Is 1200 calories enough? If you spend time on social media, you may be a bit confused on this issue. On the one hand there is a crowd that is vehement that 1200 is plenty (it’s actually a hashtag). And on the other hand, you can find loads of posts about how 1200 is sufficient for a toddler. So which is true?
Content Warning: Discussion of calorie restriction, dieting, and weight loss
To answer whether 1200 calories is enough, let’s look at an example of calorie restriction from the past. During WWII, researchers conducted the Minnesota Starvation Experiment in which study participants underwent 6 months of strict and heavily monitored calorie restriction. As a result of that starvation period, researchers noted the following changes in study participants: decreased energy, increased fatigue, increased moodiness, decreased libido, decreased energy and strength (~20%), slowed heart rate and decreased heart size, and decreased blood volume. They also noted that participants developed an obsession with food. Participants talked incessantly about food, dreamed about food, and ate painstakingly slowly so as to make each meal last as long as possible.
During the re-feeding period that followed, researchers noted that participants regained the weight they lost but it took much longer for them to regain the lean body mass they started with. As a result, by the time participants regained that lean body mass, they weighed more than they did before the study.
The results of this study lead one to believe that these participants were hardly eating anything at all. But, on the contrary, they were consuming about 1550 calories per day.
How many calories per day should an adult consume?
From this we can surmise that if 1550 calories per day elicited that response, then 1200 calories per day certainly can’t be much better.
So if 1200 is not enough, then how many calories should an adult consume per day? According to the FDA, adults assigned male at birth ages 21-35 should consume 2400-3000 calories per day. After the age of 40, the FDA recommends 2200-2800 calories per day. For adults assigned female at birth ages 26-50, the FDA recommends 1800-2200 calories per day. How many an individual should consume within those ranges depends on factors such as: body size, activity level, underlying conditions, goals, etc.
What about weight loss?
We typically see 1200 calories set as a limit in low calorie diets. However, you do not have to stick to 1200 calories to lose weight. You simply must maintain a small calorie deficit, meaning consume fewer calories than your body uses. Please note, that weight loss is not as simple as calories in < calories out, however, as factors such as hormone status, hydration, underlying conditions, environmental factors, and more exert an influence on our weight. However, you do need a calorie deficit to lose weight.
I have several issues with 1200 calorie diets. First, it is extremely difficult to obtain the nutrition your body needs in just 1200 calories per day. Second, that few calories will not only leave you hungry, it’s just not sustainable. Our bodies respond to intense calorie restriction like this by reacting as though we are starving. That reaction includes slowing down our metabolic processes and also enacting a series of responses that drive us to find and consume food. As a result, you can only maintain a low calorie diet for so long before you overeat or binge. This is why dieters experience weight and diet cycling. Those periods of intense restriction AKA dieting can only be sustained for so long. And when they end, the dieter regains the weight they lost (and then some) and starts a new restrictive diet. And so on and so forth.
If you seek intentional weight loss, I recommend working with a professional who can set an appropriate caloric goal personal to you.