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The Ongoing Battle Over CICO
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The Ongoing Battle Over CICO

Whether you’ve been losing weight for a long period of time, working on maintaining a healthy weight, focusing on just eating a healthier diet, or you’re entirely new to the game … you might be hard-pressed to find any consistent advice anywhere online.

The battle for successful weight loss seems to be raging between two mindsets: one is strictly following a CICO diet, or calories in, calories out, meaning if you burn more than you eat, you’ll lose weight — no matter where the calories come from, no matter the other nutrients in the foods you consume.

The other side of the coin claims CICO isn’t the same for everyone. Critics argue that some people struggle to lose weight by simply eating less or exercising more, and that weight loss depends more on the types of foods you eat, rather than the amount.

If you’re just getting into the game, or even returning to it after a long break on the sidelines, it might be a struggle to decide which method is really best and which you should follow. It only becomes more difficult when both sides present themselves as “more true” than the other, never agreeing that both have their pros and their cons, and both work for different people.


Calories in, calories out is based on thermodynamics and essentially breaks down to: the body cannot create or destroy energy out of nothing. If you consume energy, you can spend that energy. If you don’t spend the energy, it’s gonna hang out until it needs to be spent — aka, extra fat storage. By spending more energy than you consume in one day, the body is going to seek out other energy sources (again, in the extra stored fat), in order to to keep spending energy. Therefore, if you burn more than you consume, you’ll be using up all of your fat reserves slowly over time.

For the most part, at the most basic levels of CICO, it doesn’t matter where the calories come from. For example, a human nutrition professor from Kansas State University ate only Hostess and Little Debbie snacks, along with other junk foods, for two months. In total, he lost 27 pounds.

Obviously he was just trying to make a point, not necessarily laud this as any kind of real diet to follow. He was simply trying to prove that if you burn more calories than you eat, you’ll lose weight, no matter if the calories come from fruits and vegetables or snack cakes.

To quote the CNN article:

“For a class project, Haub limited himself to less than 1,800 calories a day. A man of Haub's pre-dieting size usually consumes about 2,600 calories daily. So he followed a basic principle of weight loss: He consumed significantly fewer calories than he burned.

His body mass index went from 28.8, considered overweight, to 24.9, which is normal. He now weighs 174 pounds.

But you might expect other indicators of health would have suffered. Not so.

Haub's ‘bad’ cholesterol, or LDL, dropped 20 percent and his ‘good’ cholesterol, or HDL, increased by 20 percent. He reduced the level of triglycerides, which are a form of fat, by 39 percent.”

Intuitive Eating

On the other hand, many people have expressed their frustration when it comes to CICO diets and how it seems they’re unable to lose weight, even at a deficit. For many, the cause of this might be that they’re not counting calories correctly, are not taking into account small things like sides, toppings, condiments, or alcoholic drinks which have always been surprisingly high in calories.

For others, though, there’s a lot more to take into account than just the number of calories they consume every day. For many, there are numerous other factors that play a role in how they burn calories, ranging from hormonal issues, digestive faults, as well as the overall belief that not all calories are the same, and are even egregiously misconstrued on nutrition labels with a margin of error up to 20 percent in either direction.

Because of this, weight loss has become more of listening to one’s body rather than depending on what nutrition labels say, and focusing more on nutrients, ingredients, and how processed a food is. explains how hormones might play a role in weight loss:

Insulin is a hormone that pushes nutrients into cells, stabilizes blood sugar, and stores fat. It’s a vital hormone that has a unique side effect. It also has the ability to become disordered, resulting in insulin resistance and type II diabetes.

When hormones are out of balance, the body holds on to excess fat, weight gain becomes easier, and stored nutrients can’t be utilized. When some hormones become disordered they can disorder others as well, causing additional issues.

Your body is a holistic, biological system that responds to different foods with varying hormonal responses. This has a direct influence on your metabolism and it’s one of the main reasons why a calorie is not a calorie.

It’s Not All Black and White

With scientifically-backed arguments on both sides, how is a person supposed to know which method to follow if they’re looking to lose weight, better maintain, or simply incorporate better habits into their diets? The answer is more simple than you might think: it depends on your body.

Not all bodies are the same. For some people, strictly following CICO might be their only (or most effective) way to lose weight — meanwhile, for others, it might be less about the calorie intake and more about the types of food being eaten. It revolves more around tracking nutrients than it does calories, and keeping oneself within a certain range of all of them depending on personal goals. Whether that be cutting back on bad fats, eating more healthy fruits and vegetables, and so on.

Sure, there are pros and cons to both, and both have great fact-based evidence that disproves parts of the other. However, because both sides see themselves as the best option, they feel as if they’re the only possibility — and the other side is a “sham” that needs to be “squashed out.”

The fact of the matter is, no physical body is the same as another. Two people of the same height, weight, activity level, and background might eat the same foods every day, but digest them differently. It all depends on the person’s body.

So, if you’re looking for advice, perhaps consider this: Try both. But be truthful about both.

Religiously track your calories for a month and aim for a healthy deficit, and see where that takes you. If you aren’t seeing the results you’d like, try eating more intuitively, though ideally keeping to a healthy, plant-based, raw diet while you do — and be honest with the foods you eat. Lying about the amount you eat, the ingredients you consume, etc., only hurts yourself.

Both sides can (and will) readily admit that health is all about the nutrients in your body, and not always the amount of extra fat you have. All in all, it seems to be a balance of both methods that’s the most effective, but it varies between people how that balance ultimately plays out.

Are you a fan of one method over another? Are there any specific sources or studies you’d like to share, discussing one way or another? What are your own experiences with CICO, intuitive eating, or a hybrid of both? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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