The 1,200-Calorie Diet May Actually Hinder Your Weight Loss Goals

The 1,200-Calorie Diet May Actually Hinder Your Weight Loss Goals

When you’re on a weight loss journey, there’s a common misconception that a 1,200-calorie diet is the “correct” amount you need to shed those few extra pounds. But here’s the thing: This isn’t necessarily the case, and too few calories can have the opposite effect on your weight loss goals.

As the name suggests, a 1,200-calorie diet is a type of low-calorie diet plan that restricts daily caloric intake to approximately 1,200 calories a day, says Diala Alatassi, MD, a board-certified internal and obesity medicine physician at Endeavor Health Medical Group. The goal of a 1,200-calorie diet is to create a calorie deficit, which can, in theory, lead to weight loss.

That said, 1,200 calories a day is generally not enough to support your overall health, especially if you include any sort of exercise into your lifestyle, says Alex Larson, RD, a registered dietitian and founder of Alex Larson Nutrition. We'll get into why in just a sec.

Meet the experts: Diala Alatassi, MD, is a board-certified internal and obesity medicine physician at Endeavor Health Medical Group. Alex Larson, RD, is a registered dietitian and founder of Alex Larson Nutrition. Kim Shapira, RD, is a registered dietitian and founder of the Kim Shapira Method.

Curious how many calories you really need in a day? Keep scrolling for everything you need to know about calculating your caloric needs and how to create a balanced, weight loss-friendly meal.

Is 1,200 calories per day good for weight loss?

In most cases, no. Prolonged calorie restriction can actually slow metabolism because your body senses that food is scarce and lowers the rate in which it burns existing calories, says Dr. Alatassi. And while you may initially lose weight from a 1,200-calorie diet, transitioning out of this eating plan can lead to rebound weight gain, she explains.

Plus, excessive calorie restriction can lead to bone and muscle loss, brain fog, constipation, dizziness, fatigue, headaches, hormone imbalances, and poor immune function. Read: It throws off your whole bod.

As a result, if you’re going to try a 1,200-calorie diet, you *need* to talk with your healthcare provider first, says Dr. Alatassi. Why? It’s generally not sustainable for long-term health for the average person and you may run the risk of nutritional deficiencies, she explains. “Consulting with a registered dietitian or healthcare professional is crucial to assess individual needs, monitor risks, and ensure the diet is safe and appropriate while prioritizing overall health and well-being.”

How many calories do you actually need to lose weight?

The number of calories you need in a day depends on your age, sex, weight, activity level, overall health, and basal metabolic rate (BMR), says Dr. Alatassi. FYI: Your BMR is the number of calories you need to maintain basic physiological functions like thinking, going to the bathroom, and taking deep breaths.

On average, a typical adult woman needs about 1,800 calories a day, says Kim Shapira, RD, a registered dietitian and founder of the Kim Shapira Method. Consuming less than that can lead to nutritional deficiencies, a lack of energy, gastrointestinal distress, anxiety, and reduced cognitive function, she adds.

It’s always best to consult a physician or dietitian to determine your exact caloric needs, but two nifty formulas—known as the Mifflin-St. Jeor or Harris-Benedict equations—can provide a rough estimate. If your goal is to lose weight, you then subtract around 500 calories per day to theoretically lose one pound per week, adds Larson.

The most popular formula is the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation which calculates your BMR.

For women, the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation is:

BMR = (10 x weight in kg) + (6.25 x height in cm) – (5 x age in years) – 161.

So, for a 25-year-old woman who is 5’4 and weighs 150 pounds, this would be: BMR= (10 x 68) + (6.25 x 163) – (5 x 25) – 161 = about 1,413 calories.

The Harris-Benedict equation is also used for estimating your caloric needs, and may even be more accurate than the Mifflin-St. Jeor method.

For women, the Harris-Benedict equation is:

BMR = 655.1 + (9.563 x weight in kg ) + (1.850 x height in cm) – (4.676 x age in years).

For the same 150-pound woman, this would be: BMR= 655.1 + (9.563 x 68) + (1.850 x 163) – (4.676 x 25) = about 1,490 calories.

With that in mind, just remember that any equation is meant to provide a ~loose~ estimate on your caloric needs and is not a hard-and-fast rule. In fact, your results may be slightly different depending on which formula you use, as seen above.

Your caloric needs may also change from one day to the next based on your activity, stress, and overall health, says Shapira. Listening to your body and adjusting your intake accordingly will help with long-term weight loss and management, she explains.

9 Ways To Make A Healthy Weight Loss Meal

Once you determine your caloric needs, the following tips can help you craft a healthy, weight loss-friendly meal.

1. Consume more protein.

Eating high-protein foods can help support muscle maintenance, enhances satiety, and aids in weight loss, so incorporate lean protein like fish, poultry, beans, legumes, tofu, or soy into every meal, says Dr. Alatassi.

2. Eat more colorful fruits and veggies.

Aim to fill up half your plate with fruits and vegetables, says Larson. “They are filling to eat, lower in calories, and high in micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber,” she explains.

3. Choose healthy fats.

Opt for healthy fats such as olive, grapeseed, avocado, or sunflower oil when cooking, says Larson. Not only can healthy fats lower the risk of developing heart disease, but research out of UCLA Health suggests they can also improve cholesterol levels, control blood sugar, and reduce inflammation.

4. Opt for complex carbs.

When choosing carbohydrates, Larson recommends looking for whole-grain complex carbs such as quinoa, brown rice, and whole-grain pasta or breads. They’re more filling since they take longer to digest, are high in fiber, and less likely to cause spikes in your blood sugar.

5. Focus on whole foods.

Base your meals on whole, minimally processed foods, says Dr. Alatassi. Think: lean protein, fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, and legumes. These foods provide essential nutrients and contribute to a feeling of fullness, ultimately supporting weight loss, she adds.

6. Be aware of portion control.

It’s easier said than done, but Dr. Alatassi recommends listening to your body's hunger and fullness cues to avoid overeating and choose nutrient-dense options to maximize essential nutrients without excess calories. Using smaller plates can also help manage portion size, she adds.

7. Practice mindful eating.

“Practice mindful eating by savoring flavors and chewing slowly,” says Dr. Alatassi. It’s also best to avoid distractions during meals, like watching TV or scrolling TikTok, as this enhances awareness of satiety signals and prevents overeating, she explains.

8. Stay hydrated.

You’ve likely heard it before, but it’s crucial to drink at least eight cups of water every day, says Shapira. “We need to hydrate to help our cells detox, and water is the secret sauce,” she explains. And no, coffee doesn’t count! Whenever possible, choose water as your primary bev.

9. Eat what you love.

Weight loss does not need to be rooted in restriction. “Eat what you love when you are hungry,” says Shapira. This can help move away from the notion that foods are either “good” or “bad” and sets you up for a long-term healthy lifestyle, she adds.

Ultimately, the 1,200-calorie diet may not be the most sustainable weight loss approach since 1,200 calories is too few for most people. Enjoying nourishing, well-balanced meals is likely more helpful—but always consult your healthcare provider or a dietitian to determine what's best for you and your body.

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