If you are embarking on a weight loss journey, you may have heard countless myths about how many calories you should be eating every day. You may have scoured the Internet for calorie counting tools that fit your needs. You may have even tried different diets and still not been able to lose weight. But there is a lot of confusion out there, which can make things difficult. So what should you actually be doing to lose weight?
Understanding how calories affect weight loss is the backbone of getting in shape. It’s such a critical factor in weight loss that it’s often called the “calories in, calories out” equation. You consume fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight. Simple, right? It is, but the devil is in the details. The “calories in, calories out” equation is a bit more complicated than it seems. Hopefully, this blog post will help you understand the basics of the calorie equation so that you can better plan your diet and exercise program.
When it comes to body modification, there is no more polarizing topic than calories in and calories out. Some say it is the alpha and omega of weight loss. Others say this approach is too simplistic and flawed. In this article, we look at everything from eating less and exercising more to hormonal issues and diets with metabolic benefits. This answers once and for all the question of the importance of calories versus calories outside the body. And discuss what this means for you and your customers.
You are either with me or against me.
Everyone has heard this expression before. But did you know that the health and fitness industry has its own version of this saying? Here it comes: Either you’re on my side or you’re stupid.
You’re joking, of course!
However, this kind of binary thinking fuels many heated debates. Especially if it’s on a subject: Calorie intake versus calorie expenditure, or CICO.
CICO – easy way to say
- When you consume more energy than you expend, you gain weight.
- When you take in less energy than you use, you lose weight.
This is a fundamental concept of body weight regulation, and it’s as close to a scientific fact as you can get.
So why is CICO the source of so much controversy?
It’s a question of extremes.
On one side of the debate is the group that thinks CICO is easy. If you are not losing weight, the reason is simple: Either you eat too many calories or you don’t exercise enough – or both. Just eat less and move more.
At the other end of the spectrum is a group that thinks CICO doesn’t work (or is even a complete myth). According to these critics, it does not take into account hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and other health problems that affect metabolism. It is often claimed that certain diets and foods are good for your metabolism and help you lose weight without worrying about CICO.
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Neither position is completely wrong.
But neither is absolutely true.
Whether you’re a fitness trainer trying to help your clients control their weight or you’re trying to learn how to do it yourself, taking an extreme stance on the subject is problematic; it prevents you from seeing the bigger picture.
This article will add some nuance to the debate.
Let me start by clearing up some misconceptions about CICO. Then study concrete examples of how extreme-right or extreme-left views can antagonise people.
Reconsider common misconceptions.
Much of the CICO debate, like many others, is based on misunderstandings, oversimplifications, and an inability (on both sides) to reach a common understanding of the concepts. So let’s start by getting everyone on the same page.
CICO goes beyond diet and exercise.
There is an important distinction between the CICO and the Eat Less, Move More program. But people, especially some CICO supporters, tend to confuse the two.
Eat less, move more only counts the calories you eat and the calories you burn through exercise and other daily movements. But the CICO is an informal way of expressing the energy balance equation, which is much more complex.
The energy balance equation – and thus the CICO – takes into account the complex internal workings of the body as well as the external factors that ultimately influence calorie intake and consumption.
The most important factor, which is often overlooked, is your brain. He controls and supervises the CICO at all times. Think of it as a dispatcher of sorts, sending and receiving messages involving your gut, hormones, organs, muscles, bones, fat cells, external stimuli (and more) to balance the inflow and outflow of energy.
It’s a damn complicated and beautiful system.
However, the comparison of the energy balance itself seems very simple. It’s right here:
- [Energy input] – [Energy output] = Change in tangible reserves*.
* Body reserves are all tissues available for decomposition, such as fat, muscle, organs and bones. I have deliberately not used the change in body mass here because I want to exclude the weight of water, which can change body mass independently of energy balance. In other words, water is a confusing variable that makes people think the energy balance is off, when it’s not.
In this equation, energy in and energy out are not just calories from food and exercise. As the figure below shows, these two variables are influenced by a range of factors.
When you look at CICO through this lens and zoom in to get a broader perspective, you see that the reduction to eat less, move more is a significant simplification.
The calorie calculator and CICO are not the same.
Many people use calorie calculators to estimate their energy needs and the number of calories they have eaten. But sometimes these tools don’t work. As a result, these people begin to doubt that CICO is working. (Or if they are broken).
The key words here are evaluation and timeliness.
This is because calorie calculators are not always accurate.
First, the results are based on averages and can be wrong by 20-30% in normal, young, healthy people. They may differ more in older, clinically ill or obese populations.
And that’s just the energy release side.
The number of calories you eat – or the energy in your body – is also just a rough estimate.
For example, the FDA allows calorie information on labels to be up to 20 percent inaccurate, and studies show that nutritional information in restaurants can vary by 100 to 300 calories per meal.
And even if you could accurately weigh and measure each serving you eat, you still wouldn’t have an accurate count of the calories you consumed. This is due to the presence of other disruptive factors such as. B :
- We don’t consume all the calories we take in. The rate of absorption varies according to the type of food. (Example: we get more calories than expected from high-fiber foods and fewer calories from nuts and seeds than expected).
- We all absorb calories differently depending on our individual gut bacteria.
- Cooking, mixing or chopping foods usually results in higher calorie consumption than indicated on the nutrition label.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that CICO doesn’t work. This simply means that the tools at our disposal to estimate calorie intake and calorie consumption are limited.
Just so we’re clear: Calorie calculators can still be very useful for some people. But it is important to be aware of their limitations. If you plan to use any of them, do so as a rough starting point, not as a definitive answer.
CICO does not require calories to be counted.
We sometimes use calorie counting to help clients improve their diet. In other cases, we use portions out of hand. In other cases, we use more intuitive approaches.
For example, let’s say a client wants to lose weight, but is not achieving the desired results. If they count calories or use portion sizes, we can use these numbers as a guide to further limit the amount of food we eat. But we can also encourage them to use other methods. For example, eat slowly or until you are 80% full.
In all cases, whether we talk about numbers or not, we are manipulating the energy in them. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. So don’t get me wrong: Even if you’re not counting calories, CICO works.
The CICOmay seem simple, but it’s not.
There is no other solution: If you (or your client) are not losing weight, you need to either decrease the energy inward or increase the energy outward. But as you’ve seen, this can involve much more than just eating less or spending more time at the gym.
For example, you may be asked to:
- Get more good quality sleep to better regulate hunger hormones, improve recovery and boost metabolism.
- Try stress management techniques such as meditation, deep breathing and activities in nature.
- Increase your daily non-physical exercise by parking a few blocks from your destination, walking stairs and/or standing while you work.
- Replace some of the higher intensity exercises with lower intensity exercises to promote recovery and reduce systemic stress.
- Improve the quality of what you eat, don’t reduce the quantity. This allows you to eat more with fewer total calories.
- Change the macronutrient composition of what you eat. For example, eat more protein and fiber, or more carbs and less fat, or vice versa.
- Experiment with the frequency and timing of meals and snacks based on personal preferences and appetite stimulants.
- Consider temporarily tracking your food intake – by portioning or weighing/measuring – to make sure you are eating what you think you are eating (as much as possible).
- Evaluate and correct nutritional deficiencies to have more energy during training (and in daily life).
- Consult your doctor or a specialist if consistent lifestyle changes do not produce positive results.
Sometimes the solutions are obvious, sometimes not. But in the case of CICO, if you stay focused and study all the factors, the answers are there.
Imagine yourself as a calorie conductor, controlling and regulating a multitude of activities to create metabolic harmony. They look for anything out of sync.
It takes a lot of practice.
To help you out, here are 5 common energy balance dilemmas. In any case, it may be tempting to assume that the ICCO does not apply. But if we look a little deeper, we see that the CICO principles are still there.
5 common dilemmas of energy balance.
Dilemma #1: I used to eat the same, but suddenly I started to gain weight.
Can you guess what happened?
It is more than likely that the incoming or outgoing energy has changed, but in an uncontrolled or unnoticed way.
The culprit could be:
- Slight increase in food intake related to mood swings, hunger or stress.
- Increased energy intake due to new medications, unknown health conditions, or chronic dieting.
- Physiological changes that lead to a reduction in the number of calories burned during exercise and at rest.
- Onset of chronic pain leading to a sharp decrease in thermogenesis without physical activity (NEAT).
- Significant changes in sleep quality and/or quantity that affect metabolism and/or food intake.
In all such cases, CICO remains in effect. The energy balance just shifted imperceptibly, due to lifestyle and health changes, so it’s hard to say.
Dilemma #2: My hormones are wreaking havoc on my metabolism and I keep gaining weight. Help!
Hormones seem to be a logical scapegoat for weight changes.
And while they’re probably not as much to blame as we think, hormones are closely tied to energy balance.
However, they do not work independently of the energy balance.
In other words: People don’t gain weight through hormones.
They gain weight because their hormones affect their energy levels.
This often happens during menopause or when thyroid hormones drop.
Consider triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), two thyroid hormones that are extremely important for metabolic function. When the level of these hormones drops, weight gain can occur. But this doesn’t invalidate CICO: Your hormones simply affect your energy production.
It may not seem like the right thing to do, but it’s an important connection, whether it’s menopause, thyroid problems, insulin resistance, or other hormonal issues.
When you understand that the CICO is the real engine of weight loss, you have many more tools to get the results you want.
Let’s say you’re assuming the false premise that hormones are all that matters. This can lead to increasingly unhelpful decisions, such as. B. Spending a lot of money on unnecessary supplements or following an overly strict diet, which will ultimately backfire.
On the contrary, you know that the results depend on the change in incoming or outgoing energy. These changes may be of hormonal origin, in which case you should adjust your diet, exercise and/or lifestyle accordingly. (This may also include taking any medication your doctor prescribes, if necessary).
Studies have shown that people with mild hypothyroidism (10-15% of the population) and moderate hypothyroidism (2-3%) can have a metabolic delay of 140-360 calories per day.
This can be enough to cause weight gain or make it difficult to lose weight. (A word of caution: mild hypothyroidism can be so mild that many people do not experience significant changes in metabolic activity, making it irrelevant).
In addition, women with polycystic ovarian syndrome or PCOS (about 5-10%) and postmenopausal women may also experience hormonal changes that interfere with energy levels.
Therefore, it is important to understand your (or your client’s) medical condition, as this will provide valuable information about your specific problems and the way forward.
Dilemma #3: I only eat 1,000 calories a day and I still don’t lose weight!
So what is it?
The conclusion most people come to: Your metabolism is disturbed. They’re broken. And CICO collapsed.
But here’s the thing: Metabolic damage is not quite the same thing. Even if it looks that way.
So your energy balance problems may be related to the hormonal problem described above. However, if someone eats 1,000 calories a day but does not lose weight, it usually has one of two causes.
(As simple as it sounds, it’s something we see time and time again in our coaching program with over 100,000 clients.)
Reason #1: People often underestimate the amount of calories they consume.
It is easy to make mistakes when counting the amount consumed because it is usually unintentional. The most typical paths people use:
- You underestimate the portions. (For example, if you don’t accurately measure one tablespoon of peanut butter, it could actually be two, adding 90 calories each time).
- They don’t follow the bites, licks or tastes of high-calorie foods. (For example, a leftover macaroni and cheese from your child can easily add 100 calories).
- You don’t record everything in the moment and forget to record it afterwards.
- They forget to count the foods they’d rather not eat.
Don’t you think this could be a serious problem?
A baseline study and repeated follow-up studies have shown that people often underestimate the amount they eat in a day, sometimes by more than 1,000 calories.
I am not citing this study to say that it is impossible to be realistic about portion sizes. But if you (or your clients) aren’t getting results with a low-calorie diet, it’s worth considering that underestimation may be the problem.
Reason #2: People eat too much on the weekends.
The work week can be stressful, and when it’s Friday night, people let their guard down and let go.
(You probably can’t relate to this, but try, okay?)
Here’s how: Let’s say someone eats 1500 calories a day during the week, leaving them with a deficit of about 500 calories.
But on the weekends, they deviate a bit from their plan.
- A drink with friends and a few pieces of pizza late on a Friday night.
- Extra large lunch after the Saturday training
- Sunday brunch (hey, it’s breakfast and lunch, so I can eat a double portion!)
The end result: 4,000 extra calories consumed between Friday night and Sunday afternoon. They made up for this deficit by increasing their average daily caloric intake to 2,071.
Summary: If you (or your client) have drastically reduced calories but are not seeing the expected results, pay attention to small missteps. It’s like a metabolic detective looking for breadcrumbs – maybe literally.
By the way, if downtime is an issue for you (or your client), we have just what you’re looking for: 5 great strategies to avoid overeating on the weekend.
Dilemma #4: I eat as much as I want and still lose weight, so this diet is better than all the others!
This is perhaps the main reason why some people reject CICO.
Suppose someone switches from a diet of primarily processed foods to a diet of primarily whole, plant-based foods. It may be that they can eat as much as they want, but the pounds still come off.
People often think it has to do with the power of plants.
Yes, plants are great, but that doesn’t negate the energy balance.
Because plant foods have a very low energy density, you can eat a lot of them and still have a calorie deficit. Especially if your previous diet was full of processed and overly palatable foods.
It sounds like you’re eating a lot more than you used to, and in fact you are.
Plus, you’ll feel more nourished by the volume, fiber and water content of the plants.
That’s great. It really is. But this doesn’t invalidate CICO.
Take the ketogenic diet, for example.
Maybe someone here has had a similar experience: He eats as much as he wants and is still losing weight, but he eats meat, cheese and eggs instead of plant-based foods. These are not low-calorie foods, nor do they contain much fiber.
This is why many proponents of the low-carb diet claim that the keto diet offers a metabolic advantage over other diets.
Here’s what’s likely to happen:
- A higher protein intake increases the feeling of satiety and reduces the appetite.
- By limiting their food choices, they lost hundreds of calories they might otherwise have consumed (pasta! chips! cookies!).
- Limited food choices can also lead to sensory satiety. This means that if you eat the same foods over and over again, they can become less appealing, so you are tempted to eat less.
- Liquid calories – soda, fruit juice and even milk – are generally kept out, so more calories are taken in from solid foods that fill the body up better.
- High ketone concentrations in the blood, which increase with carbohydrate restriction, appear to suppress appetite.
For these reasons, people tend to eat fewer calories and feel less hungry.
While it may seem magical, the keto diet helps you lose weight by regulating your energy intake in several ways.
You can ask for: If plant-based and keto diets work so well, why should anyone care if it’s because of CICO or some other reason?
Because depending on the individual – their eating habits, lifestyle, activity level, etc. – many diets, including plant-based and keto diets, are not sustainable. – Many diets, including plant-based and keto diets, are not sustainable. This is particularly true of the more restrictive approaches.
And if you (or your client) think there is only one good diet, you may be frustrated that you can’t stick to it. You may think you’re failing and decide you don’t have the discipline to lose weight. You may even think you should stop trying.
None of this is true.
Your results are independent of your diet. They are dependent on behaviour.
To maintain a healthy body (including a healthy weight), you must develop consistent and sustainable daily habits that positively impact your body’s energy and energy output.
You can do this by enjoying your favorite foods:
- Eat until you’re 80% full.
- Eat slowly and consciously
- Eat more minimally processed foods
- Benefit from better sleep quality
- Taking measures to reduce stress and increase resilience
It’s a matter of looking at the CICO from 30,000 feet and determining which approach seems reasonable and feasible to you.
This can of course include a plant-based diet or a keto diet, but it is not mandatory. And you know what?
You can get great results with both.
Dilemma #5: I want to gain weight, but no matter what I eat, I can’t do it.
The conversation on CICO is not always about weight loss.
Some people have problems with weight gain.
This is especially true for young athletes and people who are very active professionally. (Think of a job that involves manual labor).
This also happens to people who are trying to regain the weight they lost after an illness.
If someone intentionally eats more but the pounds don’t come off, it may seem like CICO isn’t working. (Surprise.)
They often feel like they’re eating their fill – I’ll eat anything! – and it doesn’t work. But here’s what our coaches discovered:
People tend to remember extremes.
A person could have six meals a day and eat as much as he could.
But the next day they only ate two portions because they were still full. Or maybe they were very busy, so they didn’t even think about it.
The first day – the day they ate their fill – will probably be much more noticeable than the day they ate to their heart’s content. It’s just human nature.
It’s easy to see how CICO is involved. This lack of consistency in the energy part of the equation in.
A solution: Instead of binge eating 3000 calories one day and eating 1500 calories the next, aim for a calorie intake just above the midpoint that you can stick to, and increase it in small portions as needed.
People often increase their activity when they get more calories.
When some people suddenly have more energy – because they eat more – they are more likely to do things that increase their energy. For example, climbing stairs, pushing while talking on the phone and fidgeting in your chair.
They may even work harder than usual during training.
It can be both unconscious and subtle.
While this may sound strange, our coaches believe this is a legitimate problem for fast-growing individuals.
Your cargo: Pay attention to your overall activity.
If you can’t cut back a little, you may have to compensate by eating more. Nutritious and high-calorie foods like nut butters, whole grains and oils can help, especially if you have a weak appetite.
3 strategies to play the system.
Once you understand that CICO is both complex and inevitable, you may run into a common problem.
To know: I can’t eat less than that!
This is one of the main reasons why people give up trying to lose weight or look for a miracle diet in vain.
But here are three simple strategies you (or your clients) can use to create a calorie deficit, even when it seems impossible. It’s all about finding the one that suits you best.
Maximum protein and fibre content.
Eating lots of protein increases satiety and helps you feel more satiated between meals. Eating plenty of fiber increases feelings of satiety and helps you feel more satisfied about your meals.
Research and practice have proven that they help you feel more fulfilled by eating fewer calories, making it easier to lose fat.
This advice may seem trite, I know. If robot nutrition coaches ever come on the scene, eating more protein and fiber will probably be the first thing they are programmed to do.
But the truth is that most people trying to lose weight still don’t pay attention to the intake of any of these nutrients.
And you know what? It’s not his fault.
When it comes to dieting, almost everyone is told to lose weight. Eliminate the bad foods and eat only the good.
But there is another approach: Start adding.
If you try to increase your protein intake (especially lean protein) and your fiber intake (especially plant fiber), you will feel fuller.
You will also be less tempted to eat all the foods you think you should avoid. This enables the automatic movement of ultra-processed food.
This provides another important benefit: By eating more whole foods and less processed foods, you train your brain to crave less of that delicious, over-processed food.
And then something incredible happens: You start eating fewer calories without wanting to, instead of voluntarily restricting yourself because you have to.
This makes it easier to lose weight.
Startup is very easy: For protein, add a handful of relatively lean proteins – chicken, fish, tempeh – to a meal. That’s more than you could get otherwise. Or drink a tasty smoothie as a main meal or snack.
To get fiber, add a serving of high-fiber foods – especially vegetables, fruits, lentils and beans – to your regular diet. That could be an apple as a snack, a handful of roasted carrots with dinner or a handful of spinach in a tasty smoothie.
Try this for two weeks and then add a handful of lean proteins and a serving of high-fiber foods.
In addition to all the benefits we’ve talked about so far, there’s also this:
When you go to the table with abundance in mind, rather than lack, you can avoid the feelings of anxiety and frustration you often feel when you deny yourself your favorite food.
So instead of saying: I don’t think I can give up my nightly habit of drinking wine and eating chocolate, it shows: Hey, look at all those healthy and delicious foods I can give my body!
(And by the way, you don’t have to give up your wine and chocolate habit at all, at least not to get ahead).
Change your perspective.
Imagine you’re on vacation. You overslept and missed breakfast.
Of course you don’t mind, because you are relaxed and having a good time. And there’s no reason to panic: There will be a lunch.
But because you skipped a meal, you end up eating a few hundred calories less than you normally would in a day, creating a deficit.
If you’re in an environment where you feel calm and happy, you’re unlikely to notice.
Let’s assume you wake up on a normal day and are actively trying to lose weight. (In preparation for a holiday!)
One might think: I can only eat my 400 calorie breakfast, and that’s not enough. That’s the worst. I’ll be hungry all day!
So you work under stress and count down the minutes until your next snack or meal. You may even start to feel deprived and unhappy.
Here’s the deal: You were calorie deficient on both days, but your subjective feelings were completely different on both days.
What if you could change your mindset toward the first scenario instead of the second?
Of course, I’m not suggesting you skip breakfast every day (unless you prefer).
But if you can think of eating less as something you do, rather than something you have to do, it can be a lot less of a problem.
Add activity instead of subtracting calories.
Are you one of those people who don’t want to eat less, but do want to exercise more? If so, you can use something called G-Flux.
G-flow, also called energy flow, is the total amount of energy entering and leaving a system.
For example, let’s say you want to create a 500 calorie deficit. It could look like this:
- Energy in: 2,000 calories
- Energy consumption: 2,500 calories
- Deficit: 500 calories
But it could also look like this:
- Energy in: 3,000 calories
- Energy: 3,500 calories
- Deficit: 500 calories
In both scenarios you have reached a 500 calorie deficit, but in the second scenario you may eat much more.
This is one of the advantages of the G-Flux, which is larger.
But there’s another one: Research shows that when you eat high quality food and do different workouts – strength training, fitness training and recovery – you consume more calories, have more lean mass and less fat.
More exercise doesn’t just give you more energy. It also changes the distribution of nutrients so that more calories go to muscle growth and less to fat cells.
By eating more, you also have more opportunities to get the right amount of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to feel your best.
Victory. Victory. Victory.
To be clear, this is a somewhat advanced method. And since metabolism and energy balance are dynamic in nature, the effectiveness of this method may vary from person to person.
Also, not everyone has the ability or desire to devote more time to training. And that’s good.
But if you are flexible in your thinking and willing to experiment with different ways to influence CICO, you can find your own personal strategy to tip the energy balance in your favor (or that of your clients).
If you are a trainer or want to become one….
Learning how to educate clients, patients, friends or family members about healthy eating and lifestyle changes that fit their bodies, preferences and circumstances is both an art and a science.
If you want to learn more about both, consider Level 1 certification.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are your total calories in and total calories out?
Total calories in: 2,000 Total calories out: 1,500 Total calories in minus total calories out equals 500 calories.
How many calories should I eat to lose weight vs out?
The number of calories you should eat to lose weight is different for everyone. It depends on your age, height, weight, and activity level.
What is Cico rule for weight loss?
Cico is a diet that is based on the idea of consuming only 500 calories per day.
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