CICO stands for “calories in, calories out.” , a new concept—to lose weight, where one simply needs to consume fewer calories than she expends each day on physical activity and vital functions (such as breathing and keeping warm).
Calories in — what we eat. We can’t metabolize sunlight or oxygen. We can’t feast on the souls of the damned. The food we eat determines “calories in” entirely. Simple.
“Calories out” is where it gets confusing. There are several components to “calories out”:
- Resting energy expenditure — the energy used to handle basic, day-to-day physiological functions and maintenance
- Thermic effect of food — the energy used to digest food and process nutrients
- Active energy expenditure — the energy used during movement (both deliberate activity like lifting weights, jogging, and walking, plus spontaneous activity like shivering and fidgeting)
Not so simple, is it? There are a lot more variables to consider.
Proponents of CICO argue that it doesn’t necessarily matter what you eat, as long as you create a daily calorie deficit. However, nutritionists argue that not all calories are created equally, and relying on calorie counting to lose weight does your body a disservice in the end. You have to also consider how your food choices affect your body beyond weight loss. What is being ignored is the fact that nutrition is not as simple as a math equation. The quality of the calories consumed—as well as the macronutrient balance and timing—all have a direct impact on metabolism, satiety, and how your body utilizes calories.
Your food choices affect your body beyond weight loss. Eating all junk, but keeping it low-calorie, will still wreak havoc on things like your skin, your mood, your gastrointestinal functions.
According to the American Heart Association the recommended number of calories per day for adult women and men is in the 2,000 per day range give or take a few 100 calories.
A better option however is practicing “calorie consciousness.” Look at your plate and ask yourself, Do I have a smart carb, protein, healthy fat, and vegetables? Then ask yourself, Do the portions of each look reasonable? And do vegetables take up the majority of the plate?
Calorie In vs. Calorie Out
The amount and type of calories we eat affect the amount of energy we expend:
- During calorie restriction, the body “defends” its body weight by lowering resting metabolic rate and reducing spontaneous physical activity. To keep weight loss going, you often have to lower food intake even more (to counteract the reduced metabolic rate) and remind yourself to fidget, tap your feet, twiddle your thumbs, and shiver (to recreate the missing spontaneous movement). And you have to do it again when the body readjusts.
- Whole foods take more energy to process and digest than processed foods. In one example, subjects either ate a “whole food” sandwich (multigrain bread with cheddar cheese) or a “processed food” sandwich (white bread with cheese product). Both meals were isocaloric (same number of calories) and featured roughly identical macronutrient (protein, fat, carb) ratios. Those eating the multigrain sandwiches expended 137 calories postprandially (after their meal). The white bread group expended only 73 calories, a 50% reduction in the thermic effect of food.
- Protein takes more energy to process and digest than other macronutrients. Compared to a low-fat, high-carb diet, a high-protein diet increased postprandial energy expenditure by 100% in healthy young women. And in both obese and lean adults, eating a high-protein meal was far more energetically costly (by almost 3-fold) than eating a high-fat meal.
Calories in affects calories out. The two variables are anything but independent of each other.