Ladies… we need to talk. Specifically, we need to talk about the 1200 calorie diet.
You know exactly what I’m referring to, don’t you?
Of course you do. Somehow, every woman on the planet has come to know of the concept of eating precisely 1200 calories a day for the purpose of losing weight.
How do I know this, you ask? Because a surprisingly significant amount of the weight loss questions I get asked by women involve some aspect of the misinformation that lurks behind this whole “1200 calorie” thing.
That’s why, in this article, I’m going to finally set everything straight once and for all. This includes…
- Where this magical “1200” number comes from.
- Why the majority of women DON’T need a 1200 calorie diet to lose weight (and why it only causes problems).
- Why some women legitimately DO need it (and the key thing they all have in common).
- How eating this low amount can sometimes prevent weight loss from happening (but NOT because of “starvation mode”).
- How so many women claim to be eating 1200 calories a day (or less) but STILL aren’t losing weight.
Let’s begin with the most basic question of all…
Why 1200 Calories A Day?
Simple. Because a caloric deficit is the sole cause and requirement of losing fat, and for damn near every woman (and man), eating 1200 calories a day is virtually guaranteed to be low enough for a deficit to exist (often to a large degree).
If you’re looking for any kind of magic, evidence or logic beyond that, you’re not going to find any.
It’s just a number that happens to be low enough to make weight loss happen for practically everyone. Kinda like if something cost some appropriate amount of money, and you decide to pay for it with exactly $1,200.00 because that would probably be enough to cover it. The logic is pretty much identical.
I have an even better question about this number, though.
Why Does Everyone Think It’s Universally Ideal?
See, I often come across two different kinds of people:
- Those who think a 1200 calorie diet is right for EVERY woman.
- Those who think it’s never right for ANY woman.
Both groups are wrong (and I’ll prove it in a minute), but it’s the first group that confuses me the most.
Why do so many women – regardless of their different heights, weights, ages, body fat percentages and activity levels – think that a 1200 calorie diet is ideal for them when it comes to losing weight?
How is it possible that so many women – who range anywhere from 95 lbs to 400 lbs, from 4’10 to 6’4, from physical jobs to desk jobs, from extremely active to completely sedentary, from healthy to hypothyroid, from 18 to 80 years old, with 10 lbs to lose to 100 lbs to lose – have all come to the same caloric conclusion that 1200 is their ideal number?
How did this one size somehow come to supposedly fit all?
The (Quick) Origin Story
Many people think it originated somewhere on the internet, making it a fairly “new” idea.
But… it’s not. It has actually been around for quite a bit longer than the internet has.
In fact, I’ve been able to trace it back to a diet book that came out nearly 100 years ago – Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories by Lulu Hunt Peters – which was, unsurprisingly, aimed specifically at women.
Not only was this book the first to promote the importance of calorie counting for losing weight, it also appears to contain the very first recorded mention of this magical “1200” number. The context seems to have been a statement along the lines of how a woman who is a certain height or with a certain goal weight could eat anything she wanted and still lose weight… as long as she didn’t exceed “1200” calories a day.
And yeah, technically speaking, she’s right. Like I said a minute ago, that would indeed represent a deficit for damn near every adult human. No magic involved.
But how did that number go on to become THE number?
My best guess is that it simply started there, lived on, spread further, and gradually became more prevalent and misunderstood over time… just like any other thing/myth being perpetuated from misinformed person to misinformed person over a span of decades.
Which Brings Us To Today
And so we skip ahead to right now, in the present day, where we have…
- Headlines on every female-oriented website and on the cover of every women’s magazine (the same magazines that simultaneously feature delicious cake recipes side-by-side with photos of some actress’s cellulite) that read “The 7-Day 1200 Calorie Diet Fix!” or “Lose 20lbs In 1 Month With The 1200-Calorie-A-Day Belly Fat Blast!” or some such horseshit.
- Popular diet apps like MyFitnessPal constantly suggesting “1200 calories” as the ideal daily calorie intake for a wide range of the women who use it.
- Shitty trainers and clueless diet coaches getting paid a ton of money to “custom design” laughably generic cookie-cutter 1200 calorie meal plans for their female clients, with no individualization whatsoever for what each client truly needs.
- People on weight loss forums and throughout social media who preach this mystical number to anyone who’s looking for advice on how to lose weight. (Not to mention, an entire pro-anorexic subculture that has taken it to an even larger extreme.)
- Friends, family members and otherwise intelligent people who have seen some/all of the above and will automatically come to associate 1200 calories with being the amount they should be eating if they want to lose weight.
Sound about right?
The big question is, though… just how realistic is it for so many women to legitimately need to eat 1200 calories a day in order to lose weight? Let’s find out.
Why 1200 calories? In most cases, it’s just a number women have seen, read, heard or had some other source recommend to them. It’s a number that has been around for decades despite having no legitimate basis beyond being low enough to represent an (often large) deficit for damn near everyone. It could have just as easily been 1150 or 1250 instead and virtually nothing would be different.
Who Truly NEEDS To Eat 1200 Calories To Lose Weight?
The thinking for a lot of women is that 1200 calories is the amount that they legitimately need to eat in order to lose weight.
Meaning, anything more than that would simply be too much and weight loss wouldn’t happen. Therefore, a 1200 calorie diet is a requirement for them to reach their goals (or even make any progress at all).
The problem, however, is that this simply isn’t true for the majority of the female population.
In reality, the actual number of healthy adult women on this planet who truly need to eat as little as 1200 calories a day to lose weight is… low.
No, definitely not zero… but still low.
How low, you ask?
Comparatively speaking… very low.
Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it.
How Many Calories Do Women Really Need To Eat?
What this means is, in order to lose weight, you simply need to end up some degree below your maintenance level. For example, if you maintain your current weight eating 2500 calories per day, consistently eating some degree less than 2500 would make weight loss happen.
How far below your maintenance level should you go? Anywhere from 10-30% can have its place in different situations. But, generally speaking, 20% is a pretty solid/average deficit size to aim for.
With this in mind, let me show you just how unnecessary and unwarranted a 1200 calorie diet is for most women.
Realistic Calorie Estimates For Weight Loss: Example #1
One of the quickest, easiest and most common ways of estimating how many calories you need to eat per day to maintain your current weight is by multiplying your body weight (in pounds) by 14-16. So, for example, a 200lb person would estimate that they’d need to eat between 2800 – 3200 calories a day for maintenance. If they were to then create a deficit of 20% from that, they’d come up with 2240 – 2560 calories per day to lose weight.
Now, is this perfectly accurate all the time for every person? Absolutely not. It’s just one method that tends to be somewhat accurate for a lot of people. So, we’re gonna use it as our first example.
Let’s pretend we have a group of women who weigh as little as 110lbs to as much as 250lbs. I’m going to do all of the math we just did (multiply each body weight by 14-16 and then subtract a 20% deficit from it) for every woman in this imaginary group to show you the estimates for how many calories each would need to eat per day to lose weight…
- Weight: 110lbs
Estimate: 1232 – 1408 calories
- Weight: 125lbs
Estimate: 1400 – 1600 calories
- Weight: 150lbs
Estimate: 1680 – 1920 calories
- Weight: 175lbs
Estimate: 1960 – 2240 calories
- Weight: 200lbs
Estimate: 2240 – 2560 calories
- Weight: 225lbs
Estimate: 2520 – 2880 calories
- Weight: 250lbs
Estimate: 2800 – 3200 calories
Take a good look at these numbers.
These are the estimated daily calorie intakes needed for women at various weights to lose fat at a moderate rate. Note how the only time the estimate falls somewhere near 1200 calories is when it’s for a woman weighing around 110lbs. (Also note that, for most women – especially those of average height or taller – 110lbs is a weight that wouldn’t/shouldn’t warrant being in a deficit in the first place.)
But yet, women at every single one of these body weights (and every weight in between) will somehow assume or conclude that 1200 calories is the amount they need to be eating in order to lose weight. As you can see, however, based on this method of calculation, the majority would be wrong and attempting to eat hundreds of calories less than they truly need to be.
Realistic Calorie Estimates For Weight Loss: Example #2
Now let’s do the same thing all over again, this time using another common method for estimating maintenance needs: a fancy calculator.
Now, is it perfectly accurate all the time for every person? Absolutely not. But again, it tends to be fairly close for a lot of people, so we’re going to use it for this example.
Unlike the previous method (which was only based on body weight), this equation uses weight, height, age, gender and activity level to come up with its estimate. Since these are things that can vary quite a bit from person to person, I’m going to simply select “average” choices for pretty much everything.
Specifically, our examples will all be…
- 40 years old
- Lightly Active
Now I’m going to put in all of the body weights we used earlier, and then subtract a 20% deficit for each. Here’s what we get…
- Weight: 110lbs
Estimate: 1270 calories
- Weight: 125lbs
Estimate: 1346 calories
- Weight: 150lbs
Estimate: 1470 calories
- Weight: 175lbs
Estimate: 1595 calories
- Weight: 200lbs
Estimate: 1721 calories
- Weight: 225lbs
Estimate: 1846 calories
- Weight: 250lbs
Estimate: 1970 calories
Yes, different heights, ages and/or activity levels would certainly change these estimates. Specifically… someone who is sedentary, or shorter, or older would end up with lower numbers, whereas someone who is more active, taller or younger would end up with higher numbers.
But, for the sake of showing “average” examples, this is how many calories the “average” woman would need to eat to lose weight using this method of calculation.
Once again, take note of how many of these estimates are 1200 calories. Just like before, it’s primarily only the people at the lowest body weights (i.e. 110lbs or so) that truly warrant this low of a daily calorie intake to make weight loss happen.
Realistic Calorie Estimates For Weight Loss: Example #3
Let’s repeat this experiment one more time using another common method. Whereas multiplying your body weight by 14-16 is a typical recommendation for estimating maintenance calories (from which you’d then create a deficit), multiplying your body weight by 10-12 is a typical recommendation for estimating your calorie needs with that deficit already factored in.
So, let’s take our same imaginary group of women and see what we get…
- Weight: 110lbs
Estimate: 1100 – 1320 calories
- Weight: 125lbs
Estimate: 1250 – 1500 calories
- Weight: 150lbs
Estimate: 1500 – 1800 calories
- Weight: 175lbs
Estimate: 1750 – 2100 calories
- Weight: 200lbs
Estimate: 2000 – 2400 calories
- Weight: 225lbs
Estimate: 2250 – 2700 calories
- Weight: 250lbs
Estimate: 2500 – 3000 calories
Take note (again) of how it’s really only at the lowest body weights (and at the lower end of their estimated ranges) that we actually come to 1200. But yet again, women at all of these body weights (and everywhere in between) are under the impression that they need to be eating 1200 calories a day to lose weight. Based on this method of calculation, the majority would be wrong.
When we use three of the most common methods for estimating how many calories a person needs to eat per day to lose weight (and do so at a typically recommended rate), it is only at the lowest body weight (somewhere around 110lbs) that we actually arrive at a scenario when a 1200 calorie diet may be necessary. In most other cases, the person would be able to lose weight while eating hundreds of calories more than this.
Enough Estimates… What About The Real World?
I bet I know what you’re thinking right now, and you’d certainly be right for thinking it.
All of the numbers I’ve shown in these examples are just estimates. And, as I went out of my way to point out each time, they aren’t always accurate for everyone (hell, they even differ quite a bit from one method to another for the same person). Not to mention, I used “averages” for height, age and activity level in one of our examples, and many women will be above or below average in these categories.
So, instead of doing anymore guessing, assuming and estimating, let’s talk actual real-world experience.
In My Experience…
In the last 10+ years, I’ve helped literally thousands of women with their diet and weight loss related problems.
And I know, “thousands of women” seems like a silly exaggeration. But, think about it. Let’s say 5 different women asked me for help every day for 10 years (and honestly, that’s probably a low estimate… there are nearly 20 emails sitting in my inbox from today alone). That would be over 18,000 women. It seems insane, but it’s somehow true.
And in all of this time, with all of these different women of different ages, heights, weights, activity levels, body fat percentages, goals, and on and on and on… here’s what my experience has been:
- The majority of healthy adult women DO NOT need to eat 1200 calories a day to lose weight. That number ends up being unnecessarily/excessively low in most cases.
- Most women will successfully lose weight (at a typically recommended rate) with calorie intakes that are some degree above 1200, often by hundreds of calories… sometimes (specifically in the cases of those who have a lot of weight to lose and/or those who are very active) even by a thousand calories or more.
- Only a very small percentage of the women who come to me thinking that a 1200 calorie diet is warranted or ideal for them actually end up being right. They typically go on to lose weight while eating more calories than this, with most reaching their long-term goal without ever going as low as 1200.
- In the cases when 1200 calories has actually be warranted, the women tend to have at least some (or all) of the following characteristics in common: they’re short, at a low body weight, fairly lean and/or sedentary.
- In a lot of these cases, they’ve also been in a prolonged deficit for a while without any sort of meaningful break, often while doing excessive amounts of exercise and/or just generally having a lot of stress in their lives (much of which stems from trying to reach their fat loss goal). I mention this because these are factors that can cause an excessive amount of metabolic slowdown and water retention… both of which can easily lead to a person eating less than they should truly have to. A full 2 week diet break helps quite a bit to reverse it. (For everything you need to know about diets breaks, metabolic slowdown and water retention, check out Superior Fat Loss. I cover all of it in there.)
- In the cases when a person may legitimately require eating 1200 calories, refeed days would typically be in use as well (1-3 per week), thus bringing the person’s average daily calorie intake to something higher than 1200 (more about this in a minute).
- There is almost always some degree of unintentional miscalculating and under-reporting happening whenever a person is tracking calories on ANY weight loss diet, and it’s likely happening in many of these cases just the same. Meaning, it may come to be that a person doesn’t lose weight until they go down to eating 1200 calories a day. However, in reality and completely unbeknownst to them, they’re actually eating 1300 – 1800 calories (or more) at that point. They just think it’s 1200.
- There are certain cases where an underlying/untreated health issue is present (e.g. underactive thyroid) and affecting metabolic rate, thereby causing someone to have to eat fewer calories than they otherwise should need to in order to lose weight. If you suspect this might be your problem, checking things out with your doctor is the only way to find out for sure. I will note, however, that out of the surprisingly large number of women who assume this is indeed their problem, only a tiny percentage have actually ended up being right.
So, that’s my experience.
But what about the experience of others? Good question.
That’s why I decided to reach out to three people who I know have extensive experience helping people lose fat, and who have designed diets for countless women. Here’s what they had to say…
In Sohee Lee’s Experience…
First up is Sohee Lee.
If you don’t already know Sohee, she has a background that makes her one of the best people to ask about this topic. In addition to being a coach, IFPA bikini pro, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a Certified Sports Nutritionist, author (Eat Lift Thrive), and fellow fitness writer who gets plagiarized on a regular basis (fun times), she also struggled with an eating disorder for 8 years – hitting a scary low of 80lbs at her worst.
So, if anyone understands low calorie intakes from a variety of different perspectives, it’s Sohee.
Knowing this, I asked her if she ever has to go as low as 1200 calories with her female clients that are seeking fat loss.
She said yes, noting “particularly for the more petite women who are already fairly light.”
I then asked her to further describe the women who warrant this low of a calorie intake. She said…
Usually a combination of being short and petite working a sedentary job, as this meant they weren’t burning many calories throughout the day. Someone like me, for example, would fit that bill perfectly. I’m 5’2″ 107-110lbs throughout the year. If I were to diet down right now, I’d probably start out at around 1,500 cals per day given that my maintenance is around 1,800-2,000. And maybe in a month or so, depending on my progress, I’d drop my intake down to 1,350 with 2x/week refeed, then later 1,200 with 2x/week refeed. I wouldn’t stay long at this low of an intake, though.
She also described the women who may truly need to eat this amount as being…
Probably under 110lbs bodyweight – and again, usually only if the woman is also very sedentary throughout the day. Keep in mind I’ll almost always still throw in 2x/week refeed in there, so the average calorie intake actually ends up being higher.
She went on to add…
Keep in mind I almost never started them out at 1,200 calories right off at the bat; rather, we’d begin somewhere around 1,400-1,500 (with specific numbers varying depending on the individual, of course) and gradually work our way down as progress stalled. Hitting the 1,200 cals mark for some women is unfortunately inevitable in order to continue shedding body fat, but what’s important to remember here is that 1) it’s certainly not for everyone, 2) it should only be implemented when warranted, and 3) it’s not meant to be permanent. Meaning that eventually, the expectation is that calories will be brought back up once the diet is over (which hopefully doesn’t last too long).
The 3 Key Points
If you ask me, these are the three biggest points you should be taking away from what Sohee had to say:
- There are indeed some cases where certain women may need to go as low as 1200 calories to lose fat.
- These women are in a minority, however, and are typically always short, sedentary, and already at a low body weight (i.e. 110lbs).
- Even in the cases when 1200 calories is necessary, it’s important to remember that A) it’s often just a temporary thing that comes about near the end of a diet (after which calories would be brought back up), and B) she almost always includes 2 refeed days each week, which means 1200 calories are only really being eaten 5 days a week, with the other 2 days serving as higher calorie refeed days (which brings the average daily calorie intake for someone in this scenario to something greater than 1200).
In JC Deen’s Experience…
I ran these same questions by my buddy JC Deen, who of course is another experienced coach who has set up fat loss diets for a wide range of female clients.
He told me he pretty much never puts a client on a 1200 calorie diet. And that if he did, it would most likely occur due to…
…a combination of the woman being short, very lean (18% body fat or less), little activity outside of training, and/or thyroid or other endocrine issues (PCOS, diabetes, menopause, etc.).
In Dr. Spencer Nadolsky’s Experience…
And finally, we have Dr. Spencer Nadolsky.
If you’re not already familiar with the “doc who lifts,” Dr. Spencer is a licensed practicing board certified family and obesity physician, and a damn good person to run these questions by.
He told me he prescribes 1200 calories to as many as 30-50% of his female patients, but he also noted that his clinic population is different than the overall population of women on the internet (especially those interested in fitness), where of course a lower percentage of women would need to go this low in calories.
When I asked him to describe the type of female patient he might prescribe a 1200 calorie intake to, he said the following…
I would describe this person as a shorter, middle to older age female who is sedentary. You have a lot more wiggle room when you’re taller of course and able to be very active. The other thing to consider is that when you are burning so few of calories relatively you could have more than 1200 calories and lose weight. However, as you already know, most people under-report and underestimate how much they are eating, so a 1200 calorie diet may end up being more like 1500 to 1800 calories which is still hard to follow.
I then asked him what kind of role other common issues for females – namely hypothyroidism, PCOS and menopause – play in this. Here’s what he had to say…
As long as their thyroid is optimized with medicine, it shouldn’t play a role.
My PCOS (with also obesity/overweight, not the lean PCOS) patients seem to need more aggressive (lower) calorie amounts but this is likely secondary to under-reporting for the most part. There is a possible lowered thermic effect of food but it likely doesn’t make a huge difference. Same principles will apply.
Menopause may increase visceral fat deposition but again the same principles will apply.
It’s usually not a hormonal thing is the bottom line.
Everyone wants to blame it on hormones but in reality it’s a small role.
Based on the real-world experience of everyone above (myself included), there are indeed some women who may legitimately need to eat 1200 calories in order to lose weight (though depending if/how refeeds are used, the average daily calorie intake may actually end up being higher than that). However, these women make up a small minority of the female population, are virtually always both short and sedentary, and tend to also be at a low body weight (e.g. 110lbs), fairly lean and/or older. It’s important to also note the role that under-reporting and miscalculating can play in making a person think they need a calorie intake this low to lose when in reality they’re losing while eating more than they realize.
“But My Personal Experience Has Been Different!”
This is the point where some women may be wondering why their own personal real-world experience with their own diet and their own body conflicts with what has been said here so far.
Specifically, how they’ve found that they simply don’t lose any weight unless they eat 1200 calories a day. Even when they do not fit the description of someone who should truly need to eat 1200 calories, and even when they are actually pretty damn far away from fitting that description… it’s still what they’ve found to be true.
In fact, THIS is why they arrived at 1200 in the first place. They were “supposed” to be able to lose weight while eating something higher – let’s pretend 2000 calories. But that didn’t work. So, they went down to 1800, and that didn’t work. From there? 1600… and still nothing. 1400? Nope. 1200? Bingo!
How Do I Explain This?
Well, assuming there is no untreated health issue present, it’s actually pretty simple, and it comes down to two extremely common mistakes…
- You were doing a poor job of accurately tracking your progress.
So, you WERE losing fat on higher calorie intakes, you just didn’t track your progress well enough, accurately enough, consistently enough or long enough to actually see that it was happening.
- You were unknowingly eating more calories than you thought.
When you were eating 2000? You were really eating 2500. When you were eating 1800? You were really eating 2300. 1600 was really 2100. 1400 was really 1900. And 1200? That’s really the 1700 (or whatever) you may have truly needed to be eating in order to be in a deficit and make weight loss happen.
How is it possible for these types of mistakes to be made, you ask?
Stay tuned, we’re going to cover that in a minute.
Could A 1200 Calorie Diet Still Be Ideal… Even If It’s Not Necessary?
Now for an important question that I know some people are going to have.
And that is, even though it’s pretty clear by now that a 1200 calorie diet is unnecessary/unwarranted for the majority of women trying to lose weight, could it still be ideal to use anyway?
Meaning, even if you could eat 1500, or 1800, or 2000, or 2300 or whatever other amount of calories a day to lose weight at a good/moderate rate, could it still be beneficial to go down to 1200 calories anyway?
Ehhhh, in my experience… no.
The Answer Is Almost Always No
Aside from cases where a doctor will need to (temporarily) put their patient on a very low calorie diet for some type of health/medical reason, I would say that an unnecessarily low calorie diet will usually be much more counterproductive to fat loss than it would be beneficial.
And for most women, a 1200 calorie diet would qualify as “an unnecessarily low calorie diet.”
But wait… what’s that you say?
“But I’ll lose weight faster!! I don’t care that it will be harder! I’ll suck it up and push through! I just want to lose weight fast and 1200 calories will get me there!”
Yeah, I’ve heard this before. And yes, on paper, it should work faster. After all, the less you’re eating, the larger your deficit is. And the larger your deficit, the faster your rate of weight loss will be. It’s just simple math, really.
There’s just one tiny problem with this: it rarely works out this way in the real world.
Here are the 3 main reasons why…
1. It’s Not Sustainable In the Short-Term
The biggest problem with diets that are unnecessarily/excessively low in calories (as 1200 would be for most people) is that damn near every single physiological and psychological aspect of losing weight will be at its worst.
- Hunger and appetite.
- Metabolic slowdown/adaptive thermogenesis.
- Hormonal adaptations (leptin, ghrelin, testosterone, cortisol, thyroid, etc.).
- Muscle loss.
- Strength loss.
- Performance loss.
- Lethargy and fatigue.
- Libido and sexual function.
- Sleep quality.
- Awareness of food.
- Obsession with food.
And guess what happens when all of these things are at their worst? You become much less likely to actually sustain your diet because it’s simply too damn hard.
And when that happens, not only do you NOT lose weight faster… you fail to lose weight, period.
The way I usually see it go is like this…
A person will attempt to eat 1200 calories a day (or maybe even less) and be able to successfully do it… for a day. Hell, maybe even a couple of days. If they’re really lucky? Maybe a week.
But then, as all of the problems on the list above get worse and worse and worse, a breaking point is eventually reached. And when that breaking point is reached, a massive binge (sometimes lasting for days) takes place. And it’s usually to a degree that cancels out whatever unnecessarily/excessively large deficit the person successfully managed to create the day(s) before, thus preventing any weight loss from happening and potentially even leading to weight gain (among other problems).
Which means, in the end, while it may seem like 1200 calories a day will allow you to lose weight faster than something more moderate, the reality is that it’s much more likely to have the opposite effect.
2. It’s Not Sustainable In The Long-Term
Now let’s pretend that a person someone managed to stick to their unnecessarily/excessively low calorie diet long enough to reach their long-term weight loss goal.
Congrats. All that’s left to do now is maintain these results for the rest of your life.
And therein lies the second big problem.
How do you maintain your results for the long-term after getting those results using a method that isn’t actually maintainable?
This, right here, is why so many people regain the weight they lose. This is why “yo-yo dieting” is so common.
People approach weight loss using unnecessary methods that conflict with their personal needs or preferences (e.g. using a low carb diet when you really love eating carbs), or an extreme method that isn’t ideal for overall physical/mental health (e.g. very low calorie diets, crash diets, fad diets), or really any method that simply cannot be permanently maintained… and then when the time comes to permanently maintain those results… they’re screwed.
Instead of learning the fundamentals of weight loss, and how to properly adjust things based on their specific needs and preferences, and developing the necessary habits and dietary skills required for long-term success, they just went with a short-term method that doesn’t really help them at all with long-term maintenance.
So even in the rare cases when a person might be able to do this long enough for it to actually work, they’re likely to eventually end up right back where they started.
3. It Can Negatively Affect Physical And Mental Health
In addition to unnecessarily low calorie diets being hard as hell to maintain in the short-term and impossible to maintain in the long-term, there are two potential health-related problems that become increasingly more likely to occur the lower your calorie intake gets…
- Nutrient deficiencies.
We all have a certain amount of macronutrients and micronutrients we need to eat each day to sustain life and proper function. And the thing about eating 1200 calories a day is that it’s a really small amount of food. So, if you’re not planning things out just right, it becomes surprisingly easy to fall short somewhere.
- The potential for eating disorders.
Another big problem with unnecessarily/excessively low calorie diets is that they often come with/lead to an unhealthy obsession with food. And once that happens… the doors are open to the potential for disordered eating habits to initially develop (e.g. anorexia/bulimia) or for a relapse to be triggered… plus all of the problems that come along with it.
While some may assume that an unnecessarily/excessively low calorie diet will lead to better/faster weight loss than something more moderate, the reality is that the opposite often happens. There are a ton of adaptive factors that make it too hard to sustain in the short-term, additional factors that prevent any successful weight loss achieved from being maintained for the long-term, and the potential for problems involving physical and/or mental health become more likely. For all of these reasons, I don’t recommend eating any less than you truly need to.
“I’m Eating 1200 Calories But I’m Not Losing Weight!”
And now the last big topic that needs to be covered here.
I’m of course talking about the common idea that a person is “eating 1200 calories a day but still isn’t losing weight.”
This is something I hear from women ALL… THE… TIME.
And again, I hear it from women of all different heights, weights and ages, with all kinds of different activity levels, with anywhere from 5lbs to 100lbs to lose.
But yet, somehow, someway, they’re all not losing weight despite eating an amount as low as 1200 calories.
Now, at this point, if you were thinking “hmmm, that seems weird,” you’d be thinking the right thing.
After all, if only a small minority of the female population – most of which fit a very specific description (short, sedentary, low body weight, etc.) – truly need to be eating 1200 calories to lose weight in the first place, how is it possible that so many women are eating this amount and NOT losing any weight at all?
The answer is actually quite simple: this isn’t really happening.
How Many Women Are REALLY Eating 1200 Calories A Day And Still Not Losing?
Let’s see… how shall I put this?
Okay, I got it.
Over the last 10+ years, do you know how many women have told me that they’re eating 1200 calories per day (or even less) but aren’t losing any weight?
Hundreds, if not thousands.
Now, out of this huge number of women, do you know how many of them have ended up being right?
Rough ballpark estimate off the top of my head, I’d say… zero.
As in… literally not a single person.
How could this be possible, you ask? Here are the three most common ways…
Mistake #1: They’re Unknowingly Eating More Than 1200 Calories
The #1 reason why a person is eating 1200 calories a day and not losing weight is because they aren’t actually eating 1200 calories a day.
Rather, they are unknowingly making some kind of mistake somewhere in the tracking of their calorie intake and/or output that is causing them to eat more (and/or burn less) than they think they are.
Some people underestimate the quantity of food they consume (like thinking you ate 1 serving when you really ate 2 or more), while others underestimate the amount of calories it contained (like thinking a meal was 500 calories when it was really 1000). Some underestimate both. This is something nutritionists and diet professionals see over and over again to shocking degrees of significance. In fact, one study showed that people trying to lose weight underestimated their calorie intake by an average of 47%… which is huge.
- Tracking Mistakes
Many people just screw up during the serving-size-measuring process and take significantly more food than they think they’re taking. It happens all the time, especially when using measuring spoons, measuring cups or just eyeballing it and taking your best guess (instead of using a digital food scale). This old (and kinda overdramatic) video from Leigh Peele shows how easily it can happen…
Then you have people who are under the impression that there are special clean foods, healthy foods, superfoods, negative calorie foods or whatever else that they can eat unlimited amounts of and not count. As if they contain magical calories. Or those that eat “tiny” amounts of food here and there and assume it’s so insignificant that they don’t even need to bother counting it. In reality, these “I-didn’t-even-realize-it” calories can add up pretty quickly. Here’s a common real-world example of this in action. In addition, some people simply forget what (or how much) they ate and end up accidentally not counting it for that reason alone.
As odd as it may seem, many people just flat out lie about how much they’re truly eating. Why? Usually because they’re too embarrassed to admit what/how much they eat (even to themselves), yet apparently not too embarrassed to continuously fail to lose weight because of it.
Now take everything I said before about how people underestimate calorie intake, and change it to overestimate calorie output. Studies show this to be similarly significant, like this one which saw subjects overestimate calories burned via exercise (e.g. cardio) by an average of 51%… which is huge.
Here’s an example of what this might look like over the course of a week…
The person in this example is intending to eating 1200 calories a day, but they are making mistakes somewhere that lead to them eating more than they think they are… whether they realize it or not.
Additional details here: Why Am I Not Losing Weight?
Mistake #2: They’re Eating 1200 Calories… Some Of The Time
Next up we have cases where a person IS legitimately eating 1200 calories like they claim… but only PART of the time.
The other part of the time, they are overeating/bingeing enough to cancel out the deficit they created, therefore putting them at maintenance (or sometimes even a surplus) by the end of the week.
Here’s an example.
Let’s pretend we have a person with a maintenance level of 2100 calories. A solid moderate deficit for them would be somewhere between 1600-1700 calories per day. However, they decide to overly restrict themselves and eat 1200 calories instead. Here’s what often happens next…
The person in this example IS successfully eating 1200 calories a day like they intended to… but only 4 out of the 7 days.
Even worse, the extreme hunger that is caused by an unnecessarily/excessively low calorie diet like this is making them overeat/binge on the other 3 days, and do so to a degree that wipes out any deficit created on the other days… thereby putting them at their maintenance level for the week and preventing weight loss from happening.
This is how you get people saying they’re “eating 1200 calories a day but not losing weight.” Even better, imagine that the binge days in this example went even higher in calories. That’s how you get people saying that they’re “eating 1200 calories a day but somehow gaining weight.”
There’s no “somehow” involved here. It’s just simple math.
Mistake #3: They’re Inaccurately Tracking Their Progress
Another way that a person ends up claiming to be eating 1200 calories a day but not losing is because they aren’t tracking their progress accurately (e.g. not weighing yourself properly) and/or not understanding the difference between weight loss and fat loss.
In cases like this, it’s extremely easy to let TEMPORARY gains in some other form of “weight” (e.g. water, glycogen, poop, food waiting to be digested) TEMPORARILY hide your fat loss progress on the scale by counterbalancing the weight of the fat you’re losing.
So really, the person IS losing fat, they just don’t realize it because the scale isn’t showing it yet.
This is a topic I cover in detail right here: 12 Causes Of Unexplained Weight Gain
“But What About Starvation Mode?”
When a person claims to be eating 1200 calories a day but isn’t losing weight, they’ll often ignore all 3 of the mistake-based reasons we just covered, and instead conclude that they have entered a dreaded state known as “starvation mode.”
For anyone who isn’t aware, starvation mode is a supposed state a person falls into when they’re “not eating enough calories.” Basically, the person’s calorie intake is so low (and their deficit is so big) that their body supposedly holds on to all of their fat… thus preventing them from losing any weight (or sometimes even causing them to gain some) despite being in a large caloric deficit.
Cool story, right?
Here’s a fun fact about it: it’s complete bullshit.
A deficit will ALWAYS cause weight to be lost. Whether the deficit is small, moderate, large or excessively large, it’s still going to cause some form of stored energy (fat, muscle or both) to be burned as an alternative fuel source.
This is why starving children in Africa are deathly skinny. This is why Holocaust victims in concentration camps were deathly skinny. The is why the participants of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment were deathly skinny. This is why anorexics reach deathly skinny levels. This is why reality show contestants on survival-based reality shows (e.g. Survivor, Naked and Afraid, etc.) lose a ton of weight while there.
No matter how large the deficit is – even if you are literally starving to death – body fat will continue to be lost. The idea that it won’t is complete horseshit.
So, if you ever come to the conclusion that you’re in starvation mode, I can guarantee you that you’re not… because it doesn’t exist.
Full details here: The Starvation Mode Myth
And some more here: How Eating More Calories Can Make You Lose Weight
And definitely here: The Truth About “Metabolic Damage”
There are countless women claiming to be eating 1200 calories a day but not losing weight, and damn near all of them are wrong. In reality, they are unknowingly eating more than they think they are, inconsistently eating the amount they claim to be, or tracking their progress in a manner that prevents them from seeing that it’s working. Also, bonus fact: starvation mode is bullshit.
The Big Point To Everything You Just Read
If I had to sum up the biggest point of this article in a single sentence, it would be this:
The goal of every person trying to lose weight should be to eat the maximum amount of calories possible that still produces an acceptable, healthy and sustainable rate of weight loss for them.
If this legitimately ends up being 1200 calories for you, cool.
But for the vast majority of the female population trying to lose weight, it’s going to be something higher than that. And in these cases, attempting to go with a 1200 calorie diet anyway is likely to do more harm than good.
(By the way, if you need help figuring out how many calories you actually need to be eating, I cover that here: How Many Calories Should I Eat?)