What Is a 1,200-Calorie-a-Day Diet?

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Are you looking to trim a few extra pounds, lose some body fat, and lower your cholesterol? There is no shortcut to reaching these goals—no magic pills to pop or extreme workouts to sweat through. There are, however, some very simple lifestyle changes that can help you reach your ideal weight.

It all starts with a very basic tenet: To lose weight, you need to consume fewer calories each day than you burn through exercise and physical activity. A 1,200-calorie-per-day diet combined with routine exercise is one way to achieve your weight loss goal while meeting your daily nutritional needs.

Smoothie in blender
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Benefits

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS): "Eating patterns that contain 1,200 to 1,500 calories each day can help most women lose weight safely, and eating patterns that contain 1,500 to 1,800 calories each day are suitable for most men for weight loss."

Within these general guidelines, most adults can structure a diet plan that allows them to pare back their daily caloric intake to around 1,200 calories per day without undermining their nutritional goals or putting their health at risk.

Studies have shown that eating less than 1,000 calories per day can lead to lean muscle loss, which is the exact opposite of what you want to do.

The goal of the diet is to burn fat, not lose lean muscle. Eating too little can actually lead to weight gain by tamping down your body's metabolism while increasing cravings.

How It Works

The goal of any informed weight-loss diet is to cut calories and reduce your intake of unhealthy fats, cholesterol, and excess carbohydrates (including sugar). The diet should always involve routine exercise, structured around your fitness level.

Before you make any changes, you need to figure out how many calories you should eat each day to lose no more than 1 to 2 pounds a week.

If you try to shed too much all at once, your body will respond as if you are starving, slowing down your metabolism in order to conserve energy. Moreover, it will break down your lean muscle for energy rather than burning your fat stores.

Your ideal daily calorie intake will be based on factors such as your age, sex, height, current weight, and how active you are.

If you are overweight and want to design a plan for gradual weight loss, speak with your healthcare provider or a dietitian. They will be able to help you calculate how many calories you can reasonably cut back per day and determine if a 1,200-calorie-per-day diet is suitable for you.

Duration

A 1,200-calorie-per-day is not considered permanent for most adults. Once you achieve your weight loss goals, you would gradually shift from a weight-loss plan to a maintenance diet.

For most adult females, the DHHS recommends a daily caloric intake of between 1,600 to 2,200 calories (based on age and body size) to maintain your ideal weight. For most adult males, the daily caloric intake for maintenance purposes is between 2,000 to 2,600 calories.

What to Eat

If you and your healthcare provider determine that a 1,200-calorie-per-day diet is suitable for you, the next step is to envision what that diet might look like.

While you may assume that you won't get enough food to feel full and satisfied, with planning and foresight you can build a meal plan with snacks that is not only tasty but can quell cravings throughout the day.

Here is an example:

Breakfast 1 (8-ounce) cup of coffee with as much as 2 ounces (one-quarter cup) of skim milk
1 peach smoothie made with a handful of peaches, a handful of raspberries, one-half cup of low-fat vanilla yogurt, and just enough low-fat milk to blend
2 slices whole-grain bread made with 100% whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons butter
Snack 8 ounces of nonfat yogurt with 2 teaspoons honey
Lunch 1 serving tomato soup
1 serving light chicken Caesar salad
1 (8-ounce) cup of seltzer with a generous squeeze of lemon or lime
Snack 10 seedless grapes
Dinner One 3-ounce serving of grilled chicken breast
One-half cup of cooked quinoa
5 asparagus stalks, grilled or roasted with 1 teaspoon of olive oil
2 strawberries dipped in dark chocolate
1 (8-ounce) cup iced tea
1 glass (5-ounces) of red wine, optional

Nutritionally, a 1,200-calorie menu like this breaks down as follows:

  • 230 calories from fat
  • 25.8 grams fat (8.1 grams saturated fat)
  • 108 milligrams cholesterol
  • 1,445 milligrams sodium
  • 197 grams carbohydrate
  • 25.2 grams fiber
  • 78 grams protein

A glass of wine will add another 127 calories and 5.5 grams of carbohydrates.

Foods to Eat and Avoid

Clearly, no one expects you to live on the above-listed diet forever. People crave (and deserve) a variety of foods in their diet.

To help build a healthy meal plan, you need to know which types of foods you should eat more of or avoid. The guidelines are simpler than you might think.

Compliant Foods
  • Lean chicken, fish, or meat

  • Skim or low-fat milk and dairy

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables

  • Monosaturated fats

  • Beans and legumes

  • Whole grains

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Fresh salsa

  • Coffee and tea

  • Unsweetened juices (in moderation)

Non-Compliant Foods
  • Fatty meat (especially red meat)

  • Whole mik and dairy

  • Processed foods

  • Saturated and trans fats

  • Sugary foods

  • Refined wheat

  • Pastries and baked goods

  • Cream sauces

  • Coffee drinks with add-ins

  • Sweetened beverages and sodas

At the end of each day, plan your next day's menu. By doing so, you can do an accurate calorie count and know in advance how large a portion you can consume.

Cooking Tips

To reduce your intake of fat, avoid foods that are fried, deep-fried, or breaded. Instead, try to bake or pan-fry foods with as little fat as possible. Steaming and barbecuing (without sugary sauces) are also good ideas.

Rather than putting oil into a frying pan, brush or spray the food with oil before placing it into a hot pan.

Stews can also be tasty and nutritious, but be extra careful not to overindulge. Even if you count the calories of all the ingredients before cooking, the per-portion calorie count will invariably be higher as the sauce, meats, and vegetables cook down and concentrate.

Considerations

Whether you are on a 1,200-, 1,500-, or 2,000-calorie diet, you need to ensure that you meet your daily nutritional needs and that your diet is balanced. According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, this breaks down to the following portions per day:

  • Vegetables: 2-1/2 cups
  • Fruits: 2 cups
  • Dairy; 3 cups
  • Protein: 5-1/2 ounces
  • Oil: 27 grams from all sources

Even if you are on a low-calorie diet, you can meet these nutritional goals if you plan ahead and measure your portions carefully.

Don't guess at the calorie count; use a calorie reference guide. And, always measure food portions with a scale, measuring cup, or measuring spoon. Guessing allows for cheating.

Dietary Restrictions

Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all diet for everyone, and some rules may need to be broken based in your current health and any chronic conditions.

For example, some medications, like certain HIV drugs, require a high-fat meal to properly absorb and metabolize the drug. Other drugs also have dietary requirements, so speak with your healthcare provider beforehand to ensure that you take your medications correctly if on a low-calorie diet.

There are also certain conditions that contraindicate the use of a very low-fat diet:

Anyone with a chronic medical condition should speak with their healthcare provider before considering a 1,200-calorie-per-day diet.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to weight loss, slow and steady always wins. As much as diet gurus will "guarantee" rapid weight loss with their plans, there will almost invariably be a rebound in weight if you shed too many pounds too quickly.

In the end, a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet is intended to get you closer to your ideal weight and encourage healthy eating habits you can continue for a lifetime.

By adjusting eating habits and helping you understand why certain foods are unhealthy no matter your age or health status, you can improve your relationship with food and maintain your ideal weight over the long term.

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