduction in diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.”