Start here to learn about the CICO diet
The goal of this guide is to find your formula for success with the CICO diet. The amount of calories you need to eat each day depends on many different factors – age, weight, height, gender, body composition, activity level etc.. Not to mention the strategies used to eat less calories will vary from person to person. Some people will prefer not to eat breakfast so they can have larger lunches and dinners. Some people will prefer to have 6 small meals per day so they know their next meal is just around the corner. The point is to throw all the one-size-fits-all “rules” out the window and instead go back to the basics.
The CICO diet has one rule: Calories in must be less than calories out
In order to lose weight using the CICO diet you must eat less calories than your body is using. You can dress it up in a points system, vow to only ever “eat clean” or even run for 60 minutes each day in order to not change your eating habits at all. But at the end of the day the underlying goal is exactly the same: to make your ‘calories in’ be less than the ‘calories out’.
By focusing on CICO you will not only learn your personal formula for success but you will also build habits that will continue beyond just “losing weight”. CICO forces you to not just be accountable for the food you are eating but also to learn a bit more about the food you’re eating.
The steps below will help get you started. There are many examples of people who have lost (and kept off) a lot of weight who attributed their weight loss to the CICO diet. There are many different combinations of strategies and each person has their own unique story for how CICO worked for them. After following the steps below the only rule is to make your ‘calories in’ be less than the ‘calories out’.
Learn how much food your body actually needs
First you must calculate how much food your body actually needs each day. There are sometimes averages published by health organizations that split their numbers into two categories: male and female. But there are so many factors that contribute to how many calories you need per day that it’s ridiculous to think these averages could be blindly applied to everyone. For example, let’s look at three examples.
- a female who fits the ‘daily average’ published here (2000 calories per day)
- a female who is 26 and 5’10 and works an active job in retail (2256 calories per day)
- a female who is 45 and 5’3 and lives a fairly sedentary life with an office job (1,499 calories per day)
It seems that short and relatively inactive ladies might be particularly misrepresented in the ‘daily average’ for women. This is why it’s so important to calculate how many calories you need each day.
In order to come up with a number that best represents how many calories you should be eating each day we need to calculate two numbers:
- Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
- Targeted Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE)
BMR: how many calories you would need if you were in a coma
Your BMR is how many calories that your body needs to function if you only needed to consume enough to stay alive. Basically, if you were in a coma you would need this number of calories to keep your organs functioning.
TDEE: a better estimation of how many calories you need per day
Your TDEE is how many calories in general that your body burns daily (because you almost certainly aren’t in a coma).You use calories constantly throughout the day: if you take a step, if you walk to the bathroom or if you cook a meal. Your TDEE is determined by using your BMR but factors in your daily activity.
For the most part it is recommended to assume you are less active and then manually adjust your daily calories for active days. This number isn’t absolutely precise. It is an estimation based on your body and lifestyle factors that typically influence this calculation.
Decide what your goals are
Now that you know your TDEE you should have a good idea in general how many food calories your body needs in a typical day in order to sustain itself. If you were to eat the number of calories determined by your TDEE, this is what your situation would look like:
Calories in = Calories out = Maintaining your weight
In this situation you should maintain the weight that you are currently at. If you eat more on the “Calories in” side then you will gain weight. If you eat less then you will lose weight. This is the key to the CICO diet. Eat less calories than you consume and you will lose weight.
In general, 3500 calories equals 1lb of weight. Let’s look at a few scenarios:
- TDEE: 1800 calories. Goal: lose 1lb/week
- Calories per day goal to achieve this: 1300 calories
- TDEE: 2400 calories. Goal: lose 2lb/week
- Calories per day to achieve this: 1400 calories
- TDEE: 1500 calories. Goal: lose 0.5lbs/week
- Calories per day to achieve this: 1250 calories
These examples show that depending on how aggressive your goal is you should eat a larger or smaller deficit. Someone with a lower TDEE might aim for a moderate goal in order to not cut their calories too much.
Ultimately you decide what your goal is. Of course, the more extreme the goal the harder it will be to stick to. The wonderful part about the CICO diet is that if you are willing to be patient then you can take your time. Make strategic substitutions and trust that if you stick with it then you will get to your goal weight.
You decide for yourself what your healthy calorie goal is.
Come up with a strategy for balancing your calories in and calories out
You have a couple different options.
- Eat exactly the same but add a ton of exercise to decrease your total ‘calories in’.
- Completely change your diet (cabbage soup? paleo? juice fast?) until you get to your goal weight.
- Change some basic food habits to lower calorie options.
Let’s discuss each of the options. Spoiler: the first two are not recommended.
1. Eat exactly the same but add a ton of exercise to decrease your total ‘calories in’.
If you integrate physical activity into your current formula then you will use a little extra on the “Calories out” side and will likely lose some weight. Because of this many people understand ‘working out’ to be a weight management tool. Aside from the fact that working out and being active in generals is so important for many physical and mental reasons, the very root goal of ‘working out’ is to increase your physical stamina. The idea that you could out-workout a bad diet is preposterous, which is why we are focusing almost solely on how to many different eating decisions in order to end up eating less net calories.
2. Completely change your diet (cabbage soup? paleo? juice fast?) until you get to your goal weight.
Does this even need to be explained? Crash diets are almost never a good idea for permanent weight loss. If you are following an arbitrary new diet (or making blanket goals like ‘I’m going to eat clean‘) then you are never going to re-learn basic food habits. You need to re-learn basic food habits if you are going to keep off your weight.
3. Change some basic food habits to lower calorie options.
The final option is what we are going to focus on for the CICO diet. The best part about it is that while ‘calorie counting’ may seem like a restrictive diet, it is actually incredibly flexible. At no point do you need to tell yourself that you can never eat a certain food again. By following a daily formula, you are able to balance your food habits however you would like.
Substitutions are simple and there are never any hard and fast restrictions. There is no drastic lifestyle changes (for diet or for exercise). If you pick the right foods you can eat a lot and continue to be satisfied even while restricting caloric intake. You will learn about food in a way that will be valuable beyond losing weight. Best of all you will create habits that work for your lifestyle.
Log your food
There are a few tools you can use to help get started with the CICO diet. To name a few:
- Pen and paper
Whichever you pick the goal is simple: write down everything you eat. Every. Single. Thing. Every drizzle of oil and every sip of coke. Look up how many calories are in each item and write it down. Measure how much of each item you are eating and do the math. Buy a scale and weigh how much of each item you are eating a do the math. You must, to the best of your abilities, accurately, measure and weight the food that you are eating in order for this to work.
Sound time-consuming? At first, it is. It takes discipline and honesty and some extra effort when preparing meals. Eating meals by other people is tricky but you will learn to make educated guesses. But it won’t last forever (unless you want it to) and it’s worth it.