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Is a 1,200-Calorie Diet Right for You?


When it comes to losing weight, it can seem like 1,200 is the magic number. Practically every weight-loss website out there has at least one (or one dozen) 1,200-calorie-a-day diet options. Even the National Institutes of Health has published a 1,200 calorie a day meal plan.

What’s so special about consuming 1,200 calories? Well, for the average person, it results in quick weight loss, says Laura Ligos, a registered dietitian in private practice in Albany, New York, and author of “The Busy Person’s Meal Planner.”

How it Works and Potential Drawbacks

In order to lose weight, you’ll need to reduce your intake of calories to create a calorie deficit. “We understand from a physiological standpoint that a calorie deficit is how we lose weight,” Ligos says.

But consuming only 1,200 calories per day is simply not enough for many adults, and can lead to consequences such as a slower metabolism and nutritional deficiencies.

“For most adults, the basal metabolic rate, which is (the calories the body needs) just to exist, is actually higher than 1,200 calories," Ligos says. "Most people will be in a calorie deficit at a much higher intake level, and it can be far more sustainable and healthy for our metabolism and our hormones” to lose weight at a slower pace with a higher caloric intake level.

When you’re not consuming enough calories to meet your basal metabolic needs, “what happens is usually our metabolism basically slows down. It’s a protective mechanism” and a way for the body to signal it’s not getting as much food as it needs, Ligos explains.

Slowing down the pace at which the body uses the calories it’s receiving helps maintain the important evolutionary process of living as long as possible. But if your metabolism slows down too much, that just makes losing weight harder.

Justine Roth, a registered dietitian based in New York City uses an analogy to explain this process. “It's like a car running on low gas – it's going to not go as fast when you push on the pedal, and the air conditioning might not work well because it's trying to conserve all of its fuel. The body does the same thing: It’s not going to speed up burning calories if you aren't giving it enough to do so.”

She says “the fewer calories you eat, the slower your metabolic rate will be.”

Apart from the fact that calories supply the energy you need to live, and even burn fat, many of the foods that pack calories also pack essential vitamins and minerals. Go too low with calorie – and food – intake, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to experience nutritional deficiencies, adds Dr. Craig Primack, an obesity specialist and co-director and co-founder of the Scottsdale Weight Loss Center in Arizona.

Though a 1,200-calorie plan can result in quick weight loss initially, Ligos notes that continued weight loss is dependent on sticking to the plan. “Most people are incapable of actually sticking to 1,200-calorie diets because they end up going into a binge-restrict cycle.”

For example, a lot of people will be really strict about adhering to their calorie limits during the week, but by the weekend, “they’ve been restricting all week and they can’t take it anymore. They’re hungry and they’re tired of staving themselves,” so they binge over the weekend, and that results in them not being in a deficit when the whole week is taken into account.

How to Start

If you’re determined to try the 1,200 calorie-a-day meal plan, Samantha Cochrane, a registered dietitian with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus says that the approach “could be tailored to any diet, but ideally would have a balance of the five main food groups – fruits, vegetables, grains/starches, proteins and diary – for optimal nutrient intake."

If you’re not thoughtfully balancing your food choices, you could end up not taking in enough of a certain micronutrient.

She recommends breaking your food intake into:

  • Three meals of about 400 calories each.

  • Two meals of 400 calories, plus two snacks of 200 calories.

  • Three meals of 300 calories, plus two snacks of 100 to 150 calories each.

Spreading your intake out throughout the day keeps a regular influx of calories flowing into the body, which can help prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes. These fluctuations in blood sugar can lead to hunger pangs and irritability. For individuals with diabetes, keeping blood sugar levels stable is very important to managing the disease.
“Talk to a dietitian for more specific calories recommendations to make sure this amount is right for you,” Cochrane says.

Cochrane says that people who have higher calorie needs and those who are looking for sustainable weight loss should avoid the 1,200 calorie-a-day diet. The same goes for people who are already at risk for certain vitamin or mineral deficiencies.

She only recommends a caloric intake this low “if someone’s estimated calories to maintain their current weight are already pretty low, as I don’t like to see large calorie deficits.” She adds that “large calorie deficits tend to cause weight loss that is hard to sustain long term.”

Setting the Right Caloric Goal

A 1,200-calorie diet is too restrictive for lots of people, so finding a more sustainable calorie level can help you meet your weight loss goals in a more sustainable way.

Per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, women need anywhere from 1,800 to 2,400 calories each day to maintain their weight. Meanwhile, men need anywhere from 2,000 to 3,200 calories.

Again, that’s a pretty big range, and the exact number depends on factors including:

  • Age.

  • Activity levels.

  • Body size.

  • Levels of lean mass (aka everything in your body that’s not fat).

After all, the larger you are and the more lean mass you have, the more calories you burn – even at rest, explains Marie Spano, an Atlanta-based board-certified sports dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist.
The same goes for all of the active folks out there. For example, a 6-foot-2-inch man who works out every day needs far more calories than a 5-foot-2-inch woman who is sedentary, Spano says. Plus, our caloric needs peak when people are between the ages of 19 to 30. Both before and after, people tend to need (and burn) slightly fewer calories at rest.

That’s a lot to take into account. So, here are some simple equations, courtesy of Spano, for estimating how many calories you burn per day – and how many you need to maintain your current weight:

  • If you're lightly active (meaning that you stroll and do some housework most days a week), multiply your weight in pounds by 17 if you're a man, and by 16 if you're a woman.

  • If you're a moderately active man (say, you perform walking workouts, cycle or dance five or more times per week), multiply your weight in pounds by 19. For women, multiply this number by 17.

  • If you're heavily active (maybe you're into high-intensity strength training or play team sports with a lot of running at least five times per week) and a man, multiply your weight in pounds by 23. If you're a heavily active woman, make that 20. 

Another strategy for estimating your caloric burn: wearing a fitness tracker. However, it's important to realize that commercially available fitness trackers aren’t perfect. For example, in a 2016 JAMA study of 12 trackers, many were 200 to 300 calories off, either underestimating or overestimating daily caloric burns.

Once you’ve figured out roughly how many calories you need to eat each day to maintain your weight, Spano recommends most people subtract 250 to 500 calories from that number. This should result in losing about one to two pounds per week. If you have a lot of weight to lose, you may be able to cut more than 500 calories, but should consult with a doctor before doing so to make sure you're still getting all of the nutrients you need, Primack says.

It’s also important to note that, as you inch further toward your goal weight, you’ll need to regularly repeat this process of calculating your caloric goals. After all, the less you weigh, the fewer calories you need per day to maintain your current weight, Roth says.

So, sorry: The 1,500-calorie diet that helped you drop those first five pounds may need to become a 1,200-calorie diet to drop those next five pounds. But here's the better news: You don't have to – and shouldn't – eat only 1,200 calories a day forever, if you even get that low to begin with.

“Twelve-hundred-calorie diets are best for those people who don’t need many calories to begin with and should only be done temporarily,” Spano says. That (short-term) low caloric intake can also benefit people who really need to see immediate results in order to stick with a diet since the initial weight loss that can come from it can be very motivating and help fuel later results.

After a few weeks of eating 1,200 calories a day, though, you'll need to increase your caloric intake in order to not sabotage your metabolism (or your sanity), Spano says. That doesn’t mean going back to old habits like eating 2,000 calories per day and yo-yo dieting. Instead, it means increasing your daily intake by 100 or so calories every week.

Once you are eating enough calories that you are losing no more than one to two pounds per week – and feel like you could stick with your diet forever – you’ve found your perfect caloric goal for weight loss.

But, Ligos cautions, that weight isn’t the only measure of your overall health. “It’s not to say that weight doesn’t matter, but it’s only one metric of health. I think as a society we have to stop putting so much emphasis on weight being the only way to gauge health.”

Ligos says that instead of severely restricting your calories, try being more mindful about what and when you’re eating. It can be hard work to create a better relationship with food, but building that foundation can help you make sustainable changes that result in not just weight loss but overall improved well-being.