A nutritionist’s review of the CICO diet (calories in calories out)

Emma Brown - Nutritionist | 01 Jan, 2021

We understand that when it comes to losing weight, you have to find an approach that works for you. Whether this be tracking calories, eating fewer carbs, intermittent fasting or any other approach – here at Nutracheck we have you covered! Our app can be used to facilitate a wide range of dietary approaches, so you have complete flexibility to follow the one that's the best fit for your lifestyle. Throughout January I'll be reviewing some popular weight loss approaches so you can decide which one may be right for you. First up...

CICO (calories in calories out)

How does it work?

This diet approach requires you to create a daily calorie deficit in order to lose weight. As long as you consume fewer calories than your body uses each day, you should lose weight. This is because your body has to use your stored energy (e.g. fat tissue) to make up for the energy deficit.

A calorie deficit is achieved by tracking the calories you consume each day, as well as any burned through additional activity. The aim is to ensure your net calorie intake is less than your body is estimated to need each day (your maintenance calories). A nice simple concept!

Might it suit you?

Flexible – calorie counting is a very flexible way to lose weight as it doesn't require specific foods to be eaten. There are no banned foods either, so it can be a great approach for someone who wants to continue to eat the foods they enjoy – just in smaller amounts. It's all about learning portion control and having a little – rather than a lot – of what you fancy.

Sociable – this approach is also great for people who may need to grab food on the go or who enjoy eating out with friends and family. Providing you track what you've eaten and stay within your personal calorie allowance, you'll be on track with your weight loss, regardless of exactly 'what' you have eaten.

Simple – you don't need any special books or information packs to calorie count. It's simply a case of tracking the calories in the foods you eat and staying within your set allowance. All packaged foods in the UK show calories on the label, so the information is available to us all.

Any downsides?

Perceived effort – some people think calorie counting is too fiddly as it does require you to track all the foods you eat each day. While it may have been a bit time-consuming in the past requiring a calorie book, pen and paper – not so any more! We have technology to make it super fast and easy.

The Nutracheck app scans food barcodes, or you can simply start typing in the food you ate, and the database will bring back the nutrition details before you've finished the word! The app has helpful features like a 'copy' function so you can easily add food you eat daily to future days. There is also a recipe builder so you can create and store your regular home cooked meals. Once you've got the hang of it, it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes per day to stay on track.

What you eat does still count – while your total calorie intake is the most important factor when it comes to losing weight, making the best food choices will increase your chances of success. Not all calories are equal when you consider the nutrient profile of different foods and how our body uses the energy/nutrients stored in them. While an apple and a biscuit may contain the same number of calories, an apple is a decidedly better choice in terms of health. It is full of fibre and vitamins, meaning it will keep us fuller for longer. Whereas a biscuit is high in added sugars and fats, meaning we get a short energy hit, followed by a slump later.

While you can eat what you like within reason, we recommend striking the right balance with nutritious foods and those that should be more of a treat. Our recommendation is an 80/20 approach – eat well 80% of the time, so the other 20% you can afford to relax a little more.

Belief that it's unnecessary – there is a school of thought that counting calories isn't necessary. This is based on the belief that if we eat healthy foods and listen to our body, we'll naturally keep to a healthy energy level. This approach may well work for some people, but there are others who may need to keep more of a focus in order to stay on track. In a survey with new Nutracheck members, over a third said that although they were eating healthily, calorie tracking showed them that portions were the problem - you can have too much of a good thing! It's important to remember that while you don't always have to count calories – when it comes to weight loss, calories always count!

What does Nutracheck track?

Nutracheck tracks the calories in the foods you eat, as well as 7 key nutrients – fat, saturated fat, carbs, sugar, fibre, protein and salt. This helps to give you an overview of the nutritional balance of your diet, so you can ensure you're making the best choices. You'll be set allowances for each nutrient based on healthy eating guidelines to help you strike the right balance.

We also track your fruit and veg intake, and you can log your daily water intake to ensure you're reaching health guidelines for 5-a-day and fluid too.

Track your exercise – search our database for the activity you did, e.g. 'P.E with Joe Wicks', and you will be given an estimated calorie burn figure based on your body weight. Or you can log your steps manually if you're tracking these with a pedometer or your phone.

We sync with Fitbit and Garmin, and Apple Health (iPhones) so you can autotrack exercise from your activity tracker or fitness apps. If you're burning a lot of calories through intense exercise each day, your Nutracheck diary will ensure you can eat some back so that your net calorie intake remains at a healthy and achievable level.

Nutritionist's expert opinion

Calorie counting has been around for a long time – and for good reason. It's a proven method to help with weight management, backed up by lots of research. Essentially all diets are just a form of calorie reduction, as consuming fewer calories than your body uses each day is the only way to lose weight – calorie counting just keeps it really simple.

Tracking what you eat and seeing the calories in various foods can also be very enlightening. Often our members express how shocked they were to see exactly what they were eating right there in black and white, and how it made them realise where they could make changes. Sometimes it's not what we're eating but how much. Sometimes it is about what we’re eating - discovering that we're not making the best food choices. Either way, tracking your food intake helps you to shine a torch on your diet so you can see where changes need to be made.

For me, calorie counting is a super flexible weight loss approach that can fit in with your lifestyle, is inexpensive and is sustainable.

Nutritionist Emma Brown (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.