The Problem With Calorie Counting: Why The CICO Diet Is Not The Healthiest Weight Loss Method .

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Another day, another diet plan telling people (read: women) how to lose weight in the quest for the “perfect body”.

The latest concept hitting headlines is the CICO plan, which stands for “calories in, calories out”.

The plan, which has dominated Reddit threads in recent weeks, is based on the idea that you can eat whatever you want, as long as you exercise off more calories than you have consumed. 

But according to Aisling Pigott, a spokesperson from the British Dietetic Association, counting calories is not the best way to achieve a healthy body, or a health mind.

“Calorie awareness is absolutely important when it comes to healthy eating. But food is so much more than numbers,” she tells HuffPost UK.

“Food is our body’s fuel, it’s part of how we socialise, how we enjoy food and to simplify it to numbers alone is not helpful.” 

According to Pigott, focussing on calories alone when trying to lose weight can have a “potentially negative impact on our health”, especially if we exercise without proper fuelling. 

“For example, if you restrict your diet to 1500kcal, do a 500kcal workout, then re-fuel with only carrot sticks, you will achieve the ‘negative energy balance’,” she explains.

“Your body will not make any adaptations to the exercise you’ve just completed, such as getting stronger, fitter or reap the metabolic rewards of exercise.” 

Nutrition consultant Charlotte Stirling-Reed adds that just because a food is high in calories it does not mean it is unhealthy, and vice versa.

“Foods are more than just their calories and some nutrient rich foods such as nuts and avocados are actually full of nutrients that we would encourage people to include in their diets,” she tells HuffPost UK. 

“The trouble with any diet is that it’s not necessarily practical to live your life constantly restricting or counting calories. Sometimes this can lead to us thinking of foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, when really it should be all about balance and, importantly, enjoying food.” 

Pigott points out that over-simplifying the relationship between diet and exercise to focus solely on calories can mean we become tempted to only eat the foods that we like, rather than truly thinking about what would benefit our bodies.

“For example, we could think it’s a great idea to eat six chocolate bars a day and achieve a negative energy balance [through exercise], but put ourselves at risk of gut problems, anaemia and nutrient malnutrition,” she says. 

Dr Sally Norton, a consultant who specialises in weight loss, says scientifically, attempting to match your calorie intake and calories burned during exercise is impossible to do accurately, anyway. 

“To work out a calorie count, manufacturers will calculate the amount of fat, protein and carbohydrate in a meal or snack,” she explains.

“They will use the figures that 1g fat provides 9kcals, and 1g of protein or carb gives us 4kcals. However, these figures are calculated by taking these foodstuffs and burning them over a Bunsen burner in a lab to see how much energy they generated.

“This doesn’t necessarily equate to the energy they produce when they are in our body.”

She adds that not all the food we consume is actually broken down completely in our bodies, making some calorie counts unreliable.

“Without putting too fine a point on it, some passes through relatively unscathed – particularly food that hasn’t been overly processed before it reaches us,” she says.

“Our digestive process is incredibly complex – I have worked in this field for 20 years and still don’t come close to understanding it. So to equate its energy-extracting process with that of a basic scientific experiment in a sterile lab is completely over-simplistic.” 

According to the NHS, an average man needs around 2,500kcal (10,500kJ) a day to maintain a healthy body weight, while a woman needs around 2,000kcal (8,400kJ) a day.

These figures will vary depending on age, size and levels of physical activity, among other factors.

Technicalities aside, Pigott says calorie counting, and the CICO plan specifically, is part of a wider issue with how we are taught to “demonise” certain foods by the media.

“Diet culture is extremely difficult to tackle, and we are immersed in this in so many ways. This [CICO] is no worse or better than other confusing advice online which can advocate difficult relationships with food and body image,” she says.

“There is always a risk of promoting exercise as a a punishment for the demons of eating, which conflicts with our body’s desire to enjoy food and the importance of enjoying and engaging in exercise that is good for us. Everywhere we look, we are exposed to these messages, and this is just another example.” 

Instead of calorie counting, Stirling-Reed advises that “making healthy changes over time” is a better way to focus on improving your weight and overall health.

“If you’re wanting to improve your health look at the whole picture - exercise, food, sleep, mental health and also your own relationship with food,” she says.

“Try not to overly restrict, but make small changes to include more nutrient rich foods in your diet. Sometimes it’s good to think about what you need to add in, rather than what you need to restrict.” 

Most importantly, if you’re looking to change your diet or lose weight, you should speak to your GP or a registered medical professional to receive advice that’s tailored to you as an individual.