Could the 1,200 Calorie Diet Harm Your Weight-Loss Progress?

If you want to lose weight, you’ve likely considered following a 1,200-calorie diet and mapping out your meals. The 1,200-calorie diet was curated to help individuals achieve a calorie deficit without depriving them of some of the foods they love most. Research indicates that sticking with a low-calorie diet, such as the 1,200-calorie diet, can be beneficial in one’s weight-loss journey.

However, what works for one person may not be an ideal course of action for another. Some find a structured eating regimen like this beneficial, while others may feel it’s too limiting and question its long-term sustainability. This leads to one question: “Could the 1,200-calorie diet harm your weight-loss progress?”

We chatted with a registered dietitian who breaks down everything to know about the 1,200-calorie diet and how it can affect weight-loss efforts.

The 1,200-calorie diet doesn’t take into account each individual’s unique daily calorie needs.

woman eating apple after workout

As previously noted, a 1,200-calorie diet structured around weight loss aims to establish a calorie deficit, aka consuming fewer calories than your body uses.

“The problem with recommending a 1,200-calorie diet to everyone is that it does not [consider] each individual’s daily caloric needs,” explains Courtney Pelitera, MS, RD, CNSC, a registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition and wellness nutrition from Top Nutrition Coaching. “The majority of your caloric needs come from your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the energy your body needs to simply perform daily functions—breathing, digesting, growing hair and skin, keeping your heart beating, maintaining hormone production, etc. This number [will] change based mainly on a person’s body size.

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Research shows that your time at the gym only makes up for a small portion of your daily calorie use. “[In addition,] the thermic effect of food (how many calories it takes to break down food to use as energy) accounts for about 10% of daily caloric intake,” Pelitera points out.

When Pelitera determines an adult’s approximate BMR, it’s typically close to or over 1,200 calories a day for the average female and over 1,200 calories for the average male.

“When we now factor in any kind of activity, even a 20 to 30-minute walk per day, this [will] increase total calorie needs just to maintain good health,” she says. “If someone is eating below their estimated BMR needs, this can inhibit normal, daily body functions.”

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Can the 1,200-calorie diet negatively impact your weight-loss progress?

calories calculated

If consuming 1,200 calories is lower than your estimated metabolic rate, this eating plan can absolutely have harmful effects, Pelitera stresses.

“When we add in exercise and increased daily movement, which I often see with people trying to lose weight, we can put the body in even greater of a deficit, below baseline needs,” she tells us. “The most common way that this can hinder weight-loss effects is that the ‘hunger hormones’ ghrelin (cues hunger) and leptin (cues fullness) can be inhibited, making it very difficult for people to tell if they are satisfied after meals or still hungry, especially when we see people in this caloric deficit for a prolonged period of time.”

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It’s also important to note that as the number on the scale goes down, your BMR also decreases. This means that as you drop weight, your calories will need to be further restricted to continue to see long-term results, Pelitera says.

“This is where I see starting with 1,200 calories to be very problematic,” she explains. “It is extremely difficult to eat less than 1,200 calories or even 1,200 itself and have [the] energy to get through your day-to-day life.”

Should You Track Your Calories? A Dietitian Weighs In

A constructive alternative to the 1,200-calorie diet:

close-up woman's hand food journaling

Now that Pelitera has established that 1,200 calories may be an arbitrary (and unsustainable) daily goal, what’s a more constructive alternative?

Well, she suggests keeping track of how many calories you currently consume for three straight days. Then, calculate the average of those three amounts. This will give you a solid baseline for the number of calories you consume daily. Then, take that daily average and subtract 300 to 500 calories from it. You’ll now have your new daily calorie goal.

“Alternatively, you could use a BMR calculator to calculate your BMR + activity factor (how active you are). You could then use this number and subtract 300 to 500 to get a daily calorie goal,” Pelitera offers.

It’s important to note that these calculations are just estimates. “There is no accurate way to know how many calories you are burning every single day without being hooked up to a ventilator,” says Pelitera. “Check your calculations by tracking your food daily for accuracy and checking your weight multiple times [weekly]. Since we know weight fluctuates as much as five to seven pounds throughout the week, track your average weight each week. Adjust your calories accordingly. Healthy weight loss is considered losing one-half to two pounds per week.”

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It’s always wise to consult a healthcare professional before trying any new diet or weight-loss regimen.

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