“Calories-in, calories-out” is the primary theory for weight loss and the CICO Diet is the most popular weight loss diet around (branded with many different names). Unfortunately, this approach is also the most ineffective. Here is your official permission slip for ending the obsession with tracking and counting calories and everything you need to win the argument with your friends.
I’ve got a fun experiment for you.
Go have a conversation with ANYONE you know — even if they’re a nutritionist or trainer — about weight loss and see if you can make it five minutes without them mentioning the word calories (or alluding to a concept such as “burning more than you take in”) or peddling a CICO Diet (a diet based on counting and cutting calories).
I bet you can’t go five minutes with anyone without hearing it.
Calories are the foundation of almost every “diet plan” or “weight loss program” in the health and fitness industry. So, it might come as a shock to you when I tell you, they’re just not that important.
Don’t dismiss me yet. If you want to regain control of your weight and your health without obsessing about a mostly useless concept, then read a little bit further. I guarantee this will be worth your while and I guarantee that you’ll be able to ditch the CICO Diet for good, which should make you happy as a clam.
David Kirchoff, president of Weight Watchers, the world’s largest diet company, recently said on their website: “Calorie counting has become unhelpful.”
What Are Calories?
To put it simply, a calorie is a measure of energy. A “large calorie” is a measure of food energy. A “small calorie” is the approximate amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius at a pressure of one atmosphere (yawn, right?).
A large calorie, the food kind you’re used to hearing about, is equal to 1000 small calories. And I’m sure that knowing that is still totally unhelpful and irrelevant to you, so here’s something that might matter slightly more (but still not all that much)…
- One gram of fat in food contains nine calories.
- One gram of carbohydrate contains four calories.
- One gram of protein contain four calories.
- One gram of alcohol contains seven calories.
Some people claim that it’s better to eat carbs and protein because they’re lower in calories, but that’s a misguided notion, as you’ll see.
The [False] Premise of Calories-in, Calories-out.
Calories In, Calories Out (CICO) and the CICO Diet are based on the first law of thermodynamics. Without dusting off your physics book, that law basically states that you can’t create or destroy energy (remember, a calorie is a measure of energy), you can only change it.
Translation: If you take in more energy (calories) than you need for fuel, the energy gets converted and stored (typically as fat).
Another translation: If you eat too much, you get fat.
Another translation: If you don’t exercise enough, you get fat.
Another translation: Eat less, exercise more, that’s ALL that matters.
Also often overheard: “Put the f’ing fork down!”
To be crystal clear, there is NOTHING wrong with the first law of thermodynamics. What’s wrong here is the premise that the law of thermodynamics explains everything, when in reality it doesn’t explain much of anything.
“Calories are little creatures that live in your closet and sew your clothes a little tighter each night.”
If you believe in CICO, you should believe in this too.
The Pretenders: A Calorie is Not a Calorie and the Human Body is Not a Calculator.
If your body simply did the math of CICO as you ate, then counting calories to lose weight would be effortless and the CICO Diet would be crazy effective (it has like a 95%+ failure rate, FYI).
The problem is that not all calories are created equal. And this, my friends, is where the fairy tale of the CICO Diet starts to crumble.
While CICO does state a fact, it leaves out all the important context from the discussion.
- Eating excess calories makes you fat, but why are you eating excess calories?
- Eating less calories will help you lose weight (not necessarily fat, though), but why can’t you eat less food for a long period of time?
- What about the people who seem to eat a surplus of calories based on the math with no resulting weight gain?
- What about the people who eat a deficit of calories according to the math, who don’t lose weight?
Claiming the answer is always “calories” is like a doctor telling a pregnant mother that her baby is human when she asked if it’s a boy or a girl. The doctor isn’t lying, but he’s also not telling her anything she doesn’t already know. And he’s certainly not answering the important questions.
The CICO Diet Fails to Account for Some Very Important Factors.
- How Calories Are Calculated
- Your Body’s Hormone Response
- The Quality of The Calories
- Your Body Fat Setpoint
- Addiction and Dependency
- The Macronutrient Breakdown
Aside from that, the math based on the calories in, calories out model is clearly out of whack.
3500 calories equals one pound of body fat. If you cut 100 calories from someone’s diet – a few bites of dinner – they’d reduce their caloric intake by 182,500 calories over a five year period.
If we put a male at 5’8″ who weighed 165 pounds on that diet, they’d lose 52 pounds over 5 years. If they overate by the same amount — a few bites of food – they’d be obese? It’s laughable.
To sum everything up thus far: the people who are peddling the calorie myth are stating facts, they’re just not stating relevant ones. Now, I’m going to give you all the ammunition you need to ditch the calorie myth yourself and to win the argument with your friends.
To determine calorie counts, scientists burn food in a water-enclosed chamber called a bomb calorimeter; the number of degrees by which the burning food raises the water’s temperature equals the number of calories in the food.
Sure, whatever you say.
Well, that sounds official. But is that a relevant way to measure calories for humans?
Eh, not really. If you put a chunk of wood in calorimeter it will tell you the wood had a great deal of energy in it. However, since all that energy is in the form of cellulose (humans can’t digest cellulose), the actual nutritional caloric content of wood is zero.
In fact, the human body processes all kinds of food in different ways depending on many factors such as how much the food was cooked, the gut health of the individual, how our body digests it, and so on.
Differences exist even within a given kind of food. Take, for example, cooked vegetables. Cell walls in some plants are tougher to break down than those in others; nature, of course, varies in everything. If the plant material we eat has more of its cell walls broken down we can get more of the calories from the goodies inside. In some plants, cooking ruptures most cell walls; in others, such as cassava, cell walls hold strong and hoard their precious calories in such a way that many of them pass through our bodies intact.
We could use the sweet potato as an example. Sweet potatoes are made up of starches that become more bioavailable the more they’re cooked (and thus provide more calories). Therefore, you could cook ten sweet potatoes of the exact same size at varying lengths and they would then contain varying calorie counts — something I’ve never seen mentioned when googling “sweet potato nutrition facts.” And I’m pretty sure the Weight Watchers points system doesn’t account for cooking time either.
If this fact is taken to a smaller scale, such as the stomachs of cute little mice, the implications are glaring. When Rachel Carmody fed rats both cooked and uncooked sweet potato, the findings really spoke to the importance of this issue:
The mice on the different diets got about the same amount of exercise. They all had a wheel to run on, and they did not differ one treatment to the next in terms of how inclined they were to take a jog. They did differ, however, in how much they weighed at the end of the study. As predicted, mice lost more than four grams of weight on raw sweet potatoes, but gained weight when given cooked sweet potatoes (whether or not they were pounded).
And cooking isn’t even close to being the only way the concept of calories is altered by the human body. Some foods simply demand more caloric expenditure during digestion.
For instance, foods that contain possible pathogens, toxins, or inflammatory products would require an immune response from the body which then requires caloric expenditure where others foods would not trigger this reaction.
Sometimes, the body simply treats food differently based on the way it was processed:
A recent study found that individual humans who ate, as part of an experiment, 600 or 800 calorie portions of whole wheat bread (with nuts and seeds on it) and cheddar cheese actually expended twice as much energy, yes twice, in digesting that food as did individuals who consumed the same quantity of white bread and “processed cheese product.”
Additionally, depending on where you live in the world, your gut biome (the types and amounts of helpful and harmful bacteria) is different from someone who lives in a separate part of the world. This has real world implications on how your body breaks down the food you eat, how many calories are required to digest the food, and how many calories are extracted from that food.
In fact, you can feed two people of the same current height, weight, and age the same number of calories and their weight gain or loss will be different as their bodies treat the food differently. Just as everyone has a unique DNA and a unique thumb print, they have a unique way they process and digest food. They also have a unique body fat setpoint; more on that later.
What this all burns down to, pardon the pun, is that the human stomach is not a bomb calorimeter, it’s a complex ecosystem.
When we eat poor-quality food products like refined starches, sugars, and processed foods, we are programming our cells to store fat and — even worse — to hang on to that fat.
Hormones Are a Gigantic Piece of The Puzzle.
If the premise of calories in, calories out were true, then eating 1000 calories of sugar and 1000 calories of fat would produce the same results. Unfortunately for all the sugar addicts out there, this simply doesn’t play out in real life.
I said before that the human body is not a calculator. And the main reason it isn’t a calculator is because its functions are controlled by hormones and hormones respond differently to different foods.
Fat, carbs, and protein (macronutrients) all influence hormones in different ways. For example, non-fiber carbohydrates trigger the release of insulin where fat does not.
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.
Balancing hormones for fat loss.
Low carbohydrate diets tend to work well for fat loss because they tightly regulate insulin. When insulin constantly spikes throughout the day, the subsequent fall of insulin increases hunger and promotes more eating.
By stabilizing insulin and providing the body with mostly satiety triggering macronutrients — fat and protein — low carb diets automatically limit calorie intake (through the natural balance of hunger hormones).
While carbohydrates have less calories per gram than fat (4 calories per gram versus 9 calories per gram of fat), they have a completely different impact on the hormones that regulate hunger and satiety.
In this regard, proponents of CICO deserve an A in math and an F in biology.
Don’t get hormonal when I tell you this, but stress makes you fat.
Cortisol is a hormone released in response to stress. It’s job is to decrease and control inflammation. But, as with all other hormones, there are side effects. Balance is key. If stress is chronic and cortisol is constantly elevated, issues occur: insulin resistance, fat storage, and disease over the long term.
Cortisol directly effects fat storage and weight gain in stressed individuals. Tissue cortisol concentrations are controlled by a specific enzyme that converts inactive cortisone to active cortisol (9-11). This particular enzyme is located in adipose (fat) tissues. Studies with human visceral (fat surrounding the stomach and intestines) and subcutaneous fat tissue have demonstrated that the gene for this enzyme is expressed more by obese conditions (11). It has also been demonstrated in research that human visceral fat cells have more of these enzymes compared to subcutaneous fat cells. Thus, higher levels of these enzymes in these deep fat cells surrounding the abdomen may lead to obesity due to greater amounts of cortisol being produced at the tissue level. As well, deep abdominal fat has greater blood flow and four times more cortisol receptors compared to subcutaneous fat (8). This may also increase cortisol’s fat accumulating and fat cell size enlarging effect.
If you’re trying to lose excess fat, stress is going to be a serious pain in your gut. Pun intended. A concentration of fat in the midsection is directly linked to increased cortisol production. This is why sleep and the “keep calm and carry on” mantra is so important for living a long, healthy, unfat life.
Low quantity and low quality sleep are huge driving factors of stress, especially in developed countries where everyone is in work mode all the time. Poor sleep decreases circulating leptin levels and increases circulating ghrelin levels. In short, poor sleep makes you hungry.
Quick tip: Chronic exercise will create chronic inflammation and chronically elevated cortisol and make you fatter. You might lose “weight,” but it’s not fat, Jack (ESPECIALLY if you’re at a caloric deficit — the weight you’re losing is muscle mass). Ditch those running shoes and you’ll ditch what’s left of your flab. Oh, and have some self-respect and pick up a barbell once in a while.
Protein can be used to build muscle which improves your metabolic profile. Carbohydrates such as fructose (the most popular added sugar) can create long-term insulin resistance that severely disorders hormones. But somehow they’re all the same?
Failing to Take an Integrated Approach is the #1 Reason Why You Can’t [Sustainably] Lose Weight.
Weight Watchers is perhaps the most popular calorie counting diet. They’ve created a points system that helps you track caloric intake instead of calculating actual calories.
The premise is that as long as you stay under a certain number of predetermined points each day, you’ll reach your goals. This is calories in, calories out thinking at its best and just a branded version of the CICO Diet.
Let’s say that you strictly eat Weight Watchers’ ready made meals and your point count each day is kept to perfection. What will happen?
You’re very likely to lose weight. And nobody is arguing against that.
Now, you need to answer a few questions.
- Did you want to lose weight for good, or just for now?
- Did you want to improve your health markers as well?
- Did you want to improve your metabolism or harm it?
- Did you want to lose ANY weight, or fat specifically?
- Did you want to strengthen your immune system or inhibit it?
These are glaring issues right? When you understand the Six Pillars of Authentic Human Health, you quickly realize that calories are a non-factor. They’re real, but they’re something that take care of themselves when you do everything else right.
Your hypothalamus is playing tricks on you.
Losing weight now and gaining it back later is a bigger failure than not losing weight at all, considering that most people gain back more than they started with.
Everyone has a body fat setpoint that tightly regulates weight loss and gain. And it’s damn stubborn because it’s a programmed defense mechanism (drastic reduction or gain in fat mass is not considered desirable by Mr. Hypothalamus).
This is exactly why some people who never count a single calorie stay within one or two pounds of the same weight. Their setpoint is being tightly regulated by a functional metabolism.
The setpoint is a chosen weight the hypothalamus attempts to maintain through the regulation of satiety and energy expenditure. If you eat too much, you’re subconsciously influenced to increase activity and decrease consumption at subsequent meals.
The key here is that the setpoint is a moving goalpost. As you gain weight over the long term (by eating foods your body wasn’t designed to adequately deal with, e.g. that bucket-o-popcorn with movie theater butter and a a half gallon of CocaCola), your setpoint jumps from one maintenance range to a higher one (due in part to leptin resistance — back to the hormones we go!).
Those higher levels of weight become the new normal that the body will try hard to defend, creating a vicious cycle.
Additionally, if you’re cutting calories AND you’re deficient in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals — and synthetic ones don’t count), your body will again signal constant hunger because your cells are starving for REAL food.
The only way to fix it…
There’s only one way to sustain fat loss: get your body to recognize and defend an appropriate setpoint.
Remember, in overweight and obese people — especially if you’re leptin resistant — the body has chosen to defend a higher and inappropriate setpoint because it’s moved the goalpost in response to an overload of inflammatory and hormone-disordering foods.
So now the question is, “how do we move the setpoint back down?”
Well, I can assure you that it’s NOT by consciously reducing calories and increasing exercise.
If you simply decrease the amount of food you take in, the body will not change its setpoint in the short-term. Instead, it will deploy defense mechanisms such as decreased motivation to be active, a reduced metabolism, and a strong desire to eat everything in sight.
So, if we can’t just under-eat and over-exercise our way to success, what’s left?
Aside from surgery, your only current options are nutrition and lifestyle.
While I can’t point to any scientific studies, I have plenty of real-world results with both myself and my clients that says…
When your body is getting adequate nutrition and calories, especially from foods that improve gut health and decrease inflammation, it’s far less defensive of its inappropriate setpoint. When you switch to safer exercise that’s not chronic and promotes the preservation of lean muscle mass, your body is less defensive of its inappropriate setpoint. When you stop eating hyper-palatable foods and readjust your palette, your body is far less defensive of its inappropriate setpoint.
“About eighty percent of the food on shelves of supermarkets today didn’t exist 100 years ago.”
Dr. Larry McCleary
How to Lose Weight Without Counting Calories
The calories-in, calories-out dogma hypothesizes that the only thing we have to change is the quantity of what we eat. You can take all this bad stuff you’re eating – the chemicals, the toxins, the added sugars, and the hyper-palatable food products — and just eat less of them. If you do that, you’ll lose weight and reach your goals.
And that’s absolutely true. You can eat nothing but donuts – 1000 calories worth per day – and lose weight.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is sustainability.
As I’ve mentioned, you’re a complex biological system, not a math equation.
You can reduce intake and make some progress, that’s not in question. But, the wheels will come off that bus eventually. And worse, 90% of the people who try to use that model end up gaining back more weight than when they started because the end usually centers around days or weeks of binging as their body desperately tries to get what was being withheld.
The good news is that if you shift your focus toward the things that actually matter and treat your body like the complex biological system it is rather than a calculator, you can lose all your excess weight without counting a single calorie.
“You don’t lose weight to get healthy, you get healthy to lose weight.”
People who take a “weight-first” approach tend to do really poorly long-term. People who take a “health-first” approach find much more success.
The first thing you have to realize is that sustainable weight loss is a “quality” issue and not a “quantity” issue. Instead of paying attention to “how much” food you’re eating or “how much” exercise you’re doing or “how much” sleep you’re getting, start paying attention to the quality of all these things.
The first step you can take is to learn how to actually eat healthy in an individualized, non-dogmatic manner.
The second step you can take is to shift away from being pathologically sedentary. You have to be careful that you don’t swing to the extremes though. You don’t have to sign up for a marathon or a triathlon or do CrossFit 6 days a week. Just adopt a practical daily fitness plan that you enjoy.
The third step you can take is to make sure that you understand what drives overeating. Your body has an internal calorie calculator, which is why you don’t need an external calorie calculator, but there are legitimate reasons why you might still overeat. You need to understand what those are.
The bottom line is that when you eat the right foods and create a healthy physical, mental, and emotional environment, you won’t overeat. And when your hormones and metabolism are functioning properly, you can sustain a calorie-deficit – without hunger – as your body makes use of stored fat for fuel. No micromanagement necessary.
Some Random Parting Thoughts About the CICO Diet, Fat Loss, and Not Driving Yourself Bat$h!# Crazy.
At no point in this article did I make the case that the first law of thermodynamics does not exist or is wrong. Regardless of how many times I repeat my support for the first law of thermodynamics, people will still comment with, “you’re full of sh*t, the first law of thermodynamics is science!”
The arguments I make in this article relate to important and specific context surrounding the topic of calories and the CICO Diet. While based on a sound scientific principle, using CICO as a tactic fails in practical execution.ov
When I say “fails,” I don’t mean, “doesn’t work at all.” I very clearly mean, “doesn’t work long-term.” I really don’t care at all about short-term success. You can be successful in the short-term on almost *any* Diet. But why does that matter when the success rates plummet after the 6-month mark and are almost non-existent after the 1-year mark.
My sole focus is on helping men and women look great and feel great for the rest of their life without obsession, perfectionism, or the misery of dieting. I’m 100% focused on practicality and sustainability and the CICO Diet fails on both counts.
At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself one question (if you support the CICO Diet): “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”
If you’re on the fence, just ask yourself this: If you could get and keep a body and life you love without counting calories or otherwise micromanaging your diet and lifestyle, would you choose to not do those things?
I think most people would stop all the counting and tracking and micromanaging if they had an approach that worked without that nonsense. Well, that approach exists. Try it and you’ll see. And then you’ll join the club of men and women who have cracked the code on sustainable healthy living
Do you know someone who might find this guide helpful? Pass it along…
Founder of Rebooted Body and host of The Rebooted Body Podcast. Kevin helps men and women finally get a body and life they love with his unique blend of real food, functional movement, and psychology. To work with him personally, choose a program.