CICO: Another Unnecessary Nutritional Debate
I was enjoying some recreational reading dealing with the topic of good nutrition (yes, I love it that much) when I ran across a long and detailed article having to do with caloric intake. The author is a strong proponent of the paleo diet and an equally strong critic of the ‘calorie in, calorie out’ (CICO) principle applied to weight loss and management. The long article was followed by an even longer comment discussion that eventually degraded into an unnecessary debate over CICO.
In light of a previous blog post I wrote talking about sugar and calories, I felt it might be a good idea to address this ongoing CICO debate. At the heart of the debate is the scientific reality that the human body does not actually use calories to do anything. A calorie is simply a unit of measure designed to tell us how much energy potential something holds. The energy in food expressed by calories is calculated by burning that food and then measuring the heat output.
Due to the definition of a nutritional calorie and the way these calories are measured, any information you might find on a food label is, at best, an estimate. Even nutritional websites that list the calories of certain fruits and vegetables are only listing estimates.
CICO and Good Nutrition
With the basic science out of the way, let us talk about CICO and good nutrition. What you are about to read should explain thoroughly why the debate over CICO is so unnecessary. The fact is that some people do very well losing weight by counting calories while others fail miserably. Rather than arguing about the validity of CICO, it’s better to figure out why some people succeed and others don’t.
As a naturopathic doctor, I’m acutely aware of the importance of good nutrition for overall health. Good nutrition trumps just about everything – including a paleo diet and calorie counting. If we human beings did a better job of making sure we ate the right quantities of healthy food, a lot of our health problems would be naturally eliminated. We would see fewer diseases, less susceptibility to things such as the common cold, and even better healing potential when injuries are incurred.
Good nutritional habits start with understanding what we eat and how specific foods benefit the body. For example, there are both good and bad fats. The body needs the good fats; bad fats create a problem. Similarly, the body needs a certain level of sodium to function properly. Eliminating all sodium from the diet is a dangerous thing.
The reason some people do very well using CICO to lose and manage weight is that calorie counting forces them to adopt good nutritional habits. Once calorie counting begins, people quickly learn about empty calories by the mere fact that eating the wrong foods leaves them hungry. Patients who ask me about this phenomenon are taught that eating the right kinds of good calories will help them lose weight AND keep them full.
Those who don’t succeed with CICO are typically those who only adjust their volume of calories rather than also addressing the kinds of calories they are consuming. And herein is the rub. It’s still all comes down to good nutrition:
- eat the right kinds of foods in excess volume and you will still gain weight;
- eat the wrong kinds of foods in the right volume and you will still have trouble losing weight; BUT
- eat the right kinds of foods in the right volumes and you will find it a lot easier to lose and manage weight.