Calorie counting is the OG of weight management. What started as a kind of basic approach to losing, maintaining, and gaining weight has since manifested into more diets than we can count. Remember when everything was a 100-calorie snack pack?
The 1,200-calorie diet comes in a few forms but is, rather simply, the act of eating no more than — you guessed it — 1,200 calories per day in pursuit of weight loss.
This approach, simple as it may be, comes with a host of risks (hello, malnutrition) and is definitely not suitable for everybody.
Plus, it throws up a bunch of red flags. While the limited research is promising, the restrictive nature of this beast may not be sustainable in the long term.
Let’s look at the facts, shall we?
Most people need more than 1,200 calories each day. Actually, it’s more like somewhere between 1,600 and 3,000 calories per day, depending on your age, sex, activity level, and health status.
Men, active folks, breastfeeding or pregnant women, people in larger bodies, and those with certain medical conditions typically need more calories, but logic (OK, and science) suggests that cutting your daily intake to 1,200 calories should result in some weight loss.
But for many people, 1,200 calories is just too little and could result in weakness, malnourishment, or a metabolism slowdown.
If you talk to your doc (which you should always do before starting any weight loss journey) and 1,200 is simply not your magic number, reducing your daily intake by 500 calories is a good place to start for healthy weight loss.
For the record, 1 to 2 pounds per week is a healthy and sustainable rate of weight loss, according to the CDC.
According to some research, LCDs (that’s low calorie diets) like the 1,200-calorie diet can lead to a decrease in body fat and improvements in liver and kidney function, cardiovascular risk factors, and glycemic control.
Clearly there’s more to this dietary plan than just weight loss. And that’s important to remember, because — say it with us — weight alone is not an indicator of health.
Research also suggests low calorie diets can reduce A1C levels in adults with type 2 diabetes and improve insulin sensitivity and adiposopathy (aka “sick fat,” an endocrine condition within fat cells). Some animal studies have even found that animals on an LCD lived longer and had a reduced risk of cancer.
A 2019 study found that combining an LCD with interval training was more effective at lowering risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease than following an LCD alone.
And a 2018 study found improvements in participants’ thyroid hormone levels (along with BMI reduction) when an LCD was paired with some sweat sessions.
But here’s the catch: Weight regain after a low cal diet is common. Plus, a lot of the available research has been done on animals, and most of the studies on humans include data from only a few weeks or months.
The bottom line is that there’s not much reliable research to show that the weight loss is sustainable.
It’s not just about how much you eat, it’s about what you’re eating. When you’re eating fewer calories, it’s harder to get essential nutrients like protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals.
If all your calories are coming from cookies and chips, you could legit become malnourished. That’s even more reason to become fluent in nutritional labels and talk to your doctor before giving this a shot.
Don’t try this if:
- you’re already at a low body weight
- your period has gone MIA due to low weight or eating too little
- you have or had an eating disorder
- you have nutritional deficiencies or imbalances
- you’re pregnant or breastfeeding
- your doc has already told you this is a bad idea
- you’re a child
If you and your doctor or dietitian agree that a 1,200-calorie diet is a healthy option for you, a little planning can make the whole thing more bearable.
Watch your hunger timeline. Don’t try to save all your calories for the end of the day. Consider the times of day you’re usually hungriest (or hangriest) and plan meals around those.
Stay hydrated. Did you know people often reach for food when they’re thirsty rather than hungry? Drink first, wait a few minutes, and then eat if you’re still hungry.
Don’t get too intense. Seriously, don’t starve yourself, exercise too much, or otherwise go overboard. Extreme stuff could mean you’re at risk for an eating disorder. If you become concerned about your relationship with food, stop and reach out to your doc.
Watch out for patterns. Are you actually hungry, or do you just associate “The Office” theme song with opening a fresh bag of chips?
If you’re going to eat fewer calories, make sure they pack a nutritional punch to keep you feeling satisfied and prevent malnourishment. And have as much water, coffee, and tea as you want, but keep the caffeine in check.
For more inspo, you can always head down a rabbit hole on Pinterest, but here are a few ideas to get you started:
- 1/2 avocado on whole-grain toast with an egg on top
- low fat yogurt with blueberries
- 1 cup steel-cut oats with berries or banana
- 1 cup cottage cheese with fresh strawberries
- 3 ounces tuna (canned in water), 1 slice of cheese, and mayonnaise on whole-wheat toast
- roast beef sandwich with mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato on whole-wheat bread
- apple and cheddar pita pocket sandwich
- vegetarian Greek salad wraps with chickpeas and feta
- chicken taco with low fat cheese, guacamole, and salsa on a corn tortilla, 1/2 cup rice, and 1 1/2 cups broccoli
- 4 ounces salmon, 1/2 cup brown rice, and asparagus
- shrimp scampi over zucchini noodles
- black bean burger in a lettuce wrap with salsa and roasted sweet potato wedges
- 2 tablespoons hummus with baby carrots
- baked apple with cinnamon
- peanut butter on whole-grain toast
- string cheese
Forget that good food/bad food BS. Planning for (and enjoying!) some of your favorite higher-calorie foods will make this whole thing a lot more enjoyable.
A few suggestions:
- popcorn with calorie-free flavor boosters like garlic powder and paprika
- kettle corn (for a mix of salt and sweetness)
- frozen mango or banana, blended like ice cream
And you might want to cut back on low-nutrient foods like:
- sweetened beverages, including sugar in coffee
- soda and alcohol
- white bread and pasta
- high calorie condiments
- butter and oils high in saturated and trans fats
Limiting daily calorie intake to 1,200 may lead to weight loss, but most people need more than 1,200 calories each day. If 1,200 is too little, try reducing your daily calorie intake by 500. Keep in mind that a healthy rate of weight loss is 1 to 2 pounds per week.
Be sure to choose foods that provide essential nutrients and keep you feeling satisfied. A doctor or dietitian can help you develop a nutrition plan.
Studies show that low calorie diets may improve certain health conditions, especially when paired with exercise. But remember that weight alone is not a measure of health.
Cutting calories too low can lead to fatigue, weakness, and malnutrition. It also may not be sustainable in the long term and isn’t a good fit for everyone, including those with underlying health conditions.
If you have a history of eating disorders, pursuing weight loss may not be a good idea for you. You know yourself best, but you may want to check with your doctor before making any big dietary changes.