The Case For (and Against) the 1200-Calorie Diet

It’s a number heard so frequently and with so little context that many times, women who are trying to lose weight don’t know if it’s the right way to turn or the wrong one.

I’ve even had some exceptional female coaches on my podcast who criticize the number, claiming it’s too low.

It would be easy for me to cough up some general stats about this as it pertains to my clients but I see 1200 calories come up so frequently in my consultations that I decided to dig deeper and go right to the source.

Some background: I currently train (online and face-to-face) 94 clients. Of that 94, 55 are female (approximately 60%). Of that 55, 48 are with me for weight loss.

I went through every file of these women to check the parameters that dictate where someone might fall to lose fat mass. In case you don’t know the factors involved it’s: age, gender, height, level of daily activity and ratio of fat to lean muscle mass.

There are a multitude of algorithms on the internet designed to help you understand how many calories your body needs just to maintain its current weight and keep your health optimal. Anything less than that number would contribute to weight loss, anything more would contribute to weight gain (if consistent over time).

What did I find? I found that of the 48 women who are currently training with me for fat loss, 12 of them will lose weight on 1200 calories a day (1500 calories at maintenance with a 20% reduction) and an additional 11 will lose weight on 1300 calories a day (1600 calories at maintenance with a 20% reduction). That means that nearly half of all the women I train are on the lower end of a given spectrum for weight loss. I should note that MOST (not all) of these clients qualify as sedentary.

If we remember that all numbers are estimates, there may be some room to wiggle but perhaps not much.

However, let’s zero in on those 12 women who are at 1200 calories a day to lose weight. What do they have in common? For frame of reference the age gap between these women was as young as 22 and up to 71 years of age. They each had about 100 pounds of lean muscle mass. Most of these women are sedentary but a small handful are on their feet most of the day (the way you might consider a teacher or hairstylist). They had a median weight of 150 pounds.

What differentiated the women who need 1200 calories to lose versus the ones who need 1300 to lose? By and large, the women who could lose (at approximately the same rate) who were allotted 1300 calories either had more lean muscle mass or they were more active. When I say active, I don’t mean how often they exercise, rather how active their actual daily life is in comparison. Bear in mind, it seems silly to be squabbling over a 100 calorie difference BUT if you’re dieting, you know how much you appreciate having a 100 calorie buffer.

I was asked by a client once if she could just stay at her 1500 calorie maintenance and just train harder/more frequently. The answer: it depends.

Yes, in theory, you could train harder to lose weight but it’s incredibly difficult to quantify caloric burn even with some crafty and expensive trackers that we wear on our wrists. These are estimates and the body will adjust to your cardiovascular expenditure. So, over time, you’ll have to work harder, longer, faster, or higher to burn the same amount of calories.

This is why we try to focus on “intake” for weight loss as the priority rather than how many calories you “think” you burned in boot camp.

For the record, I don’t like telling a client that 1200 calories is the number to aim for. As you can see, 25% of my clientele is facing that number and another nearly 25% isn’t far off.

I should also add that any person on a fat loss program should embark against any number with skepticism. Could you lose fat mass at 1500 calories a day? Try it. See what happens. If you’re not losing, dial down by 100 calories and watch your trend.

The females I train who are allotted the most calories are either the ones who weigh the most (by comparison to the median 150) or they have substantially more lean muscle mass. A larger person by comparison needs more energy to keep the body functioning at an optimal level. As an individual loses fat mass, calories will need to come down gradually over time because a smaller person requires fewer calories to exist.

I also have to mention that menstrual cycles, hormonal fluctuations, lack of sleep, abundance of stress, medications (anti-depressants, anti-anxieties, blood pressure meds, etc.) and environmental factors can make it hard for any woman to diet.

To this point, there may be times throughout a given month or training cycle when you should not be at a deficit because of the stress it places on your body. For some women, they need to be at maintenance or slightly above during their menstrual cycle.

If you’re constantly training for an endurance event (marathons, obstacle races, etc.), if you’re a competitive athlete (soccer, basketball, lacrosse, etc.) if you’re frequenting HIIT classes, boot camps or CrossFit, it’s likely that 1200 calories is too low for you.

You may find that on your days of high activity, you’ll need to spike your calories up to 1400 or 1500 so that you don’t “bonk” during your intense training time.

It’s important to note as well, since some women claim they cannot lose weight at 1200 calories, to determine if their food tracking is on point. It can be very easy to overshoot (especially if you eyeball food or if you eat out at restaurants often).

The other concern is for the woman who eats 1200 calories a day Monday through Friday and hits 2500 on Saturday. This is common. This can also completely undo an entire week’s progress.

1200 calories is not a one-size-fits-all suggestion. It’s a one-size-fits some. In my case, it’s approximately 1 in 4. That may be different if you compare my clientele against another coach’s clientele.

If you’re a woman who is trying to make 1200 calories work for you, I offer my general recommendations based on the stats/averages I’ve referenced above:

-aim for approximately 100g (roughly 400 calories) of protein per day

-aim for 20-25g of fiber a day

-aim for no less than 25-30g (roughly 225-370 calories) of fat per day

-stay well hydrated, get quality sleep and utilize any stress reduction activities you can

As with any dietary plan or strategy, it may be beneficial to start higher as opposed to lower within a deficit to see how your body adapts. 20% of a reduction from maintenance may be too aggressive for some women.

Most importantly, listen to your body. Take notes. You know yourself better than anyone and ultimately, your body will let you know what’s working and what isn’t.

I should also finish with the kind note that the calories it takes your neighbor to lose weight may not be the same as yours. Perhaps your best friend can lose weight at 1500 calories a day when you need to be at 1200. There are a host of reasons why this might be. Maybe she’s more active in a given day than you (exercise, at work, level of non-exercise activity thermogenesis or N.E.A.T. for short or the way she metabolizes her choice of foods).

It’s my long and short way of saying that 1200 calories a day may be exactly what you need for fat loss success, it could be too high and it could be too low. Each person will have to decide that based on their own set of circumstances.

Below is our very own Jessica, hitting a new personal best of 325 pounds. Should she elect to drop weight (not necessary in my opinion), 1200 could be a goal she’d aim for.

“We Make Great People Greater”