The CICO Diet Isn’t the Best Way to Lose Weight — Unless You Do These 3 Things

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The CICO diet gets a few things wrong when it comes to healthy and sustainable weight loss.
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If you think back far enough, you'll recall the days when Target was just another discount retail store. But with some clever strategy, the chain has become common ground for social media influencers, cosmopolitan change-makers and at-home moms, alike. That's the power of rebranding.

Much like today's Target, the CICO diet is a new-and-improved version of an old concept: If you burn more calories than you take in, you'll lose weight. This principle isn't necessarily incorrect, but it's only one small piece of the weight-loss puzzle.

Before you start equating steps and calories, consider how you can tweak CICO — which stands for "calories in, calories out" — for a more wholistic and ultimately effective diet plan.

Read more: Why You Probably Shouldn't Try the OMAD Diet

What Is the CICO Diet?

Before we dive into the CICO diet, let's review some weight-loss basics. You need to burn about 3,500 calories to lose 1 pound, according to the Mayo Clinic. Trimming calories from your diet and increasing your exercise will help you create a calorie deficit (which is when you burn more calories than you consume).

This concept of calories in, calories out is the principle behind the CICO diet. If you burn more calories than you eat each day, you'll lose weight — and fast. Generally speaking, this is accurate, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. But CICO is grossly oversimplified.

In order to follow the diet, all you need to do is create a calorie deficit. By tracking your food using an app or food diary, you can find how many calories it takes to maintain your current weight. From there, you can trim anywhere between 500 to 1,000 calories per day to create a calorie deficit, according to the Mayo Clinic. That's all there is to CICO.

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But losing weight isn't all about the math, Taub-Dix explains. The way we burn calories depends on the macronutrients (carbs, protein and fat) we eat. Different macros require different amounts of energy for your body to burn and process, also known as the thermic effect of food, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Protein and carbohydrates have a higher thermic affect than fat. So, foods higher in protein, for example, take more calories to digest than fat.

The CICO diet also sets up unsustainable expectations where calorie burn is concerned. "It's unrealistic to think that if you want an extra piece of bread, then you have to go run on a treadmill," Taub-Dix says. "I applaud this diet for encouraging physical activity, but this plan is not a healthy way to live."

Read more: Why You Should Stop Thinking of Food in Terms of Calories You Need to Burn

Can You Eat Anything on CICO?

Unlike low-carb or low-fat diet regimens, there are no restricted foods on CICO, as long as you stay in a calorie deficit, according to Shena Jaramillo, RD. On the CICO diet, 100 calories is 100 calories, whether it comes from an apple or a cookie.

But calories and nutrition aren't the same thing. This is another inherent flaw in the diet plan, Jaramillo says. The calories from an apple come with beneficial vitamins and nutrients, while we can't say the same for cookies.

"One could choose chips and hot dogs to achieve their CICO diet goal," Jaramillo says. "While this, in theory, could work to produce weight loss, these foods often do not leave us satiated and make it difficult to achieve our restricted calorie goal."

How Many Calories Should I Eat to Lose Weight?

The idea with CICO is to burn more calories than you consume, but the diet doesn't set specific calorie limits. You may be tempted to slash your daily calories very low to achieve faster weight loss, but beware: Severe calorie deficits can cause your metabolism to slow, Jaramillo says. So, over time, your body will burn less and less calories to perform the same activities. This will also make it more difficult to keep the weight off. Instead, aim to cut about 500 calories per day, and make sure you're not dipping below 1,200 total calories for women or 1,500 for men.

Benefits of the CICO Diet for Weight Loss

CICO gives users a general understanding of calories and energy expenditure. It can also help build awareness around mindless eating or portion control, Jaramillo says.

The diet also encourages exercise, which is a plus. However, working out solely as a method of burning more calories probably isn't the best way to establish a healthy relationship with exercise and your body.

Despite these benefits, which are bare-minimum, the diet fails to give a proper window into nutrition and healthy eating. Losing weight by calorie-cutting alone won't necessarily improve your dietary choices and lifestyle, which is why people typically regain the weight they lose. So, while technically you can lose weight on the CICO diet, the results are likely to be short-lived.

Read more: How to Find the Best Weight-Loss Diet for You

Exercise for the overall health benefits, not to burn off calories.
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How to Make CICO More Sustainable

While CICO alone isn't a healthy, sustainable weight-loss method, it can be one part of a healthy plan. As CICO suggests, you will need to eat in a deficit in order to lose weight. But calories aren't the only factor to consider when you're building a meal plan. Consider these other factors to make CICO sustainable:

1. Eat Foods for Quality, Not Quantity

You can eat plenty of ultra-processed foods and stay in a caloric deficit. But they're probably not the best choice if you want long-term, sustainable weight-loss. Ultra-processed foods — think: chips, soft drinks, energy bars, flavored yogurt — are low in vitamins and nutrients. If your diet consists of little else, you can become nutrient deficient.

These foods are also high in saturated fats, added sugars and sodium, which can play a part in conditions like heart disease or high blood pressure, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Instead, choose a varied diet with some flexibility, Taub-Dix recommends. At each meal, prioritize nutrient-dense foods, like fruits and veggies. Plants are high in fiber, a nutrient that will boost your satiety and promote healthy digestion, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Although you can make bread or pasta fit your CICO diet calories, whole grains are a more nutritious choice. Foods like brown rice or quinoa are higher in fiber, magnesium, iron and B vitamins, according to the Whole Grains Council.

Be picky with your protein, too. As Jaramillo mentions above, hot dogs can be low in calories but they're high in preservatives. Instead, choose lean protein sources like chicken, fish or low-fat dairy.

2. Focus on Your Body, Not Your Calorie Count

Being more aware of mindless eating and portion control is another benefit of the CICO diet, which can work in your favor. Snacking while watching TV or scrolling social media can cause you to consume a lot of low-quality calories without even realizing you're doing it, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

But while the CICO diet restricts any kind of non-measured eating, like mindless snacking, try to focus on your hunger cues and food quality, instead of your calorie count, recommends Taub-Dix.

"Focus on the quality of the foods you're eating instead of just relying on calorie counts to learn the difference between being hungry or full," she says. "Those habits could create a diet that could last a lifetime, instead of one that is temporary."

3. Exercise for Your Health, Not Your Calorie Deficit

Exercise burns calories, which is why it plays a part in the CICO diet. But calorie expenditure isn't the only benefit of consistent exercise.

Regular exercise can help reduce your risk of heart disease and help manage your blood sugar levels, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Not to mention, exercise can be a great tool for coping with stress and may even improve your sleep.

Read more: 'How I Lost 93 Pounds by Strength-Training and Counting Macros'

"Try to move your body because you like the way it makes you look and feel — not because you have to try to undo the damage you may think a french fry created," Taub-Dix says.

The Bottom Line

The CICO diet can be part of an effective weight-loss plan. Understanding how calories work in a diet is crucial but definitely not the only important piece of information. Don't knock CICO completely, but work to incorporate it into a healthier weight-loss strategy.

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