Picture a diet plan where the menu of the day is four samosas, half a cup of ice cream and a glass of Coke. And you don’t even have to exercise to burn it off—as one convert writes, you will “shed weight like a melting ice cube" without taking a single step on the treadmill.

General Motors, Atkins, Intermittent Fasting, Paleo, Keto—fad diets never go out of style. The latest weight-reduction regimen that the online world is gobbling up is Calories In, Calories Out (Cico). A supposedly back-to-basics diet, Cico is built on the premise that consuming fewer calories than you burn in a day will help you lose weight. Calorie intake is determined after calculating the total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), the number of calories you expend every day. On the Cico diet, you can eat whatever you want, as long as you’re in a calorie deficit; the calories you do consume are, according to one acolyte, “burned just by living".

Unlike other fad diets, however, Cico doesn’t have a nutritional expert, doctor or celebrity throwing their weight behind it. Its sizeable approval ratings on Reddit, the popular online discussion forum, are what got the world talking. It’s hard to quantify its popularity, but look at how it compares with discussions about Keto, another diet currently trending, on the same platform. While the top Keto post has almost five times the number of visitors as the top Cico post, the latter has been upvoted 94%; the former is at 73%. Simply put, in terms of sheer numbers, Keto might seem more popular, but in pure percentage terms, Cico has a larger number of people endorsing its efficacy.

Experts dismissive

However, support for Cico starts and ends on this online forum, where people swap stories of achieving their weight-loss goals while eating junk food, balancing out missing nutrients with vitamin supplements, and zero workouts. It’s these crowd-sourced ideas, which disregard all principles of healthy living, that have health experts up in arms.

“Yes, it is possible to lose weight on Cico, but how long can you sustain this diet?" asks Mansi Chaudhary, senior dietitian at the Fortis hospital in Shalimar Bagh, Delhi. “There will come a point when you will get hungry, start eating more and eventually put all the weight back on," she says.

A recommended starting point for Cico dieters is 1,500 calories. In junk-food terms, this is approximately four samosas (308 calories each), a 350ml serving of Coke (140 calories), and 100ml of vanilla ice cream (201 calories). Sounds like a dream, but when you consider that that’s all you can eat in a day, you will understand why Chaudhary deems this diet unrealistic.

Another improbability is that calorie counting can single-handedly help you lose weight. As Delhi-based clinical nutritionist Ishi Khosla points out, “If weight gain is a simple imbalance in the equation of calories in, calories out, then we wouldn’t be fighting this growing battle with obesity today." The underlying causes of weight gain, such as food sensitivities, inflammation, nutritional deficiencies and water retention, are often overlooked in this approach. “Forget burgers and fries, there are people who eat two chapatis, dal and sabzi, twice a day, which is well within 1,000 calories, and don’t lose weight. How do you explain that?" asks Khosla.

Cico exponents on Reddit say they’ve lost weight without working out. While that is possible theoretically, no health professional recommends weight loss without exercise.

“There are so many physical and emotional benefits to working out. Plus, your body burns more calories in a resting state when you exercise," says Deepak Rawat, national fitness manager at Fitness First, a chain of health clubs. Although even an established institution like the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends creating a combined dietary and exercise deficit of 500-1,000 calories per day to lose weight, Rawat says this should not be taken as an exact number.

“Don’t cut down your food intake arbitrarily based on someone else’s success story. Calculate your body mass index (BMI) to determine what your fat and muscle percentages are first, and whether you even need to lose weight," says Rawat, who factors in exercise and lifestyle choices while computing calorie deficits.

Perhaps the biggest fallacy the Cico diet promotes is that all calories are equal. While there is some discussion about the macronutrient (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) content of meals, by and large, this diet finds favour with people who don’t want to change the way they eat. Imbalanced, unhealthy eating is indulged instead of being corrected, which can cause severe nutritional deficiencies and, ironically, lead to weight gain. And supplements alone cannot tackle these deficits. “You cannot replace the value of real food," says Khosla.

Cico exponents say they’ve lost weight without working out. While that is possible theoretically, no health professional recommends weight loss without exercise-

Calorie tracking done right

Yet this trend of tracking calories is growing by the day, primarily because technology has made the process easier. Many Cico followers use MyFitnessPal, a nutritional tracking appwhich had approximately 80 million users worldwide in 2015 (note: the app does not endorse the Cico diet). In India, lifestyle-tracking platforms like Healthifyme are growing exponentially. “In 2015, we had 100,000 users; by 2017 end, we are at three million," says Nikhil Moorjani, director, marketing and strategic alliances, HealthifyMe.

Supporting the principle behind calorie tracking—that of making data available to users —HealthifyMe diet coach Kamala, who uses only her first name, lists its advantages. “People become more conscious about food intake. Plus, setting a goal gives you perspective on what you should be eating," she says. However, fixing calorie intake isn’t enough – ensuring those calories are coming from the right source is equally important and that’s where the app’s macronutrient tracker plays a key role. “If you only count calories, you may wind up eating ice cream all day. That’s not a healthy plan," she explains.

Macro or micro, all this information can be overwhelming for a layperson. It’s no wonder then that they think of food only in terms of their daily calorie budget. Khosla, who has come out with her own weight-loss app, called theweightmonitor, has tried to simplify the process by focusing on food groups rather than calories and nutrients. She believes keeping a food journal, monitoring your weight, eating a well-balanced diet comprising 50-60% fruits and vegetables and doing a moderate level of exercise is a slow, but steadier way to lose weight. At the end of the day, who says it’s a race? “It’s not about losing X kg of weight within a specific time, it’s about building a lifestyle," says Moorjani.

As for Cico, consider it a passing trend. As Rawat puts it, “If it really worked, why would it be just a group of people online following it? It would be a craze in the industry and every health expert would advocate it." That’s something to chew on.

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