What is it about 1200 calories that’s so special, and should we all be eating 1200 calories a day?
READ MORE: 5 signs you may need to eat more
Will 1200 calories work for me?
The number of calories we require is largely determined by metabolic rate. This is the amount of energy the body requires for basic functioning — for breathing, thinking, digesting and fuelling the muscles.
The greater the amount of muscle mass someone has, and the larger the body, the higher the number of calories the person will require each day. This is the reason that males generally need more calories than female — they have a larger body and significantly more muscle mass.
The number of calories each person requires will then be largely affected by how much activity you do. The more activity, the greater the number of calories you will need to fuel the muscles.
If the goal is weight loss, you’ll need to eat fewer calories than the body requires. If you eat more calories than the body is burning off, you will gain weight over time as the excessive calories are stored.
Is 1200 calories a day safe?
The average female will require 1000-1200 each day just to function and keep the metabolism pumping. It’s likely that this is where the general recommendation of 1200 calories came from, based on an assumption that if the average female is consuming 1500-1600 calories each day, reducing it by 400-500 calories will support weight loss while still providing enough calories to support metabolic rate.
While on the surface 1200 calories seem pretty reasonable — especially compared to the popular 500-800 calorie fasting plans currently getting much attention — calorie requirements are not a one-size-fits-all model.
In the case of a small female, who is relatively inactive, 1200 calories will be likely enough. On the other hand, for someone who is fit, lean and active and who will need at least 1400-1500 calories each day, consuming significantly less than this is likely to trigger extreme hunger, fatigue over time and long term a reduction in metabolic rate as the body breaks down muscle mass to keep itself fuelled.
The other important thing to remember when weight loss is the goal is that while a 1200 calorie approach may work initially, especially for sedentary people, as you lose weight and the hormones that control fat loss start to work more efficiently, you will actually need more calories to continue to lose weight. Calorie requirements change, and attempting to stick to 1200 calories because you think you should, when you actually need 1400-1500 calories can result in extreme cravings and binge eating — behaviours and experiences that are extremely common in seasonal dieters.
How to find your magic number
To determine how many calories you need, start by assessing how many you are routinely consuming either via an online monitoring app such as ‘My Fitness Pal’ or by seeing a dietitian. Here, if you are routinely consuming 1800-2000 calories, you will get good weight loss results if you cut your calorie intake by roughly 500 each day, or reduce to 1300-1500 calories.
On the other hand, if you’re only consuming 1400-1500, it may suggest you will see weight loss result if you reduce your intake to 1200 for a short period, or until weight loss halts. This would then suggest you need to increase your intake again by 200-300 to achieve continual weight loss.
On the other hand, if you take a closer look at your calorie intake and realise that you are only consuming 1200 calories or less, and are not losing weight, chances are you need a few more to adequately fuel your body for the amount of activity you are doing.
Try increasing the calories of your first two meals of the day by 100-200 calories each. If you’re on the right track you will notice you’re feeling hungry again every 2-3 hours and feel more energised and less fatigued.
The body actually needs a certain number of calories to be able to metabolise fat efficiently. You cannot simply reduce your calorie intake further and further. The key to success is to identify your own calorie sweet spot for the results you are looking for and 1200 calories is not right for everyone.
Author Susie Burrell is a leading Australian dietitian and nutritionist, founder of Shape Me, and prominent media spokesperson, with regular appearances in both print and television media commenting on all areas of diet, weight loss and nutrition.