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CICO vs Low Carb – The continuing debate
When it comes to losing weight, there are many different theories and approaches out there. As a medical doctor, I am often asked by my patients which approach is best. Two of the most popular models are the calories in-calories out (CICO) model and the carbohydrate-insulin model. In this article, I will explain the CICO vs Low Carb models and discuss some of the research on both models in regard to their impact on weight loss.
The Calories In-Calories Out Model
The CICO model is based on the idea that weight loss is simply a matter of burning more calories than you consume. The basic premise is that if you eat fewer calories than your body burns, you will lose weight. Conversely, if you consume more calories than your body burns, you will gain weight.
To lose weight with the CICO model, you need to create a calorie deficit. This means that you need to eat fewer calories than your body burns. There are a few ways to create a calorie deficit. You can eat fewer calories, exercise more, or both.
For example, let’s say that your body burns 2,000 calories per day. If you consume 1,500 calories per day, you will create a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day. Over the course of a week, this would result in a total calorie deficit of 3,500 calories, which is equal to one pound of body fat. Therefore, you would lose one pound of body fat per week.
The Carbohydrate-Insulin Model
The carbohydrate-insulin model is based on the idea that weight gain and obesity are primarily caused by the hormonal effects of carbohydrate-rich foods on insulin secretion. According to this model, when you consume carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose, which causes your pancreas to release insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is responsible for regulating blood sugar levels.
When you consume a lot of carbohydrates, your body produces a lot of insulin to deal with the glucose. Insulin has the effect of promoting the storage of fat in adipose tissue and inhibiting the breakdown of fat for energy. This can lead to weight gain and obesity.
The carbohydrate-insulin model suggests that if you want to lose weight, you need to reduce your consumption of carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates like sugar and flour. This will reduce the amount of insulin in your body and allow your body to burn fat for energy instead of storing it.
Which Model is More Important for Weight Loss?
So, which model is more important for weight loss? The truth is that both models are important, but they each have their strengths and weaknesses.
The CICO model is simple and straightforward. It is based on the fundamental principle that in order to lose weight, you need to create a calorie deficit. This is a proven approach that has worked for many people over the years. However, the CICO model does not take into account the hormonal effects of food on the body.
The carbohydrate-insulin model takes into account the hormonal effects of food on the body. It suggests that reducing your consumption of carbohydrates can help to reduce insulin levels and promote fat burning. However, the carbohydrate-insulin model can be more difficult to follow than the CICO model. It requires you to pay close attention to the types of foods you are eating and limit your intake of carbohydrates.
In my opinion, both models are important for weight loss, but the CICO model is more well-known to most people. This is because the CICO model is simple and easy to follow. It does not require you to make drastic changes to your diet, and it can be effective for most people.
However, for some people, especially those who are insulin resistant or have metabolic disorders, the carbohydrate-insulin model may be more effective. These individuals may benefit from reducing their consumption of carbohydrates in order to reduce insulin levels and promote metabolising fat for energy.
What does the research say about the Carbohydrate-Insulin Model for weight loss?
There are medical studies in humans that support both the CICO model and the carbohydrate-insulin model for weight loss.
Studies have shown that creating a calorie deficit is an effective way to lose weight. A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that dietary interventions that promoted a calorie deficit resulted in significant weight loss in overweight and obese adults 1
This study is a review of previous research on intermittent fasting (IF) for weight loss. The author notes that several studies have found that IF can be an effective strategy for weight loss, as it can help to reduce calorie intake and increase fat burning. However, the author also notes that there are some limitations to the existing research, including small sample sizes and inconsistent findings.
One issue with this study is that it is a review of previous research rather than a primary research study. Therefore, it is limited by the quality and quantity of the studies that it includes.
Similarly, studies have also shown that reducing carbohydrate intake can promote weight loss. A randomized controlled trial found that a low-carbohydrate diet was more effective for weight loss and improving cardiovascular risk factors compared to a low-fat diet in overweight and obese individuals 2.
This study is a randomized controlled trial that compared the effectiveness of a low-carbohydrate diet (20g per day) to a low-fat diet (30% of total energy intake from fat) for weight loss in overweight and obese individuals. The study found that after 6 months, the low-carbohydrate group had greater weight loss and improvements in cardiovascular risk factors compared to the low-fat group.
One issue with this study is that it only followed participants for 6 months, so it is unclear whether the weight loss and health benefits would be sustained over the long-term. Additionally, the study only included a small sample size and was conducted in a research setting rather than a real-world setting.
However, it’s important to note that there is still some debate among researchers and medical professionals about the effectiveness of the carbohydrate-insulin model for weight loss. While some studies have shown promising results, others have found little to no difference in weight loss between low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets 3.
This study is a meta-analysis that compared the effectiveness of low-fat diets to other types of diets (such as low-carbohydrate or Mediterranean diets) for weight loss in adults. The study found that there was no significant difference in long-term weight loss between low-fat diets and other types of diets.
One issue with this study is that it only looked at studies that followed participants for at least one year, so it may not be applicable to shorter-term weight loss interventions. Additionally, the study only included studies that were published in English, so it may not be representative of all research on this topic.
It’s also worth noting that weight loss is a complex process that can be influenced by many factors, including genetics, lifestyle, and overall health. Therefore, what works for one person may not work for another.
Ultimately, the best approach to weight loss will depend on the individual’s unique needs and goals. It’s important to work with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian to develop a safe and effective weight loss plan that is tailored to your specific needs.
What are the limitations of the Calories-In Calories-out model for weight loss?
While the CICO model is a widely accepted approach to weight loss, there are some limitations to this view that should be considered.
- It oversimplifies a complex process: The CICO model assumes that weight loss is a simple matter of creating a calorie deficit, but in reality, weight loss is a complex process that is influenced by many factors, including genetics, hormones, metabolism, and lifestyle. Focusing solely on calorie intake and expenditure ignores these other factors that can impact weight loss.
- It does not account for differences in nutrient quality: While calories are important for weight loss, the quality of the nutrients consumed is also important for overall health. A diet that is high in nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins is likely to be more beneficial for weight loss and overall health than a diet that is high in processed and high-calorie foods.
- It can lead to a focus on short-term results: The focus on creating a calorie deficit in the CICO model can lead to a focus on short-term weight loss goals rather than long-term lifestyle changes. This can result in a cycle of dieting and weight gain, rather than sustainable weight loss.
- It does not account for individual differences: The CICO model assumes that weight loss is a one-size-fits-all approach, but in reality, individual differences in metabolism, genetics, and lifestyle can impact the effectiveness of this approach. Some individuals may need to focus on specific nutrients or macronutrient ratios in order to achieve sustainable weight loss.
- It can contribute to disordered eating: Focusing solely on calorie intake and expenditure can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with food and exercise. This can contribute to disordered eating behaviors such as restrictive eating, binge eating, or compulsive exercise.
Overall, while the CICO model can be an effective approach to weight loss for some individuals, it is important to consider these limitations and approach weight loss in a holistic and sustainable way. This may involve focusing on nutrient-dense foods, incorporating regular physical activity, and making lifestyle changes that can be sustained over the long term.
What are the limitations of the carbohydrate-insulin model for weight loss?
While the carbohydrate-insulin model has gained popularity in recent years, there are some limitations to this view that should be considered.
- It oversimplifies the role of insulin: The carbohydrate-insulin model assumes that insulin is the primary driver of weight gain and that reducing carbohydrate intake will necessarily result in weight loss. However, insulin is just one of many hormones involved in the regulation of body weight, and the relationship between insulin and weight loss is complex and not fully understood.
- It does not account for individual differences: Like the CICO model, the carbohydrate-insulin model assumes that weight loss is a one-size-fits-all approach, but individual differences in metabolism, genetics, and lifestyle can impact the effectiveness of this approach. Some individuals may need to focus on other nutrients or macronutrient ratios in order to achieve sustainable weight loss.
- It can be difficult to follow: The carbohydrate-insulin model requires individuals to limit their intake of carbohydrates, which can be challenging for some people. Additionally, there is no consensus on what constitutes a “low-carbohydrate” diet, and the optimal macronutrient ratios for weight loss may vary depending on the individual.
- It can lead to nutrient deficiencies: A diet that is low in carbohydrates may also be low in important nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Additionally, a diet that is high in fat and protein may increase the risk of heart disease and other health problems.
- It may not be sustainable over the long-term: While reducing carbohydrate intake may result in short-term weight loss, it may not be a sustainable approach over the long-term. Many individuals find it difficult to maintain a low-carbohydrate diet over time, which can lead to weight regain and other health problems.
Overall, while the carbohydrate-insulin model may be an effective approach to weight loss for some individuals, it is important to consider these limitations and approach weight loss in a holistic and sustainable way. This may involve focusing on nutrient-dense foods, incorporating regular physical activity, and making lifestyle changes that can be sustained over the long term.
Could both CICO and Carbohydrate-Insulin models be correct?
Yes, it is possible that both the CICO model and the carbohydrate-insulin model are correct to some extent, as they both represent different aspects of the complex process of weight loss. Here are a few ways to justify this:
- Both models address different components of weight loss: The CICO model addresses the importance of calorie balance in weight loss, while the carbohydrate-insulin model focuses on the role of insulin and carbohydrate intake in promoting or inhibiting fat storage. Both calorie balance and insulin levels are important factors in weight loss, and addressing both can be a more comprehensive approach to achieving sustainable weight loss.
- The models are not mutually exclusive: It is possible to follow a diet that addresses both calorie balance and carbohydrate intake. For example, a diet that focuses on reducing calorie intake by choosing nutrient-dense foods and reducing portion sizes while also limiting carbohydrate intake could address both aspects of weight loss.
- Individual differences may influence which model is more effective: Different individuals may respond differently to different approaches to weight loss. Some individuals may find that reducing calorie intake is the most effective way to lose weight, while others may respond better to reducing carbohydrate intake. Taking an individualized approach to weight loss may involve considering multiple factors, including metabolic health, dietary preferences, and lifestyle factors.
Overall, while the CICO and carbohydrate-insulin models represent different approaches to weight loss, they are not mutually exclusive. Combining aspects of both models may be a more effective and sustainable approach to achieving weight loss goals. However, it is important to work with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian to develop a personalized weight loss plan that is safe and effective for individual needs and goals.
Doesn’t the Carbohydrate-Insulin model result in eating fewer calories and that’s the real reason for the weight loss?
The carbohydrate-insulin model can result in less caloric intake, but there may be other factors at play that contribute to weight loss.
Reducing carbohydrate intake can lead to decreased levels of insulin, which can reduce the storage of fat and promote the use of stored fat for energy. This can lead to decreased appetite and calorie intake, which may contribute to weight loss.
However, there may be other factors at play that contribute to weight loss with the carbohydrate-insulin model. For example, reducing carbohydrate intake may also lead to changes in the gut microbiome, which could impact metabolism and energy balance.
Additionally, there is evidence that reducing carbohydrate intake can lead to changes in hormones like leptin and ghrelin, which are involved in the regulation of appetite and energy balance. For example, a study in obese individuals found that a low-carbohydrate diet led to decreased levels of leptin and increased levels of ghrelin, which could contribute to decreased appetite and calorie intake 4.
Overall, while reducing carbohydrate intake may lead to decreased calorie intake, there may be other factors at play that contribute to weight loss with the carbohydrate-insulin model. Further research is needed to better understand the mechanisms underlying weight loss with this approach.
There have been some studies that suggest that the carbohydrate-insulin model may result in weight loss even when calories are stable or higher than in control groups. Here are a few examples:
- Hall, K. D., Chen, K. Y., Guo, J., Lam, Y. Y., Leibel, R. L., Mayer, L. E., Reitman, M. L., Rosenbaum, M., Smith, S. R., Walsh, B. T., & Ravussin, E. (2016). Energy expenditure and body composition changes after an isocaloric ketogenic diet in overweight and obese men. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 104(2), 324-333.
This study found that overweight and obese men who followed an isocaloric ketogenic diet for 4 weeks (which limited carbohydrates to 50g per day) lost more body fat and had greater reductions in insulin levels compared to those who followed a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet. Importantly, both groups were given an isocaloric diet, meaning that they consumed the same amount of calories each day.
- Ludwig, D. S., Majzoub, J. A., Al-Zahrani, A., Dallal, G. E., Blanco, I., & Roberts, S. B. (1999). High glycemic index foods, overeating, and obesity. Pediatrics, 103(3), E26.
This study found that overweight adolescents who were given a high-glycemic index (GI) diet (which included foods like white bread and sugary snacks) consumed more calories and gained more weight over a 10-week period compared to those who were given a low-GI diet (which included foods like whole grains and vegetables). Both groups were allowed to eat as much as they wanted, meaning that calorie intake was not restricted.
- Sackner-Bernstein, J., Kanter, D., Kaul, S., & Dietary Intervention Randomized Controlled Trial (DIRECT) Investigators. (2015). Dietary intervention for overweight and obese adults: comparison of low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets. A meta-analysis. PLoS One, 10(10), e0139817.
This meta-analysis found that overweight and obese individuals who followed a low-carbohydrate diet for at least 6 months lost more weight and had greater improvements in cardiovascular risk factors compared to those who followed a low-fat diet, despite consuming similar or higher amounts of calories.
It’s worth noting that while these studies suggest that the carbohydrate-insulin model may result in weight loss even with stable or higher calorie intake, further research is needed to better understand the mechanisms underlying this effect and to replicate these findings in larger and more diverse populations. Additionally, it’s important to approach weight loss in a holistic and sustainable way and to work with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian to develop a safe and effective weight loss plan that is tailored to individual needs and goals.