Functional CICO: Not Just Calorie Counting

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Every single day, I encounter the same mistaken info on Twitter:

“CICO doesn’t work! I eat (some wildly incorrect number of calories) and I’ve (lost/gained)! That shouldn’t happen!”

“I was hungry all the time when I did CICO! Now I do (some other thing), so CICO is crap!”

Or one of my favorites: “CICO doesn’t work in the long term because it doesn’t deal with hunger! Or nutrients! Or (whatever)!”

Well now, CICO must suck the big one. After all, if it didn’t, why would so many people say it doesn’t work?

Before we answer that, let’s examine what CICO actually is, and what people mistakenly think it is.

What is CICO?

How can that be a diet? It doesn’t tell you anything!

CICO is an acronym for the most basic rule of fat loss: Calories In < / > / = Calories Out.

To gain weight, “CI” must be greater than “CO”. To lose, “CI” must be less, and to maintain, they must be equal.

You’ll notice that the formula here is incredibly simple. It is basic math, after all.

That is where “CICO”, as it actually is, ends. How can that be a diet? It doesn’t tell you anything!

That’s a great question. The answer is: it isn’t. “CICO” is simply a formula to understand the basics of energy balance. It is not a diet, and that isn’t its purpose.

So how do you “do” CICO?

Where a calorie comes from matters more than the calorie itself.

The basics of Calorie Counting (“CC”, often used interchangeably with “CICO”) are the CICO formula. This is the foundation that everything else is built on.

Every food contains some amount of energy (calories). In order to use CC as a diet method, you have to account for this energy when you determine what foods you eat. On its face, the whole process is pretty simple: select some foods that sound good, figure out how many calories a day you should be eating to lose/gain/maintain, and fit those foods into that number.

The problem with this (and a common gripe), is that where a calorie comes from matters more than the calorie itself. No, this doesn’t mean that CICO is wrong; it means that there is more nuance than a simple equation. The key focus of every diet should be satiety, and CC is no different!

You have never been on a successful diet that left you hungry all of the time.

Hunger depletes our willpower, but one bout of hunger won’t cause you to be out of control. If you are hungry constantly, your brain will devote less and less to the idea of self-control, and more to dealing with the pressing hunger situation.

So how do we address this? Pay attention to macronutrients (or, “macros”). There are three macros that make up our foods: Carbs, Protein, and Fat.

Protein and fat are both filling for different reasons:

– Protein reduces hunger and increases fullness via hormone changes.
– Fat slows digestion in the small intestine.

Carbs can be filling, but “carbs” can be veggies/fruit, bread, potatoes, Twinkies, chips, etc. As a rule, try to stick to whole food carbs (veggies/fruits/starches) and avoid processed carbs, like chips and Twinkies.

So now we have two tools in our belt to use when determining how to lose/gain/maintain weight:

– Macros

But how do you actually apply this knowledge?

Every calorie counting app has nutritional values of foods stored in their databases. Many have a scan feature (I use LoseIt) so you can scan barcodes on things you buy, or you can search for foods you eat.

Let’s say you have cereal for breakfast. I’ll assume you aren’t slamming Cocoa Puffs every day, so let’s pick Honey Nut Cheerios. If you look at the macros, you’ll see a problem: 1.5g fat, 2g of protein, and a whopping 22g of carbs. 9g of that is sugar (which isn’t filling at all), and only 2g of fiber. Most people don’t measure their cereal, but let’s be conservative and say you have 2 servings (~1.5 cups). If you drink the milk, you’ll add around 250 calories (2 servings), but you get fat and protein. Not terrible; we are still sitting on 470 calories, with 20g of protein and 14g of fat.

We can do better

Two strips of bacon: 110 calories, 8g fat, 8g protein
Bacon grease (1tbsp): ~40 calories, ~4g fat
Two eggs: ~150 calories, ~9.5g fat, ~12.5g protein

For ~300 calories, we have ~20.5g of protein, and ~21.g of fat, and some negligible amount of carbs.

This reduces calories by over 30%, while increasing both protein and fat.


You can apply this to other meals as well. If lunch is normally a sandwich, chuck the bread, chop up the innards, and throw them in a salad w/ some olive oil. You can make a decent salad with lunchmeat, a little cheese, and some variety of veggies. The veggies will help fill you (great mass-to-calorie ratio), the protein and fat from the meat/cheese will help fill you, and the olive oil will hold everything hostage in your small intestine. Huzzah!

“I eat 4000 calories a day and lose weight! CICO is bullshit!”

Nobody who says this actually tracks their calories. You’ll see wild numbers thrown around by people who have bizarre mental images of how many calories their food contains.

The reality is, there are few human beings who could eat 4000 calories a day and maintain, let alone lose weight. Those people move around more than the overwhelming majority of the population.

The reason is this: your body stores excess energy as fat.

I burn about 2500 calories a day just by lounging around on the couch; I would have to burn 1500 extra calories just to maintain my weight! According to this, I would have to spend an hour and a half on the elliptical every day to do that. It doesn’t seem to account for intensity, but burning that many calories in 90 minutes is not a light workout.

I’m also still around 200 pounds and 5’9″. Oh, and male. All of these things increase my burn. And then as I lost weight and my body began to use calories more efficiently, I would have to work harder to burn the same amount…

It isn’t feasible for most people. Not that it can’t be done; this is not to discourage anybody from burning an extra 1500 calories a day, if they so choose!

However, claiming you eat 4000 calories while sitting on the couch and losing weight, is bogus.

“But I have (some disease), and calorie counters don’t count that!”

You’re right. They don’t. Here is a hard lesson you should learn, right now: Calorie Counting does not absolve you of responsibility for dealing with the extra variables. You have to put in some effort to account for these things. I know it sucks, but I’ll let you in on a secret:

All of this is estimation!

CICO is, at the end of the day, a simple formula for the complex problem of human energy balance, and energy in general. Do I know how many calories are in an apple? Not down to the calorie. Do I know how many calories are in a burger, or a cup of rice, or a can of tuna? Not to the calorie.

We don’t actually need to know the exact number of calories we eat and use to lose or gain weight!

I estimate every day. If I’m successful, my weight will go in the direction I want. If I’m not, I need to recalculate my estimates. I know for a fact I’ve been wrong; I’ve had days where I ballparked (like on vacations), and I see the results. If you’re not seeing results, don’t be discouraged, because:

Weight loss is not linear!

You eat great for a week, the calorie counter says you should be down 2 lbs, but you’ve gained half a pound. What the fuck? But…that’s expected, sometimes.

There are numerous variables that affect weight (not just fat) gain/loss: water retention, whether you’ve eaten/drank within a period of time, dehydration, how much activity you do, etc. These don’t mean you aren’t losing fat; not by a long shot. What they mean is that you need to evaluate your weight loss over time.

If you weigh yourself every week, you might’ve lost, or gained, etc per week. If you weigh yourself in a month, you’ll know how well you’ve actually been doing; you’ll see loss over time that may not appear in the weekly weigh-in.

The most important part: Don’t give up!

Plateaus happen. I have plateaued for a month at a time (been doing this for over two years so far), and it sucked balls. I also noticed that I peed a lot when the plateau was over. This is known as The Whoosh Effect.

I knew I was eating properly, and was moving more, but my weight wouldn’t budge…until it did. And it will.

If it doesn’t? Email me, and let’s see where we can make some improvements.

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