This blog will discuss the topic of “calories in vs. calories out” (CICO) and its role in effective weight loss and management. This is a simple principle of nutrition and one that when done correctly can be incredibly effective, but when done incorrectly can be quite the opposite. We’re going to dive a little deeper into the CICO concept; information which has been gathered from Berardi (2019).
CICO is an easy way of saying:
- When you burn more energy than you take in, you lose weight.
- When you take in more energy than you burn, you gain weight.
This is a fundamental concept in body weight regulation, and about as close to scientific fact as we can get.
The problem a lot of people run into is an oversimplification and misconception of this concept. For example:
“Just eat less and move more.”
However, it’s more complicated than just the calories you take in and the calories you burn through exercise and daily movement. CICO is really an informal way of expressing the energy balance equation, which is far more involved. The energy balance equation – and therefore CICO – includes all the complex inner workings of the body as well as all the external factors that impact “calories in” and “calories out”.
Ironically the energy balance equation looks simply like:[Energy In] – [Energy Out] = Changes in body stores*
*Body stores refers to all the tissues available for energy, such as fat, muscle, organ, and bone. I haven’t used the term ‘body weight’ as I have excluded water weight from this which can change independent of energy balance.
Let’s take a look at all the corresponding factors that influence the CICO:
Factors Influencing Energy In
Influenced by hormones that regulate appetite and satiety
Factors Influencing Energy Out
ENERGY BURNED AT REST
Influenced by body size, hormonal status, dieting history, genetic factors, health status, sleep quality, age
- FOOD CONSUMED
Influenced by availability, palatability, energy density, sleep quality, education, socioeconomic status, culture
- ENERGY BURNED THROUGH EXERCISE
Influenced by exercise ability, intensity, duration, frequency, type, environment, as well as hormonal status and sleep quality
- CALORIES ABSORBED
Influenced by macronutrient intake, food prep, age, personal microbiome, health status, energy status
- ENERGY BURNED BY NON-EXERCISE ACTIVITY
Influenced by health status, energy status, stress levels, hormonal status, occupation, leisure activities, genetic factors
- PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS
Influenced by stress level, mindset, perceived control, self-esteem, sleep quality
- ENERGY BURNED BY METABOLISING FOOD
Influenced by macronutrient makeup and how processed the food is
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but a snapshot of the most common factors. It’s important to know that elements on each side are influenced by: each other, hormones (leptin, thyroid), sleep, stress, medical conditions, pharmaceuticals and more. This means none of these things invalidate CICO. They influence how many calories we absorb and how many we burn. And this is what leads to weight gain or loss.
When you view CICO through this lens, by taking a step back and looking at a wider perspective when it comes down to it, “eat less, move more” is a significant oversimplification.
CICO might sound simple but it’s not. If you aren’t losing weight you either need to decrease “energy in” or increase “energy out” but as you’ve already seen that may involve a lot more than pushing your plate away or spending more time at the gym.
It may require you to look at some of these areas if you’re not seeing the results you want:
- High Quality Sleep which will better regulate hunger hormones, improve recovery and increase metabolic output
- Stress Resilience Techniques like meditation, deep breathing and spending time in nature
- Increase Daily Non-Exercise Movement for instance parking the car further away from your destination, taking the stairs, even trying walking meetings.
- Improve the Quality of Food you’re Eating as opposed to reducing the quantity. This can allow you to eat more food with fewer total calories.
- Experiment with Frequency and Timings of Meals & Snacks based on personal preferences and appetite cues.
- Tinker with Macronutrient makeup of what you eat. For instance, eating more protein and fibre, or increasing carbs and lowering fats or vice versa.
- Consider Temporarily Tracking Food Intake – via hand portions or weighing/measuring – to ensure you’re eating what you think you’re eating. (as closely as reasonably possible)
- Evaluate and Correct Nutritional Deficiencies for more energy in workouts and everyday life
- Consult with your Physician or Specialists if consistent lifestyle changes aren’t moving the needle
Sometimes the solution is obvious, sometimes it isn’t. But with CICO the answers are there if you keep your mind open and examine all the factors.
Yours in simple and achievable health,
Precision Nutrition. (2019). Calories in vs. out? Or hormones? The debate is finally over. Here’s who won.. [online] Available at: www.precisionnutrition.com/calories-in-calories-out [Accessed 25 Mar. 2019].