Why real food trumps cico

Forget calorie controlled diets – “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”


The New Year has brought its usual rash of celebrity diet plans. Bloated with seasonal excess, many people will have embarked on a new fad diet or fallen back on a tried and trusted method to shed a few excess pounds or kilos. Losing weight is relatively straightforward, but how many people will succeed in losing the fat they really ought to shed, never mind keeping it off?

Why Cico – calories-in-calories-out – doesn’t tell the whole story

While short term tactical calorie-controlled diets based on the calories-in-calories-out fallacy can easily deliver the impression of success, unfortunately they can also sabotage the achievement of the ultimate prize: sustained fat loss.

The enigma of calorie counting

Calorie counting dominates our weight management, but is it accurate? Might it even be fundamentally flawed?

Labelling allows for a 20% error, but consider these more important questions:

  • What if all calories are not equal?
  • What if some foods make your body burn more energy– allowing you to eat more, while other foods, containing fewer calories, add fat?
  • What if the qualities of the calories of the food consumed have a bigger impact on weight than the number of calories on the label?

Research supports all three statements and without realising it most consumers of a Western-style diet are confronting these issues every day. It just so happens to be particularly poignant in January each year.

Imagine two people embarking on a restricted calorie-counting diet, except one chooses a completely different set of foods to the other? The immediate outcomes might appear similar, but longer term weight management results would be different, with real food choices also carrying the promise of wider health benefits, including an enhanced immune system and reduced risks of contracting other diseases.

Why it’s time to stop counting calories and calculate nutrition

What are calories?  In simple terms, calories are a measure of the amount of energy in our food.  However, they do not inform us of the nutrient density of the food. It’s this distinction between calorie intake and nutrient intake that begins to explain the fallacy of calorie counting.

Most diets deal with calorie counting through the energy balance equation that compares calories taken in and calories used up. We count the macronutrients (1g protein = 4 calories, 1g carbohydrates = 4 calories, 1g fat = 9 calories and 1g alcohol = 7 calories), which provide calories for our body. We rarely think about micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients). Yet research is quite clear that micronutrient deficiency is linked to:

  • people that follow popular diet plans
  • a higher risk of being overweight or obese

This points to the incredible importance of micronutrients and the quality of calories in food in our diets, never mind indicting simple calorie counting for weight management.

The importance of the distinction between calories and nutrients becomes more evident when we consider the factors making our bodies lose/gain fat and muscle. But first let’s examine the issue of calorie quality

Calories: energy dense versus nutrient dense

Sugar is pure energy, filled with “empty” calories with no nutritional value. So consider the nutritional value of 60 calories worth of sugar in a 1600 a day calorie-controlled diet versus the 60 nutrient-dense calories in a typical orange. The orange will also provide the body with 100% of its daily vitamin C needs plus folic acid, phytonutrients and antioxidants. Little wonder a study from Harvard University has found that the quality of calories consumed is more important than the quantity of those calories.

Then consider fibre, which is not counted as a calorie.  Fibre is special as it may not be digested or may be incompletely digested by the body. No wonder fruit and vegetables, which are high in fibre and micronutrients, help with weight loss.

Meanwhile there is strong scientific evidence that increased consumption of processed foods (with their higher addictive energy dense empty calorie content) combined with the fall in consumption of real foods (such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains) has led to an estimated 300 calorie per day increase in consumption of poorer quality calories by an average adult. Further, with their lower nutrient density (lower content and diversity of nutrients per calorie), less dietary fibre and an excess of simple carbohydrates (making processed foods easier to digest and so at a metabolic disadvantage from a weight loss/management perspective compared to real foods) it’s no wonder obesity rates have grown.

However, the more serious problem is that conventional calorie controlled dieting is simply incapable of reversing the trend; a short-term calorie controlled diet of ‘less of the same’ invoking a starvation reaction in the body, is a recipe for adding weight longer term.

It’s about what we eat

Another experiment illustrates the incredible difference between foods and the benefits of foods with a poor metabolic efficiency – exactly what those seeking to lose weight are largely unaware of yet need.

A group of volunteers were assigned to consume one of two cheese sandwiches:

  • Group A were given a processed food sandwich made up of white processed bread and processed cheese “products”.
  • Group B were given a whole food sandwich made up of multigrain bread and cheddar cheese.

In this instance both sandwiches contained the same calorie nutrient content.

However:  The processed sandwich worked through 73 calories in its digestion, whilst the whole food sandwich burned up 137 calories! The body used up nearly twice as many calories from the real food sandwich compared to the processed one.

Real foods make the metabolism work harder, a significant advantage in weight management.

Finally – what can be done about hunger pangs?

Hunger pangs are one of the most debilitating factors of a January calorie controlled diet. Consuming the wrong type of food can instigate intense hunger. High-quality nutrient-dense food requires more energy to break it down and digest, in the process keeping blood sugar levels stable and better fulfilling energy demands. Powerhouse fruits and vegetables will fill you up, while even nutrient-dense high calorie foods, such as nuts (allowing for allergies) and avocados, should be part of a routine nutrition.

There is only a limited amount of food we should consume each day whether on a calorie controlled diet or not, but if you want to help yourself achieve sustained fat loss and maintain a healthy weight, don’t depend on Cico, ditch the fad diet and start eating real foods.


General note: Eat when you are hungry, but consume foods that are filled with nourishment providing the energy to help you through the day. Always focus on the food you eat, don’t graze mindlessly. On occasions allow yourself a small amount of the food you crave – more than a taste, less than a portion.

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          About the author

Iris is the founder of No Targets Just Routine and a dedicated campaigner for real food. Having researched food since 2009 she believes “Happiness is real food shared with loved ones.”

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