CICO diet - everything old is new again
The exciting new fad diet popularized by Reddit is the CICO diet. This “new” concept stands for Calories In Calories Out, and the basic idea is you can eat anything you want as long as you burn more calories than you consume. If that sounds like “no duh” advice to you, then congratulations, you’ve mastered everything there is to learn about the CICO diet.
Clever marketing, not clever advice
The popularity of the CICO diet is more of a testimonial to clever naming than anything else. It doesn’t advocate any particular strategy, it doesn’t offer advice of any kind, and here’s the big secret - every diet throughout history is built on the foundation of run a calorie deficit to reduce stored body fat. There has never been a real diet plan that says you can eat like a lunatic and lose weight. Even the fads that come and go suggest their miracle pill, drink, method, whatever will help control your appetite so that you’ll find it easy to eat much less than you do now. CICO is as much a diet strategy as “get a job” is a secret formula for success.
The CICO diet reminds me of the advice from a prominent research group called the Global Energy Balance Network. They also believed that a calorie was a calorie and that all people needed to do to lose weight was increase their activity to compensate for their intake. I would link you to their website, but they were forced to disband when it was discovered they were funded by Coca Cola as a means to inject confusion into nutrition research the same way the tobacco industry once enlisted experts to raise doubts about the health hazards of smoking. I’m not saying these same Coke sponsors moved onto Reddit, but it would be an excellent way to promote the same message while hiding involvement (plus they’re pretty good at clever marketing). If Coke was willing to pump millions of dollars into confusing the message about the health problems caused by their products, it’s not much of a stretch to figure they could spend a few hours a day upvoting Reddit posts.
Yet for all the non-advice of the CICO diet, you’ll see tons of subreddits testifying that “I ate everything I wanted on the CICO diet and lost 10, 20, 30 pounds. It’s SO EASY!” That’s why it’s such a popular fad. Everyone is looking for a pain-free shortcut to lose weight without suffering, but as I’ve said many times before, losing weight is hard. Your body does everything in its power to make you give up on your diet and go back to your old eating habits so you can quickly regain the lost weight. CICO is actually the starting point for everyone trying to lose weight before they learn how nutrition really works. Everyone’s natural instinct is cut out calories to lose weight, but then they quickly give up because doing it the wrong way makes them unnecessarily miserable.
That’s why you’ll also see tons of articles from nutritionists outside of Reddit saying that the CICO diet is dangerous and unhealthy. It’s only dangerous if you take it literally. There is something to be said for taking a more relaxed approach towards eating, but thinking you can just eat less of the same junk and easily lose the weight is unrealistic.
Twinkie diet vs bag of sugar diet
One of the heroes of the CICO method is Mark Haub PhD, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University. He went on the “Twinkie Diet” for 10 weeks and lost 27 pounds. The story everyone reports is that he ate nothing but Twinkies, snack cakes, and powdered donuts yet still successfully lost weight by counting his calories. He not only lose weight, but his biomarkers for LDL cholesterol and triglycerides went down and his good cholesterol (HDL) went up. This must mean it’s pure calories that matter most, not just for weight, but for health in general. Well if you dig deeper into the story, you’ll see that while two thirds of his calories came from junk food like Doritos, Hostess and Little Debbie snack cakes, and sugary cereals (which are typically fortified in vitamins to justify selling them to children), he also drank a protein shake, ate vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, green beans or celery, and took vitamins each day so he wouldn’t die or increase his long-term cancer risks.
If it all boils down to calories, then why have any variety at all? If a calorie is a calorie, Professor Haub should have been able to eat a bag of table sugar each day, lose weight, and improve his health profile. In fact, it’s even easier to precisely measure your calories with granulated sugar, so that should have been his first choice. I tried to research the bag of sugar diet, but for some reason I was never able to find the study. I guess no one was willing to subject their body and mind to that kind of punishment, even for even a few days. I get that it’s a ridiculous example, but taking a concept to its extreme often helps illustrate the problem. You need more than just energy to live. You need other nutrients as building blocks for your body. That’s why we call junk food “empty calories.” They are just units of energy without the other nutrients required to keep you alive.
Professor Haub’s experiment does point out a few interesting things though:
1. Body fat itself causes negative biomarkers. We use measurements like blood pressure and cholesterol levels in health screenings because we’ve discovered they correlate with certain diseases. They aren’t the cause of those diseases, just ways to see if the chemistry in your body is heading in a bad direction. While it’s possible to be thin and still have increased risks for diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, your risk factors go through the roof if you’re overweight. Losing weight alone has been shown time and again to reduce disease risks, so those corresponding biomarkers will also decrease.
2. Momentum makes it easier. One of the big problems with processed foods and easy to consume sugars is they spike your appetite soon after eating them. Professor Haub was performing a controlled experiment for the benefit of his students so discipline kept his calories in check, but likely not his appetite. He said he adjusted to it in time, but the big point of healthy food is that it helps control your appetite so it’s easier to eat less. Even though the professor’s appetite was likely a little more volatile, he still chose to continue the experiment longer than the original 30-day plan because he was losing weight. I’ve experienced it myself and with my clients. The scale can plateau forever and people will just kind of half-commit to their diet plan because it takes a lot of effort to get the ball rolling. However, once people start seeing success and their momentum is moving in a positive direction, keeping it going suddenly becomes easy. That’s another dieting secret, every diet works if you stick to it, but sticking to it is the hardest part. Professor Haub said the first day on the Twinkie diet was pretty miserable, but once his momentum shifted to weight loss, he had no problem seeing it through to the end (and beyond).
Benefits of CICO
On the subject of every diet works, I don’t want to completely bash the concept of calorie counting. If it’s working for you and you’re having positive momentum, keep it up. Getting the ball rolling is the hardest part, but once you start seeing progress, you’ll find all the unpleasant feelings, emotional stumbling points, and temptations slowly become easier and easier to avoid. Let me quickly go over a few benefits of the CICO method (I’ve written on all these subjects before, so if you want more details, click the links in each topic to redirect to more in-depth articles on the subject):
1. Activity is emphasized. That calories out part is pretty important. We were born to move and inactivity is killing us. Both strength training and cardio offer more benefits than just a way to burn calories. Strength training has been shown to improve balance and coordination, improve health markers like blood pressure and insulin sensitivity, reduce pain, and strengthen your bones. Cardio not only improves your cardiovascular health, but burns fat, strengthens your brain, improves your mood, and improves immune function. The key to living a longer, happier life is to move more and CICO does emphasize the importance.
2. Less obsession. I often list this as a reason I don’t like calorie counting, but it works the opposite way as well. Obsessing about food leads to failure. In this case, I’m talking about the people that try to avoid every food they loved because it made them fat and only eat healthy foods they hate. Food is a joy and this strategy will cause you to obsess about the things you love but won’t let yourself have. It won’t be long before you abandon your new habits and return to the old foods you miss. This is the primary benefit of CICO. Eating smaller portions of the foods your love (even desserts and other treats) allows you to maintain a healthier relationship with food. Avoidance followed by gorging is never going to work, but a small treat a day keeps obsession in check.
Problems with CICO
If you’ve read this blog with any regularity, you know my feelings on counting calories. For the majority of people, it causes more problems than it solves. Like I said, every diet works if you can stick with it, but some diets make the process feel so hard, you likely won’t. Learning to do things the right way controls appetite, improves your health, and sets up your chemistry so weight loss feels easier. Below are some problems with the CICO method. As above, click the link in the topic if you’re looking for a more in-depth explanation.
1. Calorie counts are inaccurate. The FDA allows a 20 percent margin of error on food labels, restaurant calorie estimate tend to be even further off, fitness trackers are routinely inaccurate when calculating calories burned and most people underestimate how much they eat and overestimate how much they move. Professor Haub lost weight by remaining incredibly disciplined in his calorie counts and by aiming for a daily caloric total that was 800 calories less than he was eating before. This allowed the inaccuracies on the label to be less impactful. For those aiming for a 200 calorie deficit, it’s pretty easy for bad info from food manufactures to completely ruin your efforts.
2. Timing matters. Your body responds differently to the same meal at different times of the day. CICO doesn’t take this into account because CICO doesn’t really take any biology into account. I’ve written many articles on the benefits of time restricted eating for weight loss, cancer prevention, and overall health. Eating in a way that runs contrary to your circadian rhythms causes dysfunction and weight gain. All the people I’ve helped lose weight always had some late-night eating habits to overcome. Late night eating causes a vicious cycle of weight gain and simply moving your meals to earlier in the day makes changing your body composition so much easier. Even changing the order you eat your food matters. Eating your carbs after your protein, fat, and fiber will control your blood sugar as much as the diabetes drug Metformin. Blood sugar spikes increase fat storage and trigger hunger later on. The more you can control your blood sugar the easier it is to lose weight.
3. Ignores the microbiome. I would say the two most revolutionary fields of nutrition research right now concern time restricted eating and the microbiome. The beneficial bacteria in your gut provide benefits to your body, brain, and metabolism and they’re a major component of your immune system. When you eat fiber, they protect you from dangerous bacteria like E coli and Salmonella, but when you don’t get enough fiber and eat too much sugar, the good bacteria die off and these dangerous pathogens suddenly have room to set up shop inside your body. There are a host of other health issues caused by an unhealthy microbiome like obesity, type 1 diabetes, muscular dystrophy, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, food allergies, celiac disease, cancer, autism, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders. Since your body doesn’t really absorb fiber calories, you should consider fresh vegetables and many fruits as a free food, but most calorie trackers assign a number to them. Something I always hated about calorie tracking is people cut down on fruits and vegetables so they can save their calories for important things like ice cream.
4. Ignores micronutrients. Our body uses nutrients like magnesium and vitamin D to activate hundreds of bodily processes. Many of these processes control day-to-day functions while others ensure your long-term survival. In our environment of abundance, no one is ever so deficient in micronutrients that it causes symptoms, so we either assume we’re already getting enough or it doesn’t really matter. The problem is that your body gets just enough to survive in the short-term but it then ignores long-term functions like repairing DNA damage to prevent cancer. It’s called Triage Theory. Your body parses out the nutrients it needs to survive today and neglects what you’ll need to survive tomorrow.
5. You’ll lose extra muscle. Your body sees losing fat as a sign it’s starving to death. One way it “protects you” from this is to burn costly muscle. The more muscle you lose, the less calories you burn each day. Since no one actually wants this, there are things you can do to prevent it. Strength training will help preserve muscle as will getting 20 percent of your calories from protein each day. CICO may take the activity part into account (if you happen to chose strength training), but eating Twinkies isn’t going to preserve muscle mass.
The point of quality is to make it feel easy
The thing I hate most about the CICO concept is it assumes weight loss is easy. If someone just tells you to eat less calories and move more, you will easily lose fat. “Oh that’s great, why didn’t I think of that before.” The CICO advocates should also be able to cure the opiate epidemic if they can tell enough addicts to just stop using drugs.
I think it’s safe to say that millions of people have proven that CICO isn’t that simple. Every failed diet was ultimately an attempt at a CICO plan. Everyone tries to cut back to lose weight, their bodies start screaming at them to eat more, they give in to the constant signal barrage and then go back to their old habits. Bad food triggers bad chemistry which causes you to overeat. Yes it all boils down to eat less calories, but learning how food effects your body will make the process of cutting calories that much easier. Check out last week’s article on improving your willpower to see some simple tricks to get your body’s chemistry working for you instead of against you as well as how to structure your diet to actually cut calories in a way you can live with.