Does the CICO diet work for losing weight?

Does the CICO diet work for losing weight?

It’s probably realistic to say that the answer to this question will vary. Why? It’s going to depend on the dieter making use of the method. The diet method gives you a starting point. Implementation (the really important bit) is up to the user – and it is a key factor in whether or not it achieves the desired purpose. It’s not impossible to lose weight, but its going to take commitment, discipline, patience and persistence.

If your aim is to look like the mannequins in clothing shops in a jiffy, remember one thing – they don’t require food to survive, let alone stand up straight in attractive poses, dressed to the nines. You do. Our bodies are not made to be deficient in one area over another either. Where something is lacking, the interconnected functionality of all of our cells and tissues means that a breakdown will eventually occur… somewhere.

When ‘broken’, problems arise, diseases develop, and quality of life is impaired. The responsibility is on each of us to look after ourselves in the best way possible. Quick fixes may provide results with a shorter turnaround time. Not all of them will be healthy or sustainable. So, ask yourself some serious questions – do you wish to be ‘the star’ of the next testimonial advocating the CICO diet that someone, somewhere happens upon on the internet, or do you want to get healthier, feel good and achieve a better quality of life well into your old age? One desire seeks an audience and the approval of others, the other seeks your own first and foremost.

To really benefit from a diet method, a sustainable lifestyle change has proven the most successful means. And it all comes back to balance. There’s more to weight loss than just food. As such, merely counting calories and tracking your eating habits is not the sole key to losing weight. You may lose a little at first, but you may also eventually reach a plateau. Consuming high calorie foods with little nutrient value may sustain you through a day or so, but you may find yourself developing food cravings, struggling to sleep comfortably or even experiencing more headaches than normal. Your mood may sour a bit too. Developing a more balanced nutrition plan while counting your calories and exercising more regularly will promote better overall health and slowly shed excess weight – and slow weight loss is actually a good thing as it is not only more sustainable, but body composition is more favourable too. (4)

Potential benefits of the CICO diet

Yes, counting calories can promote actual loss of weight

It has been shown that cutting down on unnecessary calorie intake can be beneficial for weight loss by maintaining a healthy deficit. One study showed that an average 8% total body weight reduction can be achieved with low calorie eating. (5)  A natural mistake to make is to think that in order to cut down on calories, you will need to eat less – a considerable amount less. This isn’t necessarily so. To manage your weight, you don’t need to (and shouldn’t) starve yourself by skipping essential meals.

Sure, portion control is a good thing, but correct substitution is a better mindset. High calorie foods can be replaced with lower concentration varieties – the key is in the choosing. You want foods that will make you feel fuller for longer, contain lots of water and fibre, and just a little fat. Think lower fat content and higher amounts of fibre or water and you’ve already found a better focus. Make healthier swops – cottage cheese or a light cream cheese instead of full-fat cheddar, for instance. We live in a day an age where variety is all around – make use of it wisely. It’s possible. 

For the CICO method to really work, it’s best to adopt a plan of eating that:

  • Incorporates plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, lower fat dairy products, wholegrains and lean proteins (meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts and beans).
  • Is low in unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fats) and added salt (sodium) and sugar.

The priority is to have a variety that still enables overall healthy eating, keeps cholesterol levels in check and helps to maintain calorie intake needs with enough of a calorie density. Foods that are low in density do not have a high number of calories per portion or serving. Such foods have a higher concentration of water or fibre and very little fat. If you’re making better substitution choices, your focus won’t need to be on consuming less food in order to lose weight. You can maintain healthy portion quantities, but with far fewer calories per meal or snack.

If you can lose excess weight, your overall state of health will benefit too

Packing on the pounds has long been associated with an increased risk of all sorts of medical conditions and diseases. With rising obesity rates across the globe, weight management and fitness regimens are becoming ever more popular. There are real dangers in carrying around excess weight and it would seem that awareness in this regard is now generated on a regular basis. Weight problems are a preventable state of being, so losing any excess pounds can certainly help to lower the risk of developing any further health-related problems.

As much as a 10% reduction in excess body weight can lower the chances of developing type 2 diabetes. (6) A body weight reduction of between 5 and 10% can benefit cardiovascular health too. (7) Problems like obstructive sleep apnoea can also be alleviated with a considerable amount of weight loss (8), as can arthritis (particularly osteoarthritis).  One study showed that a minimum of around 0.5 kilograms (or 1 pound) lost could significantly reduce joint discomfort – around 4-fold, especially in the knees. (9)

Other benefits of maintaining a healthier weight could also factor in reduced risk of developing conditions like…

The CICO Diet method is made for the modern dieter

…And by that we mean, it’s conveniently simple. In addition, there’s also room for flexibility, which many diet programmes don’t tend to incorporate. If given a little wiggle room, let’s be honest… the temptation to stray is a reality for many of us. When we find something a little on the challenging side with a serious dollop of restriction, it’s a commitment that will make many feel hemmed in – and that can easily convert into ‘throwing in the towel’ and giving up.

The CICO diet method makes its one and only rule clear, and places much of the eating strategy in your hands. For many, this will be an attractive selling point. It gives the dieter control. We humans like that. With that comes responsibility, however. The diet method can work, but it’s up to you and how you implement it. The responsibility is firmly on your shoulders. The diet method merely states, “it’s possible”.

Still, this approach is appealing. More restrictive plans “tell you what to do”. This one doesn’t come with pages of instructions riddled with “don’t eat this” and “don’t do that”. You can mould it any which way you choose, so long as you achieve a calorie deficit each and every day. There are no big Xs crossing out a slice of cheese cake, a glass or two of wine or a comforting bowl of mac and cheese. CICO isn’t about encouraging you to only consume ‘rabbit food’ (lettuce leaves and slices of cucumber) and litres of water with lemon slices either – AND still find enough energy to run several kilometres every day. The buffet table is laid out as is, the choice of combination (food and exercise routine) is all yours.

It’s a small wonder why it has gained such popularity so quickly of late – it can be packaged more like a lifestyle choice than a diet.

Overweight woman holding a 'crying board' over her face and a scale to illustrate unsuccessful weight loss efforts.

Disadvantages of the CICO diet

…And then there are the potential downsides. There are pitfalls you can easily find yourself in. The CICO diet method places control squarely on your shoulders, so achieving your goals can easily go awry.

Weight loss may not be achievably maintained in the long-term

If you go about implementing your weight loss goals with only calories in mind, chances are you’ll easily forget about balance. The better way to follow the CICO diet method is to develop healthier habits than you’ve practiced before and that are balanced and in sync with one another. The best combination is healthy eating and exercise. For the CICO diet method to really work, both apply. One supports the other and vice versa. Balance lends itself to more sustainable habits and lifestyle changes that can be maintained. This can make the difference when it comes to losing weight and keeping it off in the long-term.

The approach should ideally be two-fold:

  • Food = calories in
  • Exercise activity = calories out

Simply looking at numbers and only focussing on food intake may rather promote a yo-yo effect – weight may be lost but can just as easily be gained – especially if adopting the “I can eat whatever I like, any time I like” approach “as long as I burn off more calories than I consume.”

Then there’s the common pitfall of losing a considerable amount of weight, feeling a sense of accomplishment and falling into old eating habits once again. Regaining weight is then a typical result.

A lack of focus on healthy eating

Again, it comes back to balance and healthier choices. If your focus is only on calories, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re selecting the healthiest foods to sustain you or burn off for that matter. Foods that are nutritious for the body must be considered for a healthier effect. Anything you eat has some impact on the body. If your aim is to be healthier, eating in a way that is lacking in some area may very well result in negative outcomes. The last thing you want is to create more health concerns, right?

An eating plan that is nutrient-rich is therefore just as important if you are to stay well clear of developing health issues other than those associated with carrying excess weight. Cancerous conditions, cardiovascular illnesses and diabetes are all associated with eating patterns, among other risk factors. Vitamin and even protein deficiencies can also occur if your diet is not correctly balanced. Impaired function of the immune and neurological systems are other things to consider. The body needs nutrients, like potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium, for these systems to function at optimum levels on a daily basis, more so than it needs heaps of calories. A lack of nutrients can be seen in adverse changes affecting the skin, nails, hair and even a person’s overall mood. A person can become frequently irritable, lack energy, feel fatigued all the time and even experience bleeding gums.

Some individuals may be tempted to significantly drop their calorie intake. Sure ‘starving yourself’ of necessary foodstuffs will show in reduced body size at first, but it will also negatively impact systems in the body. Calorie intake that is far less than is required for optimum tissue function means that metabolism will take a knock. If a person’s metabolism slows down too much, this can also impact a person’s ability to lose weight altogether. In general, no one should be consuming less than 1 000 - 1 200 calories per day.

Yes, the diet method is centred around calories, and named accordingly. Thus, when it comes to food selection, it’s easy for calories to become the primary area of focus. If this happens, chances are, healthy choices will not consistently be made, and weight may fluctuate. In this sense, the diet method cannot be considered beneficial for weight loss. Consuming nutrient-rich foods is just as important as the calorie content. Get this balance right, and the job at hand may be better accomplished.

A simple diet method for a multifactorial mission

Less calories don’t necessarily mean weight loss. For the most part, the process of losing weight depends on several factors, not just calories alone. In just the same light, consuming more calories does not directly equate to weight gained. It’s merely one component of various things that are in play at the same time.

What you choose to have for lunch is one fraction of the bigger picture. What you choose to eat is made up of more than just calories too and it will have some or other impact on the cells and tissues of your body. Consideration in this regard starts painting a far less simple picture, doesn’t it? In theory focussing on calories sounds simple. In practice, the focus needs to consider a fair amount more in order to learn just how the body will use what you feed it in order to achieve optimum health – and shed some weight. 

Exercise can give your metabolism a boost which contributes to healthy weight loss. This makes it a beneficial component, so it should factor in to the plan as a whole.

A person may have an existing medical condition that also contributes to weight gain. Thyroid abnormalities, like hypothyroidism, are just one example. Hormonal irregularities resulting in conditions like PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome) and Cushing’s Syndrome can also be major contributing factors to weight gain problems. In such cases, switching up your diet and exercising more regularly are good things, but they may not be enough where weight loss is concerned. Appropriate medical treatment and guidance from professionals will also need to feature in the mix in order for the end goal to be achievable.

Weight gain as a side-effect of medications or even problems with fluid retention are something else to consider. Poor quality sleep and high stress levels are other factors. Chronic stress has been shown to result in a change in feeding behaviour which can contribute to weight problems. (10) Reduced quality of sleep has also been linked with weight gain. (11) The body is an interconnected structure – a blip or insufficiency in one area impacts another, and so forth. Each factor is like a link in a chain. Stress may impact sleep quality, which may result in decreased exercise activity response and poor eating habits. There’s a reason for this. When you’re stressed, your body releases higher amounts of a hormone called cortisol and when this occurs in excess relative to the other hormones which usually balance it out and make it useful to the body, cortisol impacts hunger and leads to cravings for sweet and fatty foods (12), which if indulged regularly leads to weight gain. This domino effect also contributes to poor or decreased state of health. Such condition factors need to be addressed and effectively managed if overall well-being is to be achieved.

For overall health, including weight loss goals, taking care of your entire well-being – not just eating habits and exercise routines – will make a difference. There are things you can do on your own without any help. Sometimes roping in assistance from qualified professionals can help you pick the correct path in order to work towards your goal in the healthiest possible way. Learning to understand the body and its multifactorial components will surely make the process a more achievable one. Don’t just count the calories, make them count towards your end goal along with all the other components needed for healthy weight loss.


4. Wiley Online Library. February 2016. Fast versus slow weight loss: development process and rationale behind the dietary interventions for the TEMPO Diet Trial: [Accessed 08.06.2018]

5. US National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of HealthJanuary 2006. Diet in the management of weight loss: [Accessed 08.06.2018]

6. US National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health. May - June 2012. Association between glycosylated hemoglobin and intentional weight loss in overweight and obese patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus: a retrospective cohort study: [Accessed 08.06.2018]

7. US National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health. June 2011. Benefits of Modest Weight Loss in Improving Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Overweight and Obese Individuals With Type 2 Diabetes: [Accessed 08.06.2018]

8. US National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health. March 2014. The impact of weight reduction in the prevention of the progression of obstructive sleep apnea: an explanatory analysis of a 5-year observational follow-up trial: [Accessed 08.06.2018]

9. US National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health. July 2005. Weight loss reduces knee-joint loads in overweight and obese older adults with knee osteoarthritis: [Accessed 08.06.2018]

10. US National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health. March 2012. Effects of Chronic Social Stress on Obesity: [Accessed 08.06.2018]

11. US National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health. March 2013. Association between sleep disorders, obesity, and exercise: a review: [Accessed 08.06.2018]

12. US National Library of Medicine - National Institutes of Health. September 2013. Stress and Eating Behaviors: [Accessed 08.06.2018]

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