Why Calorie Counting Doesn’t Always Work

10 min read

Before I attract the ire of the CICO crusaders, let me kick this off with a couple of disclaimers. 

1. I have calorie counted in the past, successfully losing and gaining weight.

2. I still periodically count calories to ensure I’m on the right track to meet my goals.

The Ultimate Guide To Tracking

So there is a place for calories in the apex diet. I don’t like to deal in absolutes. They don’t just cease to matter because you’ve found out about the endocrine system. The issue with calorie counting, is that it’s simply an optional accessory for streamlining your nutrition. It’s not the one that moves the needle.

This stance is completely out of tune with the CICO denizens. By which, I mean calories in vs calories out, the formula that dictates whether you gain or lose weight. An immutable fact of thermodynamics. According to CICO, as long as you ensure that you’re eating fewer calories than you’re burning, you’ll lose weight. The larger the deficit, the greater the weight loss.

Using this formula, with the knowledge that a pound of fat equates to 3500 calories, you’ll shave off one pound a week by carving out a 500 calorie daily deficit.

You could make the going a little easier were you to hit your protein requirements, thereby conserving muscle mass and dampening the appetite. This is where CICO meets its disciple, If It Fits Your Macros (IIFYM), which is exactly what it says on the tin.

In the case of protein, recommendations can vary, but a safe bet would be to aim for 1 gram per lb of ideal bodyweight. So if you’re aiming to drop down to 120lbs, your target is 120g protein.

If it doesn’t work out for you, well that’s going to be down to your inability to comply. In other words, it’s a question of willpower.

The Problem With CICO

why cico doesn't work

Calorie counting has been around since the 1920s, when Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters latched onto the preexisting discovery that the energy in food could be measured by setting them on fire. He then used it to come up with CICO as the universally accepted method for weight loss.

Nowadays it’s the tried and tested formula that’s not exactly flashy, but gets the job done. According to CICO denizens, all diets have to circle back to the calorie equation. In fact, for many, it’s the only thing that matters. You could eat nothing but twinkies, and as long as you kept it down to a deficit, you’d lose weight.

But there are a few chinks in the armour of the first law of thermodynamics. Because just like Mike Tyson’s opponents didn’t see their best laid plans survive being punched in the mouth, CICO doesn’t always get past contact with the complexity of the human digestive system.

CICO works in principle, in that when you lose weight, energy must leave the body. But it doesn’t mean that eating less and exercising more will result in weight loss. There is a sizable margin for error that occurs when the rubber meets the road and humans cease to be bunsen burners.

Two individuals of the same age, with the same bodyweight, activity level, and an identical amount of calories won’t thereby see matching numbers flash up on the scale.

Because you still have to account for their metabolic state, the old chestnut that is genetics, the type of food they’re eating, and the manner of exercise they’re getting involved in, and that’s not an exhausting list.

So let me explain a few of the ways CICO can misfire.

1. Ingested doesn’t equal absorbed. Just because you take in 1000 calories, doesn’t mean you absorb 1000 calories. Some foods are more thermogenic than others. 30% of protein is wasted during digestion. Saturated fat burns off energy due to mitochondrial uncoupling. Sometimes the incoming food from a large meal can just exceed the capabilities of your digestive tract and remain neglected until it reaches the colon. We’ve all been there.

butter on keto

2. CICO doesn’t necessarily cause fat loss – Let’s say you achieve CICO and the body has to now shift some mass. Unfortunately, without some extra context, there’s little to guarantee that said mass is going to come from your fat deposits. The presence of insulin in the bloodstream acts as a block on lipolysis, which is an issue since high insulin is the key symptom of metabolic dysfunction, the biggest epidemic of the 21st century.

And you can always just lose some precious muscle instead if you’re being diligent with your nutrition and strength training.

3. Fat loss is rate limited – Insulin aside, your ability to utilise your fat stores will be kept in check by various processes. By that, I mean just because a 500 calorie deficit could theoretically result in 1lbs of fat loss, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a 1000 calorie deficit will cough up 2lbs. It’s for this reason, along with the risk of nutrient depletion, that I recommend against aiming for rapid weight loss.

0.5 – 0.75% of your bodyweight each week would be a solid benchmark to go with.

4. CICO disregards nutrient density – You can have a surplus of calories and a deficiency of internal energy. That’s not unusual, that actually describes the majority of the western population. Nutrients matter, and by that I don’t just mean meeting the essential macros in fats and protein. It’s also the micronutrients, the minerals and vitamins that are critical in making sure you can actually utilise the macros they accompany.

why beef is better than protein powder

As an example, getting 20 grams of protein from whey powder isn’t the same from getting 20 grams from steak. The former is protein, a couple of sugars, and not much else. The latter is an intricate mix of protein, fats, and micros that have been specifically designed by nature to sustain life.

If you’re becoming more and more nutrient deplete as you wade through a CICO diet, you’ll be getting increasingly lethargic, stressed, and unfocused. Essentially you’re priming yourself for abject defeat.

5. You have to maintain that weight loss – Here’s the clincher that people don’t think about when they’ve mastered the hard science of thermodynamics. The body, having evolved through many a famine and harsh winter, is well-equipped to fend off excessive weight loss.

So the first few weeks of calorie counting rarely offer up hard challenges. But once you get past the honeymoon phase, you’ll be dealing with the twin threat of hunger and lethargy, both equally potent at taking the diet off the rails.

This is where it can become a question of willpower, and that’s a problem, because willpower is a finite resource. It doesn’t matter how long you can stave off the cravings and the boredom, you will end up losing. This is the inevitable consequence of racking up an internal energy deficit. This is why 90% of people that lose a significant amount of weight ultimately end up regaining it.

Even optimising your protein intake and maintaining a shallow deficit won’t fully fix this. The energy deficit will end up causing the body to mount up defences against further weight loss, as well as plot a path for a return to your initial weight.

Willpower shouldn’t be the defining factor in long-term weight change, and that alone disqualifies any talk of CICO being the hard and fast solution. You’re dealing with terrible odds.

The Better Way To Diet

ground beef benefits

The point I’m making here isn’t to rubbish calorie counting. It clearly works for some, and can help anyone establish a baseline for their food intake. What CICO isn’t, is something you can hang your cap on while foregoing any thought about the quality of those calories. Because in order to make fat loss a sustainable affair, a diet needs to check off the following three boxes.

Make it effortless – That means next to no cravings after the initial transition period. Cooking, prepping, and eating should be easily integrated into your routine. Foods should be palatable and filling, so you don’t feel like you’re actively restricting yourself. You stop eating when your body sends you a clear message that it’s had enough.

Increase insulin sensitivity – Break down the major block on lipolysis, and the root symptom of metabolic dysfunction.

Provide the body with a surplus of nutrition – A major portion of your foods should come from nutrient dense sources that serve to keep the metabolism afloat and prevent the energy deficit from becoming significant.

Those three tenants weave together nicely to usher on a mystical diet that can make weight loss a happy consequence of reviving the metabolism, while also spearheading a minimalist lifestyle.

Except we have a diet that can do just that, because that’s part of the apex blueprint that carnivore offers.

Make it effortless – A diet of steak on steak is going to nuke the bad gut bugs that fuel the usual carb cravings, while remaining incredibly delicious as long as fat is permitted, and takes little to no prep if you have a slow cooker and an air fryer in your arsenal.

Increase insulin sensitivity – As a ketogenic diet, carnivore is going to weaponise the offense of insulin sensitivity, since nothing cancels insulin resistance like the absence of carbs. The state of ketosis itself further improves mitochondrial defences against oxidative stress, which is the thing that likely caused the mess in the first place.

Provide the body with a surplus of nutrition – The carnivore diet is unrivaled in its collection of nutrient dense foods. Together with the near absence of inflammatory triggers, it’s easy to see why some people are selling carnivore as the ultimate metabolic upgrade. And by some, I mean me.

Wrapping Up

calorie scale

The CICO formula for weight change is great in theory, but shouldn’t be relied on. Quality matters, and the foods you eat, as well as the ones you avoid, will have a huge impact in dictating your ability to carve out sustained progress.

In practice, CICO can be used for establishing a baseline once you’ve already picked your foods and prioritised nutrient density. Calorie counting isn’t strictly necessary, but there’s little harm in using it to avoid a classic pitfall in a highly satiating diet like carnivore. By which, I mean not eating enough.

Why You Shouldn’t Overdo The Fasting On Carnivore

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Expat in Germany
Expat in Germany
1 year ago

See Bart Kay’s excellent channel for his take on CICO. Cheers!

1 year ago

I’ve heard him before on a podcast, but not his channel. I’ll be sure to check it out, thanks!