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February 08, 2022 9 min read

CICO stands for “calories in, calories out” and it can be a very effective weight loss program when done correctly.

But it’s a fairly open-ended diet, which means you can go off the rails without even knowing it, seeing no return for weeks of dedicated calorie counting.So, what’s the best way to use the CICO diet? Read our complete guide to find out.

Calories counting , diet , food control and weight loss concept. woman using Calorie counter application on her smartphone

The CICO Diet: What It Is, Where It Comes From

If you’re like us, hearing about the latest and greatest diet fads gets exhausting.

Carb-free! Fat-free! Sugar-free!

Count points! Count macros! Count ketones!

Be they intermittent fasting, vegan, paleo, Mediterranean, or anything else, the sheer number of these diets is enough to drown out the healthy ones that actually work.

CICO does have a deceptively simple description and promises to let you eat whatever you want and still lose weight - sounds like just another fad diet.Where CICO is different is that it actually works.

What is the CICO Diet?

Calorie counting is the diet plan and the whole truth is that caloric deficits do make you lose weight. All you need to do is burn more calories than you consume.

Calorie-based diets have a long history beginning with the discovery and establishment of the calorie in the 19th century.

Calorie counting itself is nothing new. The rise in popularity of the CICO diet appears to come from the buzz it gets on the discussion forum website Reddit, where there are countless threads about failures, successes, tips, and methods for following the plan. 

To follow the CICO diet, all you have to do is find out how many calories your body needs for maintenance (i.e., to keep your systems running healthily) and then consume less than that.

Some folks manage a 1000 calorie deficit and others are happy with 500. It all depends on the timeframe you set for your weight loss goal.As long as you aren’t eating enough calories for maintenance, your body will burn fat and muscle instead and you’ll lose weight. Calorie counting is the answer. Great news, right?

Hold on, you might be thinking. That all sounds pretty obvious. How could fad diets - or, really, any diets - still be a thing if CICO is so simple and effective?

Well, a lot of people want something for nothing, which is why fad diets appeal. But the more direct answer, the reason people don’t flock to CICO, is because it’s easy to overcomplicate and even easier to do wrong.

How To Do The CICO Diet

You might be intimidated by the idea of counting calories. Math isn’t for everyone, after all.But CICO is probably the best diet for people who don’t want to keep track of a bunch of numbers.

Although you need to find out the proper amount of calories for your body, you don’t have to get to a precise number.

Let’s run through some basic instructions for the CICO diet so you can see what we mean.

1. Find Out Your Body’s Caloric Needs

The internet is full of calculators that will help you get a ballpark estimate of the number of calories your body needs. But you might need to work with a dietician to get a more precise figure.

Things like basal metabolic rate and daily energy expenditure vary and knowing them will help your CICO plan be more effective.

Without these numbers, you’re kind of just shooting in the dark based on a vague estimate of your activity level and how your body works. 

2. Find Out Your Nutritional Needs

Macronutrients might figure more heavily in other diets, but you need to consider them with CICO as well, especially if you’re serious about lifting and building muscle. The amount of physical activity you regularly engage in - working out, playing sports, moving around throughout the day, etc. - will play a role in determining your nutrient requirements, particularly if that physical activity is for a fitness goal.

People trying to lose weight typically attempt low-carb diets, although carbohydrates are a necessary energy source and should be part of your diet especially if you’re a highly active person.

Proteins are vital for energy, building muscle, and they also help with satiety, which means you feel full longer with healthy carbs and won’t feel the urge to eat as frequently. Make sure you have a well-balanced and protein-rich plan for your CICO diet. 

3. Plan Your “Calories In”

It’s all good and well to know your daily calorie requirements but when you’re balancing that against “calories in” like you have to do in the CICO diet, knowing how exactly you’re going to get those “calories in” is vital for success.

Unless you’re some kind of millionaire who can hire a personal dietitian, you’re more than likely going to have to rely on home cooking to avoid the catastrophic amount of calories and malnutrition in the majority of restaurant food.

Counting calories in a home-cooked meal is difficult if you aren't precise with your ingredients and measurements.Then again, planning everything you eat down to the finest detail will probably make you want to drop the whole diet eventually.

Find a balance between knowing what you can eat to stay within your window and what’s going too far.

Supplement your food-sourced nutrients with plant-based V-BCAA's without racking up the calorie count.

4. Plan Your “Calories Out”

Similarly, you need to have at least a rough idea of how many calories you’ll burn during your workout, walking around, and how much your body burns on digestion and other necessary processes.

Again, getting precise here is difficult and will turn discouraging over time. But having a general idea will help you plan your meals and make your workouts more effective. 

5. Define Your Caloric Deficit

If you want to shed body fat, you have to burn more calories than you take in.

That’s the guiding principle behind the CICO diet and it’s harder to define than you might be expecting.It might feel like you could handle a 1,000 calorie deficit easily, but think about it a bit more.

One or two days might be easy, sure. But sustaining that kind of sub-optimal caloric intake for a long time is probably going to make you tire more easily, turn irritable, handle stress less efficiently, and it could also interfere with your social life.That’s not to say it’s impossible. But if you want it to work, you’ll have to be strategic about it.

Giving your body less energy than it needs to power itself is no easy task so you need to determine what foods will help you through it and how much you can take.

6. Calories In, Calories Out

Now put everything into action. Remember, this isn’t a fad diet or a quick solution. We’re trying to form better eating habits here.

Even if you decrease your caloric deficit after reaching your weight loss goal, you should continue operating within the CICO diet framework to make sure that weight doesn’t come creeping back.

This is a straightforward diet plan but that doesn’t mean it’s without problems. Let’s talk about a few of the most common errors and annoyances with the CICO diet.

Common Pitfalls In The CICO Diet

Don’t let these possible problems deter you from the CICO diet if our description of it appeals to you so far. Tailoring it to your lifestyle and nutritional needs is more than doable, though it takes some effort.

Here are some of the potential problems you need to look out for if you’re starting the CICO diet:

1. You Can Eat Whatever You Want

Like the scientists at Jurassic Park, sometimes dieters are so preoccupied with whether they could, they don’t stop to think about whether they should. With a diet plan like CICO, you’re left wide open to all of life’s most tempting and destructive foods.

Feel like the drive-thru? Fine, but you can only eat half that hamburger and a little bit of ice cream. Want some junk food? Ok, you can. Just not more than 1,500 calories worth or so.

The problem with this is that the food is still bad for you.

You aren’t getting any nutrients and even if your total calorie count for the day is beneath maintenance rate, your overall health is going to deteriorate fast if you aren’t getting the macronutrients you need in the proper amounts. Now, we know most of our users are wise enough not to try and survive on high-calorie foods when they’re trying to lower their body weight.

But bad food choices are enough to ruin weight loss goals, at least in the short term.

It’s the quality of the calories that counts and you still need to make sure you’re getting whole grains and macronutrients from whole foods so your body has what it needs to function beyond just empty calories for energy.

2. You Obsess Over Calories

One reason so many people don’t like calorie counting in the first place is that it can be so tedious and take up so much time. Ask anyone who has implemented the CICO diet successfully and they’ll explain how it isn’t that much work. Nonetheless, it’s possible to get lost in the math.All that TDEE, BMR, and food portion measurement can get to you, especially if you’re not omitting processed foods from your calorie intake and the lack of nutrients has you in an irritable mood. 

There are 100% without-a-doubt workarounds for this problem.

A great strategy is to eat significantly fewer calories than maintenance levels so that small fluctuations in real calories eaten versus planned ones are no big deal.Still, it’s easy to get into a kind of hyperfocus on calorie counting if that’s the end-all be-all of your weight loss plan.

3. Cheat Days Are Weird

The line between dieting and not dieting is blurred beyond recognition on the CICO diet. That’s really bad news for people who want to lose weight for a certain period and then get off the calorie counting.But for others, CICO isn’t a diet plan as much as it is healthy, intentional habit-forming to keep weight gain off permanently.

In their case, the cheat day isn’t such a big deal, and the fact that you can go eat a burger if you have the calories for it makes CICO appealing. 

Some of the best information we’ve come across about how to make this diet work is to frame your cheat days as a break from counting rather than an opportunity to go insane and eat 10,000 calories.

Don’t plan cheat days. Rather, accept that sometimes you’re going to be too busy to worry about counting calories or someone will invite you to have a few beers and wreck your count. Plan for those possibilities, log those calories even though you’re going way over, and move on. 

Depressed and sad young woman in kitchen

4. It Can Get Too Meal Plan-y

Lots of people love having an organized menu for themselves and meal prepping for the week but it’s not ideal for everyone. When you’re trying to make the CICO diet work for you, over reliance on certain staple foods you know meet your nutritional requirements can make it feel like you’re on the baked chicken breast diet instead of a simple calorie counting one.

That’s why it’s important to choose foods from every food group so you can avoid diet fatigue and still get some of the many  health benefits of good nutrition, such as boosted immunity, lower risk of heart disease, muscle support, and a healthy weight.

The danger of your CICO diet turning into a glorified meal plan will be low as long as you have some variety in your diet and don’t neglect to keep in the things that you love to eat. Cholesterol-rich foods like cheese and eggs might need to be limited to keep your calorie count within bounds but they can still be in the diet. 

5. You Might Have Unrealistic Expectations

One bad thing about the hype that’s built up around the CICO diet is you might come across success stories on Reddit or other social media sites and assume that the same will happen to you. It’s the same story with virtually every diet, but it’s equally pernicious with the CICO diet because the advantages of calorie counting are a slow burn.

What this means is, you have to build up a substantial caloric deficit to start shedding pounds.

Supplements like SHREDDED-AF can help a great deal, but you still need to have a realistic idea of how much weight you’re going to be able to burn in a given time frame.

It changes depending on body type and nutrition, but most people find that losing a pound takes at least a week.

Maybe some weeks you’ll lose more, but keep your estimates low so you can be pleasantly surprised rather than disappointed with the results.

Why The CICO Diet Is So Effective For Weight Loss

Now that we know some of the most common drawbacks of this calorie counting diet approach, let’s refocus on the good.

The CICO plan is the preferred method for so many people because it doesn’t require in-depth calculations, it doesn’t interfere with your daily life very much at all, and it’s easy to keep going once you have everything in motion. 

Momentum is easy to establish with this diet once you start seeing the number on the scale go down or that persistent belly fat slowly start to disappear. As long as you take care to set it up the right way and include foods you enjoy, the CICO diet can work wonders.

Look at it as more of a diet of discipline rather than a free-for-all. If you expect to live off donuts and hamburgers and still lose weight, you still have some learning to do. But if you understand dietary basics and you can keep track of what you eat and how much energy you burn, then the CICO diet is the perfect weight loss strategy for you.