Why CICO (calories in/calories out) Isn’t True and why Insulin/Glucagon Control Weight

Coach Jack’s Sciency thoughts

PSA: All of the Calories in/Calories out (CICO) peeps are going to hate this post.

***Hormones control weight not calories. The human body doesn’t know what a calorie is since they were only discovered in the 1800s. We have been around for a minute longer than that I’m afraid.***

You’ve probably heard these statements again and again;

“Don’t eat high plate fat or you won’t burn your body fat!”
“Protein is a target and fat is a lever!”

Todays sciency thought is all about why both of these statements are not even close to being logical to the human body.

So first let us hit plate fat vs. body fat:

I would like to quote the illustrious Dr. Jason Fung for a second.
“People with more body fat will burn more fat than lean people because there is more fat available to use for fuel.”

That is a truly interesting statement. He is absolutely correct. People with more body fat will burn more fat than lean people and the reason is fuel availability. The body is very smart. It can recognize that it has an abundance of a given fuel source and it can automatically decide to use that fuel preferentially. So if this is the case for people with lots of body fat, why would this be any different for people eating lots of plate fat? What is the difference between body fat and plate fat? Literally nothing. The more fat available for fuel the more fat your body will use preferentially.

Alright so I know what you are thinking. “But if I am eating all these calories from fat won’t we have to use those instead of our bodyfat?” If your body actually cared about calories maybe, but fortunately for us, the body just runs along doing whatever its hormones tell it to and the hormones that control energy output/input are primarily insulin and glucagon. In simplistic terms, insulin is responsible for pushing energy into cells and glucagon is responsible for pushing energy out of cells and for the most part they don’t really concern themselves with energy expenditure. There are some factors involving requirement of energy but for the most part they are more concerned with management of incoming fuels and blood energy levels.

The long and the short of these hormones is this: Insulin is kind of the boss of the two hormones. When there is excess energy in the blood insulin stomps in and says “Nope, too much going on here. Time to get out.” It pushes whatever energy is deemed excess into cells for storage and keeps the blood nice and balanced. When energy in the blood is at acceptable levels, insulin gets to relax. Once it relaxes, glucagon gets louder and starts doling out the stored energy. So long as insulin is all chill, glucagon will keep pushing energy out of cells regardless of demand for energy. It will push any muscle glycogen out of muscles and fat out of fat cells to keep the body running constantly. If there is no glycogen available, in the case of a low carb diet, the glucagon will push fat out steadily for fuel. If you’re eating a ketogenic diet, any incoming fat will not be able to be permanently stored because fat doesn’t spike insulin high enough or long enough to suppress glucagon for long. As the insulin gets quieter, the glucagon gets louder and more fat can flow.

So what happens to the plate fat on a keto diet then? Does it have to be used before bodyfat can be used? Well even fat spikes insulin a small amount but is just enough to shunt the fat temporarily in the fat cells. It has to since fat can’t just hang out in the blood it has to be put somewhere or you have a problem of too much energy in the blood at once.  Such as the high Triglycerides that some people will see in their cholesterol test. This is just a temporary interruption of flow that lasts an incredibly short time. This means that as soon as you eat plate fat it becomes the same fat source as all your body fat. They quickly become one in the same and the body doesn’t have to choose between one or the other.

For comparison, when carbs are consumed it can take up to two hours, or more, for insulin to return to baseline  and have blood levels back to a level low enough for fat usage to be most optimal. For protein it is less of an overall insulin spike. There is still more glucose usage during the spike but there is also some fat usage during period. Eating fat barely elevates insulin enough to ever shut off the outflow of fat so you always have more fat moving out than in. I hope to have a video about this recorded soon for my upcoming youtube channel that will maybe better illustrate the idea. I hope to have the first video up before the end of 2018 with new videos at least once a week. Until then there are some illustrations here. You can see the different levels of insulin for each of the macronutrients.

Think of the effect insulin and glucagon like a dimmer switch rather than a normal on/off light switch:

The on/off switch will only allow two states. Insulin on or insulin off/glucagon on. This would mean you either burn only carbs or only fat and never a combo of the two.

In reality the whole process is more like a dimmer. It is a sliding scale of the amounts of each hormone. At the highest point on the dimmer you have exclusively carbs being used and fat being stored and at the bottom of the dimmer you have exclusively fat being used as fuel and carbs remain in storage.

In between the fat burning state and the carb burning state there is a vast array of variation in fuel source from more carbs and some fat to mostly fat and some carbs. This is the real way fuel usage works in context to insulin and glucagon.

With eating mostly fat you never leave a fat for fuel state completely. You may be taking in fat but more is flowing out than is coming in. Therefore you get a deficit in fat consumed vs fat used. See, that kinda fits the CICO mentality by showing that you are technically using more than you are consuming. It just isn’t more calories. 🙂

You are probably wondering what happens to all that fat energy that is being used? Well the body does a few things like upregulating body temperature or increasing involuntary movement like blinking or fidgeting. Then there is another big energy pool that we can fill up. Ketones!

When there is more fat coming out of cells than the body can really deal with the body will still put this energy into some form. It feeds as much as it can to direct energy expenditure but we have to be compliant with the First Rule of Thermodynamics. The first rule is; energy can be transformed from one form to another, but can be neither created nor destroyed, The remainder of the fat that can’t be directly used can be routed back to the liver to create ketones. That meets the First Rule since nothing is created or destroyed, it just changes from unused fat to unused ketones. We have a fairly high storage capability for ketones and to boot, we generate waste ketones as well that we dispose of through breath and urine. Beta-hydroxybutyrate is the blood ketone that we use for energy while acetoacetate is wasted in urine and acetone is wasted in the breath. Isn’t that cool! We can literally waste energy in the form of ketones.

If you are still unconvinced,  try this:

Eat all your protein from the time you wake up until noon. You can still consume large amounts of fats with these meals.  For the rest of the day have nothing but foods that are at least 90% fat. As close to 100% as possible though. At say 7pm, check your blood ketones. They will be higher than after a 3 day fast. I have raised my ketones from 3.4 mmol/L to 7.1 mmol/L in a matter of hours by doing just this. The reason is because you have not induced enough of an insulin spike from noon on to stop the outflow of fat from cells. Your ketones can raise even higher if you perform no physical activity. Since less fat will be used directly for fuel in the muscles, more of it will be directed to ketone creation.

All of this is not to say that higher ketones necessarily mean you are losing more weight. There is a tipping point where you will be matching energy in with the bodies capability to let energy out. The fun part is that this level is far higher than most people even dare to eat to and typically does not even mean weight gain, just maybe not weight loss. You can actually eat an insane amount of calories from fat and still not gain weight. You won’t necessarily be losing either but you won’t be gaining. There is a side benefit to this though. As your body is trying to deal with all these low insulin producing calories it is slowly but consistently raising your ability to burn energy. Your metabolism. So while you may not be dropping weight eating 5,000 calories a day, which I and several other members have done, but you won’t be gaining and you will be increasing your metabolism at the same time. When you go back to regular calories you will tend to lose a little faster. This is sort of what I do with clients.

Not that I am recommending anyone do anything crazy like eat 5,000 calories every day. This is an extreme example. A more reasonable thing to do would be to eat 500 cals above your maintenance level of calories (TDEE) for a period of time then return to TDEE for some time. Cycle these patterns. This creates the same effect as extreme calorie restriction but without the negative effects of reduction in thyroid function and a slowed metabolism. Does this not sound like a more sane proposition than cutting calories so low you ruin your metabolism and are likely starving?

Glucagon is the hormone that is responsible for pushing energy out so when your diet is adequate to keep your insulin low, glucagon is pushing fat out. Only when insulin gets stimulated does glucagon slow down on the push. This is evident when you look at a type 1 diabetic. They don’t create insulin at all. Before the advent of insulin, a type 1 diabetic would lose weight uncontrollably. They would feed them and feed them but no matter how many calories they ate they would continue to lose weight until all their muscle and organs had been catabolized for fuel and their body shut down. Without insulin there is nothing controlling glucagon from pushing energy out. This includes glucose and as well as bodyfat. Without insulin they have a constant call for energy from both fat and glucose. The only reason this doesn’t happen in a non diabetic is because we always have some level of insulin. This is referred to as basal insulin levels. Luckily for us we have a functioning pancreas and insulin will come along once energy levels in the blood exceed a safe amount. When it comes to ketones though that reservoir is a hard one to fill. I have yet to reach it and I have gotten as high as 8.1 mmol/DL of ketones.

To show the importance of glucagon I have attached a video explaining an experiment done on mice that have been genetically modified to be type 1 diabetic. Without giving them insulin they excrete energy through urine at an accelerated rate and become very ill, but simply by giving them a glucagon suppressing drug, they are able to survive rather well with almost no adverse effects. How interesting is that.


Now the second statement. “Fat is a lever”

Well I think I have already said enough to show this to be false. I’ll spare you another 2,000 words on top of all of this. 🙂

Fat is not a lever. It’s the key!

So when people tell you that insulin is the main driver in weight loss you can tell them, “Nope! It is important but Glucagon is more important fine sir!”

Keto On,

Coach Jack

If you want to get your Ketogenic Diet back to a place of Common Sense and learn how to heal your metabolism you can get personalized coaching from Coach Jack.

Check the details here:

Personalized Coaching with Coach Jack

23 Replies to “Why CICO (calories in/calories out) Isn’t True and why Insulin/Glucagon Control Weight”

  1. So, in relation to your other posts dealing with starvation that I just commented on, it seems like you put excess energy into your system by no eating fat after lunch? How does excess energy equate to starvation mode? (which by the way, happens at 4% body fat, and will never happen in someone with 100 pounds of fat. Did not happen with the guy who fasted for 382 days)

    Excess energy, but starvation mode?

    1. I am not sure I follow your question.

      Starvation mode does not actually mean starving. The guy that fasted for 382 days was not starving. He was fasting. Big difference. Starvation mode, as I am referring to it means that you are providing enough food to keep you out of fasting metabolism but not enough to actually feed you.

      When in fasting mode, you are getting all your caloric need from fat stores as insulin is low and glucagon is pushing energy from the cells to meet the bodies energy needs.

      When not fasting, you are eating enough to elevate insulin but not enough to meet basic metabolic rate, you need adequate food to meet your bodies energy requirements because insulin being elevated means glucagon is low and energy is being pushed into storage by insulin rather than being pushed out by glucagon. There is not enough energy to feed the body, thus you are starving.

      Starving vs fasting are two completely different metabolic states.

  2. So I have a question! I have been in Keto for a month readings over 1.0, blood test with Keto Mojo! The last week- week 1/2 my readings have been 2.2-4.0 and I have gained 2 pounds! I just can’t figure out how to get the scale going down! I have been doing Keto since July 5 lost 7 pounds the first week. Then have bounced around from down 9 to down 5 for the last 5 months! I would love to get this right. Thanks!

  3. Very new to this. Can you give me an example of what a day would look like eating protein til noon, then fats for the rest of the day? TIA!!
    Also, I have read where people incorporate Intermittent Fasting with KETO. What is your feeling on that?? Thanks!

    1. I can’t really do that no. It just means you eat some protein for breakfast and some for lunch then either only have water for the rest of the day or maybe a Bullet proof coffee.

      I have a post here about IF: Fasting and cortisol

  4. Having looked at your blogs, including your journey (congratulations btw), there is one thing that troubles me about the title of this blog. Elsewhere you state that you follow you TDEE, but the TDEE is predicated on a calories limit – so your overall limit is 2000kcal, broken down into the 3 macros. So you can’t just throw calorie limits out of the window! Or can you? (Not a criticism, just trying to understand!).

    1. My limit is not 2000. My minimum requirement for energy (calories) if I were bed ridden would be 2264 cals. If I exercise, which I do, you need to fuel that activity or the body starts going into reserve mode. It slows metabolism to keep from using up all body fat during the eating time when it should be storing. Night and periods of food scarcity is when the body needs to use fat so it will not allow you to run at a deficit 24/7 at risk of utilizing all the protective fat and going into actual starvation, wasting of body mass, at night or in times of famine.

      TDEE is not an upper limit. it is a lower limit to prevent metabolic slowing. I can eat far in excess of y upper limit providing the carbs and protein are low. This is a low insulin state and in that state fat storage is not happening. There are small caveats to this of course as some fats can disrupt things and cause insulin release and fat storage but as a rule people need to eat enough to properly fuel their bodies so they function how they are meant to.

      1. Thanks for taking the time to reply. I had misunderstood the premise, but it makes sense to me now. I appreciate your effort in educating the uninitiated!

    1. Fat sources:

      3 cups spinach with 4 tbsp of olive oil – 54g of fat
      coffee with 4 tbsp HWC – 20g fat
      2 eggs fried in 1 tbsp butter – 26 grams of fat
      4 egg yolks – 18g fat
      0.5 cups macadamia with 2 oz cream cheese – 57g fat
      2 oz triple cream brie – 24g fat
      hollandaise sauce – 31g fat (2 egg yolks, 30g melted butter, lemon juice to taste and whisk together. Put on meat or whatever you want)
      Boursin cheese 2 oz – 24g fat
      0.5 cup macadamia sauteed in 2 tbsp butter – 62g fat
      Half an avocado – 11g fat
      10 olives – 5g fat
      1 tbsp butter – 12g fat
      1 tbsp avocado mayo – 11g fat
      1 tbsp almond butter mixed with 1 tbsp MCT or coconut oil – 22g of fat

  5. I’ve been doing keto eating for 5 months and quite successful for losing weight for me and I’m easily sticking to it and not tempted by cheating. I’m a scientist and very interested in the science. Would you agree that females especially overweight females store a lot of insulin (and other hormones) in their fat cells so that when eating a keto diet and using up body fat they release those hormones that then play havoc with the premise that insulin isn’t so important as glucagon. I’m in a few keto groups and it seems to me the women especially older women struggle much much more than men do with losing weight after switching to keto eating. I wondered if you encounter that too and if you think it’s related to hormone release from older female fat cells?

    1. I am not so sure about insulin being stored in fat cells but I have heard of phytoestrogens being stored there and causing issues. I think the biggest issue with women is the chronic caloric restriction and yo yo dieting just crushing their metabolism and wreaking havoc on the thyroid. at least 60% of my female clients have hypothyroid issues.

  6. So, if I am insulin resistant, take metformin, have hypothyroidism…how the heck does MY body respond to fats/food? And how should I respond?

    1. It will respond slower than most but eating keto and eating enough to regulate your hormones will help the process along.

  7. I started keto 15 days ago when I did the calculator it came up that I should take in 1800 calories all Im able to eat right now is around 1200 is this enough calories or should I been eating more

  8. I am a triathlete. I Train a lot. I’ve been Keto for 5 months. I am told that I am eating too little calories. Next person says too much. I am not losing. How do I get the real info tailored for me? Calories and Macros for my VERY active lifestyle? I am Hypothyroid. I take Synthroid.

    1. If you are active you need to eat adequately to provide the energy and nutrition that you need. The reason you are Hypothyroid is chronic restriction of energy. This taxes the adrenals and the thyroid so much that they begin to malfunction. Similar to how a type 2 diabetic taxes their pancreas so much that it eventually malfunctions then fails.

      Follow the instructions in this post to get the calories and macros you need. If you need further help I do personal coaching and can customize things for you.

      How to figure out calories and macros

      Here is a link to my coaching program and there is a contact form there to reach out to me directly.

      Personal Coaching

  9. What would you say is a good general length of time to go 500 cals above TDEE, and then back down? And then how long at TDEE before cycling back up.

    Ive been keto for 9 months, I am 18% body fat and don’t have too much more to lose, I struggle with the last 2-4lbs and when I was eating around 500cals over TDEE I was losing the most weight. Just not sure about how long to do it for. Thanks!

    1. That is hard to say I have typically done long periods of time at far above TDEE and seen the best results. I typically cycle 21 days at 1000 to 1500 calories above, staying at as close to 85% fat as feasible, then cycling down to TDEE and have dropped from 18% BF to 12% in the last year. I’ve done this cycle twice.

      This last time I only did it for 9 days. I dropped weight for a few days then started to gain. Once I saw 3 consecutive days on the gain side I dropped back and lost weight quickly dropping to a new low. You have to feel it out for yourself. The longer you spend at higher calories the more stable your metabolic increases will be and the longer you will drop weight when you go back to normal calories. The questions is how much weight are you willing to gain to get to that point.

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