Why calories don’t count

LOCO CICO – Calories in, calories out is crazy!

By Shari Aubry

Over the last forty years, the health message for weight management has been pretty simple – burn more calories than you consume, also known as ‘calories in calories out’ (CICO). It sounds simple and at face value it makes sense, but how often has it worked for you?

Sure, you may have reduced calories and successfully nailed race weight, or lost that extra 5kg – but has the weight stayed off; or crept back on? For most of us, it’s the latter; because at the end of the day calorie restriction isn’t that sustainable – nor enjoyable.

So, you can keep up the battle to count calories – or, you can rethink calories and why the CICO model may be flawed.

The Math Myth

One aspect of CICO that doesn’t add up is the oft quoted equation that for every 3,500 calories consumed (and not burned off) you score a pound of body weight (0.45kg). The CICO theory treats it a little like a bank account – once your balance hits 3,500, transaction complete and you’re 0.45kg heavier.

But let’s play around with this. Using CICO math:

  • a daily increase of 100 calories – that’s a medium sized apple,
  • will result in 36,500 extra calories a year, and
  • a weight gain of 5kg…from an apple a day. 

The Women’s Health Initiative followed 48,000 women for a seven-year period; the intervention group (19,541) reduced calorie consumption by 350 calories a day.

  • Using CICO math that should result in a weight loss of 115kg each (350*365*7/3,500[/2.2]).
  • Okay, 115kg is clearly unrealistic, but at the end of the day they reduced calories so they must have lost weight, right?
  • They did. A mean of 0.1kg each – for seven years of diligent calorie counting.

At which point you might argue, ‘well, there’s a lot factors that contribute to weight loss’. And that’s the point – human physiology is complex and multi-faceted; and CICO doesn’t account for this.

5,000 calories a day

So, if reducing calories doesn’t always result in weight loss, does increasing calories result in weight gain? Yes, and no.

Sam Feltham documented a self-experiment (Smash the Fat blog) where he ate 5,800 calories a day, for 21 days using a low-fat, high carbohydrate approach. He didn’t change exercise. The result?

  • he gained 7.1kg,
  • added 9.25cm to his waist, and
  • increased body fat 4.2%

I can hear you thinking; ‘…of course he did, he ate WAY too many calories’. But before you go back to calorie counting…

After performing a metabolic reset, he repeated the experiment; the same number of calories, the same duration and no change to exercise. This time:

  • he gained 1.3kg, but
  • reduced body fat, suggesting weight gain was lean tissue, and
  • lost 3cm from his waist.

All whilst eating 5,800 calories a day. So, what was different? The quality of calories.

The second experiment was a low carbohydrate, high fat (LCHF) diet. The nutrient quality of these calories, and the hormonal response elicited, positively affected weight and body composition; as opposed to the CICO assumption that it’s just about the quantity of calories.

The idea that ‘a calorie is a calorie’ is outdated, because we know what you eat activates different physiological responses and pathways including insulin, ghrelin and leptin. The problem with CICO is human physiology is not singular, but complex and multi-faceted and that’s what CICO doesn’t account for.

When it comes to calories, it may be that quality matters much more than quantity. To be clear, we don’t advise you regularly over consume – it will bite at some point – but nutrition science is becoming more definitive that the hormonal response to food vastly overwhelms the simple number of calories consumed.

Once you get your head around that concept, the next step is to educate yourself on what foods elicit a positive hormonal response, versus those that activate a less desirable outcome.

So, the message

In short, calories do count, but you shouldn’t count calories. Eat real food, eat to satiety and understand the nutrient quality of your calories, and you’re well on your way to a much easier and sustainable model of weight management – not to mention health, longevity and generally feeling great.