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Here's the brutal truth: There are no shortcuts to weight loss. Fad diets come and go for a reason — they don't teach you how to eat healthfully, and how to sustain that weight loss over time. And now there's a new diet to be wary of: the CICO (calories in, calories out) plan.
Any moderate changes in eating and activity will always be the foundation for long-term success. Many diets follow the mantra of eat less, move more. That idea is the basis of the CICO diet plan. Eat what you want, as long as you stay within your daily calorie limit. So what’s the problem with that? Plenty.
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1. You're only tracking the number of calories, not the quality of them.
While cutting calories through calorie counting will result in weight loss, the major flaw in this plan is the idea that the only thing that matters is the number of calories, not the quality of these calories. That’s where the plan goes off the healthy eating track.
While most people will experience quick and short-term weight loss with the CICO plan, it can lead to real nutrient deficits if you’re not careful, making your feel worse, not better. A poor quality eating plan will still result in weight loss, calorie for calorie, but the metabolic impact on your body is very different and can affect both your mental and physical health.
2. The CICO plan could put you at risk for nutrient deficiencies.
A balanced eating plan — even with reduced calories — keeps you satisfied and your blood sugar stable, fuels your muscles and brain, supports a healthy digestive track and sustains your energy through the day. A low-nutrient plan, based on “whatever you feel like eating,” often does the opposite. It also puts you at risk for nutrient deficiencies, like protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber and heart healthy fats.
3. The CICO diet doesn't teach you how to eat healthy foods.
Sustainability is also a core feature of any weight-loss plan. How long you can stick with it? When the “honeymoon period” of eating whatever tasty (but nutrient-poor) foods in the CICO plan wears off, you’ll start failing and likely regain any lost pounds anyway.
4. The concept of calorie counting, combined with a healthy eating plan, is the best method for success.
To set yourself up for weight-loss success, take the positive part of the CICO plan — calorie counting — and make that a part of your overall healthy eating plan. Include a balance of lean animal and plant proteins, fruits, vegetables, fiber-rich grains, heart healthy fats and low or non-fat dairy. Add a daily treat for yourself of 100-200 calories to avoid deprivation.
5. Instead of overwhelming yourself with a daily calorie limit, focus on trimming calories.
When it comes to counting calories for weight loss, instead of figuring out how many calories is your limit — try this easier method: Cut back on the number of calories you’re currently eating per day. If you trim 500 calories a day from what you’re eating now, you’ll drop about four pounds in a month. That’s often a sustainable starting point for most people. If that’s too tough, aim to cut 250 calories per day to lose two pounds in a month. And make a habit of walking briskly for 30 minutes every day to boost calorie output.
Don’t forget to check with your doctor before making any significant changes in your diet or activity level, especially if you take prescription or over-the-counter medications.
Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, is NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor. Follow her on Twitter.