Some people follow 1,200-calorie diet plans to promote fat loss and reach their goal weight as quickly as possible.
While it’s true that cutting calories is an effective way to lose weight, research shows that reducing calorie intake too drastically isn’t good for long-term health or weight loss.
This article reviews 1,200-calorie diets and covers the potential benefits and downsides associated with low calorie dietary patterns.
A 1,200-calorie diet is a way of eating that limits the number of daily calories that you consume to 1,200. This diet is considered a low calorie diet because it provides significantly fewer calories than most average adults need to maintain their weight.
Many healthcare providers, including doctors and dietitians, prescribe low calorie diets as a go-to strategy for weight loss.
A common recommendation to spark weight loss is to decrease calorie intake by 500–750 calories per day. This usually translates to a low calorie diet of 1,200–1,500 calories per day for adult women and 1,500–1,800 calories per day for adult men (1).
Note that 1,200 calories is at the low end of the recommended low calorie diet ranges for women.
Some researchers categorize low calorie diets as dietary patterns that deliver between 800–1,200 calories per day, while very low calorie diets are categorized as diets that deliver fewer than 800 calories per day (2, 3).
These diets are typically followed for short periods of weeks to months to promote rapid weight loss.
Low calorie and very low calorie diets are commonly used in clinical settings under medical supervision, such as weight loss centers, but they’re popular with the general public as well.
In fact, many weight loss coaches, personal trainers, and popular dieting websites offer 1,200-calorie meal plans, promising that following a 1,200-calorie diet will help you “slim down fast.”
These diets typically promote the use of “low calorie,” “fat-free,” and “reduced-fat” foods to help keep calorie intake low and usually involve calorie counting so that dieters make sure they’re staying under their daily limit.
While a 1,200-calorie diet may be appropriate in the short term in certain situations, 1,200 calories are far too few for the majority of adults.
A 1,200-calorie diet is considered a low calorie diet. Low calorie diets are used to promote fast weight loss and sometimes prescribed by healthcare professionals.
Creating a calorie deficit is necessary for weight loss. Cutting calories by 500–750 calories per day, as some health professionals advise, is likely to encourage weight loss, at least in the short term.
Many studies have shown that following low calorie diets, including 1,200-calorie diets, can promote weight loss.
For example, a study in 2,093 people with obesity demonstrated that a medically supervised 1,200-calorie meal replacement diet resulted in an average fat loss of 4.7% over 12 months (6).
In another study, adults followed a commercial weight loss program that provided either 500, 1,200–1,500, or 1,500–1800 calories per day.
After 1 year, those on the 1,200–1,500-calorie-per-day diet experienced an average weight loss of 15 pounds (6.8 kg). However, 23% of the 4,588 people following the 1,200-calorie diet dropped out of the study (7).
Studies have found that while initial weight loss using low calorie diets like 1,200-calorie diets is typically rapid and substantial, it’s often followed by greater weight regain, compared with diets using only moderate calorie restriction.
In the commercial weight loss study mentioned above, the researchers observed that rapid weight loss during the first 3 months was associated with greater regain during the 9-month weight loss maintenance phase in all three of the diet groups (7).
Another study in 57 people with overweight or obesity noted that after following a very low 500-calorie diet or low 1,250-calorie diet for 5 and 12 weeks, respectively, study participants regained 50% of the weight they lost over 10 months, on average (8).
This is because low calorie diets induce metabolic changes that conserve energy and prevent weight loss, including increased appetite, loss of lean body mass, and reductions in the number of calories burned, all of which make long-term weight maintenance difficult (9, 10, 11).
This has led many health experts to recommend eating patterns that use only small reductions in calorie intake to promote weight loss while minimizing the negative metabolic adaptations that are associated with low calorie diets (12).
Although following a low calorie 1,200-calorie diet is likely to result in weight loss, the chances of keeping the weight off are slim.
Following a 1,200-calorie diet may provide some health benefits, but it’s important to note that these benefits are associated with calorie restriction, in general, and not specific to 1,200-calorie meal plans.
Fueling your body with the right number of calories is essential for the preservation of good overall health.
Many studies have shown that calorie reduction, in general, can benefit health by promoting weight loss, reducing heart disease risk factors like LDL (bad) cholesterol, and decreasing blood sugar levels and inflammation (14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19).
There’s no question that losing excess body weight has positive effects on health and that staying within your individual calorie needs is best for your body.
However, the methods used to promote weight loss matter, and using very low calorie, restrictive dieting methods is strongly associated with increased chances of weight regain over time.
Therefore, while losing excess body weight can benefit your overall health, it’s important to choose healthy, sustainable weight loss methods over more extreme dietary patterns.
It should be noted that some research has shown that people with obesity or morbid obesity who follow low calorie or very low calorie diets under medical supervision lose weight and improve their blood sugar and lipid profiles, which can improve overall health (20).
Still, these diets are typically followed for short periods and usually associated with high dropout rates due to their restrictive nature.
Nonetheless, if you’re interested in following a low calorie diet for weight loss, it’s important to speak with a qualified healthcare provider for advice.
Losing excess body weight and fueling your body with the right number of calories is important for overall health. Although 1,200-calorie diets are associated with some health benefits, these benefits are related to calorie reduction in general.
Calorie needs are highly individualized and depend on many factors, including body size, age, and activity levels. A 1,200-calorie diet is inappropriate for most adults, including smaller women.
Though calorie requirements vary from person to person and accurate needs can only be determined using specific equipment or calculations, the average adult woman needs around 2,000 calories per day to maintain her weight, while a man needs around 2,500 (21, 22).
Again, these numbers are only averages and don’t reflect the differences in calorie needs due to factors like age, activity levels, and height. However, these average calorie need estimations gives you an idea of how low 1,200 calories is.
A 1,200-calorie diet is much too low for most people and can result in negative side effects like dizziness, extreme hunger, nausea, micronutrient deficiencies, fatigue, headaches, and gallstones (23).
Furthermore, a 1,200-calorie diet can set you up for failure if long-term weight loss is your goal.
Restricting calories leads to metabolic changes in your body. These include increases in hormones like ghrelin and cortisol, which drive hunger, as well as a drop in resting metabolic rate (RMR), or the calories that you burn while at rest (12, 24).
This leads to greater chances of weight regain over time, as well as the vicious cycle of repeated periods of weight loss followed by weight regain that so many chronic dieters experience — which commonly leads to feelings of despair.
Weight cycling is detrimental to mental health, and research has shown that repeated dieting and weight cycling can stress the heart and may lead to a higher risk of eating disorders, type 2 diabetes, and increased mortality (25, 26).
Cutting calories too severely can lead to negative side effects like nutrient deficiencies and fatigue. Low calorie diets rarely work for long-term weight loss and can lead to weight cycling, which negatively affects overall health.
Oftentimes healthcare providers and people looking to lose weight choose diets based on how quickly they can produce the desired results, failing to consider the long-term health consequences of overly restricting calories.
While choosing a restrictive, low calorie diet that delivers well below your daily calorie needs is likely to result in quick weight loss, keep in mind that some of that weight loss is in the form of muscle mass. Muscle loss and other metabolic adaptations can lower your RMR (12).
Large calorie deficits not only lead to unfavorable changes that make maintaining weight loss harder but also can take a serious toll on your emotional well-being.
The majority of research studies suggest that dieting doesn’t work and using healthier, less extreme weight loss methods is a better choice for supporting weight loss and weight loss maintenance over time.
For example, instead of cutting your intake down to 1,200 calories, which usually involves tracking every piece of food that crosses your lips, try a few of the following evidence-based, healthy weight loss tips:
- Eat whole foods. Whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, beans, fish, nuts, seeds, and eggs, should comprise the majority of your calorie intake. Whole foods are packed with the fiber, protein, and healthy fats your body needs to thrive.
- Cut out added sugar and fats. Reducing your fat and added sugar intake is a healthy way to promote weight loss. Common sugar- and/or fat-laden foods include soda, cakes, ice cream, candy, and sugary cereals (27).
- Cook more meals at home. Rely less on take out, restaurants, and fast food and cook more meals at home. People who cook more meals at home tend to weigh less and have a healthier diet than those who eat more meals outside the home (28).
- Increase daily activity. One of the best ways to promote healthy, sustainable weight loss is to create a calorie deficit by increasing the number of calories you burn. Try adding in daily walks outside, taking exercise classes, or joining a gym (29).
- Work with a knowledgeable healthcare provider. Weight loss can be intimidating and stressful. A knowledgeable dietitian or other trained healthcare provider can help you lose weight in a healthful way without extreme restriction.
While losing weight using healthy, sustainable dietary approaches may take more time, it reduces the unfavorable adaptations that occur during extreme calorie restriction and can help increase your chances of keeping the weight off for good.
When trying to lose weight, using less restrictive methods can help you achieve healthy, sustainable weight loss.
A 1,200-calorie diet is a low calorie eating pattern that typically involves counting calories and eating reduced calorie foods to promote quick weight loss.
Although a 1,200-calorie diet is likely to promote short-term, rapid weight loss, metabolic adaptations that occur during calorie restriction make keeping the weight off long term extremely difficult.
What’s more, 1,200 calories is well under the average number of calories that most adults — even small women — need to fuel their bodies.
While diets providing 1,200 or fewer calories are a popular tool for weight loss, it’s better for your overall health to choose a diet that fuels your body in a healthy way and promotes slow yet sustainable weight loss that can be maintained for life.