When it comes to losing weight, 1,200 seems to be the magic number. Virtually every weight loss website out there has at least one (or a dozen) 1,200-calorie-a-day diet options. Even the National Institutes of Health have published a 1,200 calorie per day meal plan.
What’s So Special About Eating 1,200 Calories? Well, for the average person, this translates into rapid 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 possible disadvantages
In order to lose weight, you must reduce your calorie intake to create a calorie deficit. “From a physiological standpoint, we understand that we lose weight by being in a calorie deficit,” says Ligos.
But consuming just 1,200 calories a day is simply not enough for many adults and can lead to consequences such as a slowed metabolism and malnutrition.
“For most adults, the basal metabolic rate, the calories the body needs to exist, is actually over 1,200 calories,” says Ligos. and it can be far more sustainable and healthier for our metabolism and hormones to lose weight more slowly with a higher calorie intake.
When you’re not consuming enough calories to meet your basal metabolic rate, “usually our metabolism slows down. It’s a “protective mechanism” and a way for the body to signal that it’s not getting as much nutrition as it needs, Ligos explains.
Slowing the rate at which the body uses up the calories you take in helps sustain life’s important evolutionary process for as long as possible. But when your metabolism slows down too much, it only makes losing weight harder.
Justine Roth, a registered nutritionist based in New York City, uses an analogy to explain this process. “It’s like a car that’s running low on gas – it won’t go as fast when you step on the pedal and the air conditioning may not work well because it’s trying to conserve all of its fuel. The body does the same thing: it won’t burn calories faster if you don’t give it enough to do it.”
She says, “The fewer calories you eat, the slower your metabolism becomes.”
Aside from the fact that calories provide the energy you need to live and even burn fat, many of the high-calorie foods also contain important vitamins and minerals. Go too low with your calorie and food intake, and you’ll almost certainly suffer from nutritional deficiencies, adds Dr. Craig Primack, an obesity specialist and co-director and co-founder of the Scottsdale Weight Loss Center in Arizona.
Although a 1,200-calorie plan can initially lead to rapid weight loss, Ligos notes that sustained weight loss depends on sticking to the plan. “Most people are unable to actually stick to a 1,200 calorie diet because they end up going into a binge restrict cycle.”
For example, many people will be very strict about keeping to their calorie limits during the week, but by the weekend “they’ve been restricting all week and can’t take it anymore. They’re hungry and fed up with ‘eating’, so they munch over the weekend, and this results in not being in deficit when the whole week is taken into account.
how to start
If you’re determined to try the 1,200-calorie-per-day eating plan, Samantha Cochrane, a registered dietitian at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, says the approach “could be tailored to any diet, but ideally would have a balance of the five.” Core food groups – fruits, vegetables, grains/starches, proteins and dairy – for optimal nutrient absorption.”
If you don’t carefully balance your food choices, you could end up not consuming enough of a particular micronutrient.
She recommends dividing your food intake into:
- Three meals, each about 400 calories.
- Two 400 calorie meals plus two 200 calorie snacks.
- Three meals of 300 calories plus two snacks of 100 to 150 calories each.
Spreading your intake throughout the day keeps calories flowing into the body on a regular basis, which can help prevent blood sugar spikes and crashes. These fluctuations in blood sugar can lead to hunger pangs and irritability. Keeping blood sugar levels stable is very important for people with diabetes to manage the disease.
“Talk to a nutritionist for more accurate calorie recommendations to make sure this amount is right for you,” says Cochrane.
Cochrane says people with higher calorie needs and those aiming for sustained weight loss should avoid the 1,200-calorie-a-day diet. The same applies to people who are already at risk of a certain vitamin or mineral deficiency.
She only recommends such a low calorie intake “when someone’s estimated calories to maintain their current weight are already pretty low, because I don’t want to see large calorie deficits.” She adds that “large calorie deficits tend to indicate weight loss.” cause that is difficult to sustain in the long term”.
Setting the right calorie goal
A 1,200 calorie diet is too restrictive for many people, so finding a more sustainable calorie content can help you reach your weight loss goals in a more sustainable way.
According to American dietary guidelines, women need between 1,800 and 2,400 calories each day to maintain their weight. Men, on the other hand, need between 2,000 and 3,200 calories.
Again, that’s a pretty wide range, and the exact number depends on factors including:
- activity level.
- Levels of lean mass (aka everything in your body that is not fat).
Because the taller 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 nutritionist and board-certified strength and conditioning specialist.
The same goes for all active people out there. For example, a 6-foot-2-inch man who exercises every day needs far more calories than a 5-foot-2-inch woman who is sedentary, Spano says. Also, our calorie needs are highest when people are between 19 and 30 years old. Both before and after, people tend to need (and burn) slightly fewer calories at rest.
That’s a lot to consider. Here are some simple equations, courtesy of Spano, to estimate how many calories you burn per day — and how many you need to maintain your current weight:
- If you are mildly active (ie, walk and do housework most days of the week), multiply your weight in pounds by 17 if you’re a man and 16 if you’re a woman.
- If you’re a moderately active male (say, you walk, bike, or dance five or more times a week), multiply your weight in pounds by 19. For women, multiply that number by 17.
- If you’re very active (perhaps doing high-intensity strength training or team sports with lots of running at least five times a week) and you’re a man, multiply your weight in pounds by 23. If you’re a highly active woman, make that 20.
Another strategy for estimating your calorie consumption: 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 short, which either underestimated or overestimated daily calorie burn.
Once you figure 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 you losing about one to two pounds a week. If you have a lot of weight to lose, you might be able to save more than 500 calories, but you should consult a doctor first to make sure you’re still getting all the nutrients you need, says Primack.
It’s also important to note that you’ll need to repeat this process of calculating your calorie goals periodically as you get closer to your goal weight. Because the less you weigh, the fewer calories you need per day to maintain your current weight, says Roth.
Sorry: The 1,500 calorie diet that helped you shed those first five pounds may need to become a 1,200 calorie diet to shed the next five pounds. But here’s the better news: You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, eat 1,200 calories a day forever if you’re going to get that far in the first place.
“Twelve-hundred-calorie diets are best for people who don’t need a lot of calories to begin with, and should only be done temporarily,” says Spano. This (short-term) low calorie intake can also benefit people who need to see really immediate results in order to stick to a diet, as the initial weight loss that can result can be very motivating and encourage later results.
However, after a few weeks of 1,200 calories a day, you need to increase your calorie intake to avoid sabotaging your metabolism (or mental health), says Spano. That doesn’t mean going back to old habits like 2,000 calories a day and yo-yo dieting. Instead, it means increasing your daily intake by about 100 calories each week.
Once you’re consuming enough calories to not lose more than a pound or two a week — and feel like you could stick with your diet forever — you’ve found your perfect calorie weight-loss goal.
But Ligos warns that weight isn’t the only measure of your overall health. “That’s not to say weight doesn’t matter, but it’s just a measure of health. I think as a society we need to stop emphasizing that weight is the only way to measure health.”
Ligos says that instead of severely restricting your calorie intake, you should try to be more mindful of what and when you eat. Building a better relationship with food can be hard work, but building that foundation can help you make lasting changes that result not just in weight loss, but in an overall improved sense of well-being.