The 1200 Calorie Diet: The Truth Exposed!

4 October 2023

Ryan Pinto

My Muscle Chef Advanced Sports Dietitian

When we think about weight loss, instantly our mind goes into cutting calories from wherever we can. Often inspired by the weight loss influencers, some of us go to dramatic measures, like low calorie diets, to shed the kilos quickly.

Many trending low calorie diets claim to be quick fixes and super speedy paths to weight loss. While following these trending diets can legitimately boost the ability for you to trim up quickly, the real question is do they actually offer verifiable overall health benefits?

Will reducing your intake of calories help you with sustainable weight loss or simply short-term weight loss? And how many calories can you actually eat? We answer the most asked questions about the 1200 calorie diet!

What is a 1200 calorie diet?

If you have tried to lose weight, or are currently looking for a healthy weight loss solution, the chances are you have tried to reduce your calorie intake or have come across a 1200 calorie diet plan when doing your research.

But what is a 1200 calorie intake and is it actually a smart weight loss solution?

Put simply, a 1200 calorie diet involves utilising a low calorie meal plan that is limited to a maximum of 1200 calories consumed per day. It is one of very many low calorie diets popular today. Most people will look to such weight loss approaches when trying to shed weight and achieve fat loss but don’t want to feel like they are ‘dieting’ for months.

For many, a 1200 calorie diet is a short-term solution to weight loss, for example, to squeeze into that favourite pair of shorts coming into our Australian summer season or to slim down before a holiday or event. Whilst it can offer positive health benefits, it should only be used as a strategic weight loss option for an absolute maximum of 2-4 weeks.

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What does 1200 calories a day look like as a meal plan?

So what does a 1200 calorie diet look like as a meal plan? With only 1200 calories, your daily nutrient needs to be made up of nutrient-dense foods to ensure you’re meeting your nutritional needs while also experiencing weight loss. Doing so is necessary because with only 1200 calories there's no room for foods that aren’t totally nutritious! So, where possible, it is important to squeeze your calorie intake for all it has by consuming whole foods such as lean proteins, carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables. Despite carrying fewer calories, you can get all the macronutrients, vitamins and minerals your body needs!

Here is what a 1200 calorie diet looks like on a plate:

At the end of the day, it is not a low calorie diet to be limiting yourself to for a long period of time, however by prioritising calorie restriction in your meal plan while still consuming whole foods like in the example above, you can still ensure you are not missing out on important nutrients when consuming less calories.

What does science say about the 1200 calorie diet?

Whilst the 1200 calorie diet can help you to lose weight fast, extending it past 2-4 weeks can often result in more harm than good. Over-restricting and under-nourishing yourself with a low calorie diet can often leave you feeling depleted of energy, fatigued and unable to get through your day. A prolonged period of calorie restriction can also leave you craving all those foods you are limiting, which in some cases can result in ignoring your future meal plan, eating more calories from highly refined food and weight regain. This can create a vicious cycle, which can have a negative impact on your mood, energy levels and sleep patterns.

Over the long term, a low calorie diet like this can have huge impacts on your physical and mental well-being, as well as imbalances in hormones and your immune function. A low calorie diet can also impair your ability to lose weight and can negatively impact your long-term bone health. For females, maintaining a calorie deficit diet for an extended amount of time could also affect their blood sugar levels as well as their ability to reproduce: as they can lose their menstruation cycle. So for both short-term and long-term results, your goal should be to have a sustainable approach to weight loss to assist with maintaining blood sugar levels in addition to hormone and immune health.

Can very low calorie diets be harmful?

Very low calorie diets can easily be interpreted as disordered eating, so people reducing calorie intake should be careful if they have been calorie counting and trying to fundamentally remove high calorie foods from their meal plans for a long time. Reducing calories can be done in a healthy way: while still eating healthy fats, and other food groups and meeting your foundational calorie needs.

Can I eat 1200 calories a day to lose weight in a healthy way?

The short answer is yes -you can lose weight in a healthy way on a 1200 calorie diet. When done right, the 1200 calorie diet can be an effective way to kick start your weight loss journey and give you the motivation you need to keep going as you begin to lose weight.

However, navigating this diet can be tricky. The aim is to focus on nutrient dense foods (not calorie dense) and aim to transition to a sustainable long term diet which meets your nutrition requirements and recommended caloric intake. Initially, when starting a 1200 calorie diet, it is ideal to do so at a time when you’re not highly stressed, physically exerted or putting time aside to prioritise your health. When transitioning into a diet that meets your requirements it is recommended to use a calorie calculator to balance your daily nutrition requirements with your desire to lose weight. Alternatively, you may speak to a registered dietitian to create a plan for restricting calories tailored to your needs.

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What does a sustainable approach to restricting calories look like?

In general, daily calorie requirements for a healthy Australian individual ranges from 26-45 calories per kilogram of body weight per day. For healthy average weight loss goals, reducing your intake of calories by around 500 calories per day can lead to ½ kg weight loss per week.

This number can be used as a starting point when planning and developing a sustainable intake for the long term. It allows each person to have an intake individualised for their body weight. This can be altered depending on how your day looks. For example, you may choose to slightly lower your total intake of calories on rest days or less active days or increase it on days where you may be exercising. Good nutrition requires you to plan ahead and take into account your current daily intake of calories, your current weight, your natural body size and other factors. Reducing the calories you consume to lose weight can be done safely, but your current weight should be monitored during the exercise to ensure you do not consume too few calories in too short of a time as you try to achieve your goal weight. This can be classified as disordered eating and can lead to the problems listed above.

Guidelines for a sustainable weight loss approach

There are a few key guidelines to follow when following a sustainable weight loss approach. These include:

  • Consuming smaller frequent meals to help increase your metabolism, stabilise your energy levels and keep you full throughout the day or during times when you typically do not feel hungry.

  • Something above anticipating the time when you tend to feel hungry and planning protein-rich, nutrient-dense snacks to help limit unwanted snacking

  • Consuming more protein across the day ensures your body keeps burning fat, to feed your muscles and assist in satiety and craving control. You should aim to have a source of protein in each main meal and snack to keep you full throughout the day.

  • Consuming more fibre improves digestion and digestive health, and also keeps you fuller for longer! Aiming for 30 grams of fibre per day is recommended.

  • Drinking more water to keep you hydrated and ensure you aren’t confusing thirst signals for hunger signals

  • Ensuring main meals are nutrient-dense and when losing weight ⅓-½ of the plate filled with veg

Prioritise healthy habits and nutrition!

Overall it is important to build a healthy habit around your approach to weight loss and overall health by prioritising nutritious foods, movement and finding a balance you can maintain consistently as you eat fewer calories and achieve your goal weight.

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