Do I really need 1200 calories a day?

Quick Answers

How many calories you need per day depends on your age, gender, activity level, and weight goals. The recommended daily calorie intake for most adults is around 2000-2500 calories. Eating only 1200 calories per day is very low and typically only recommended for small, sedentary women trying to lose weight quickly.

How Many Calories Do I Need Per Day?

The number of calories you need per day depends on a variety of factors including your age, gender, height, weight, activity level, and whether you want to lose, gain, or maintain your weight. Here are some general calorie intake recommendations based on these factors:

By Gender

  • Women generally need fewer calories than men, often around 1800-2200 per day.
  • Men generally need 2000-3000 calories per day.

By Age

  • Younger adults under age 30 need more calories to support growth and activity, often 2000-3000 per day.
  • Older adults over age 50 need fewer calories as metabolism slows, around 1600-2400 per day.

By Activity Level

  • Sedentary people need around 1600-2400 calories per day.
  • Moderately active people need 2000-2800 calories per day.
  • Very active people need 2400-3000 calories per day.

By Weight Goals

  • To lose weight: reduce daily calories by 500-1000 calories.
  • To gain weight: increase daily calories by 300-500 calories.
  • To maintain weight: keep calories the same.

There are also online calculators that can provide a more personalized calorie needs estimate after inputting your specific stats and goals.

Is 1200 Calories Per Day Too Low?

For most adults, eating only 1200 calories per day would be too low and potentially unhealthy. However, it may be appropriate for some petite, sedentary women looking to lose weight quickly. Here are some considerations:

Potential Benefits

  • Rapid weight loss – can lose up to 2 lbs per week.
  • Easy to plan and track meals.

Potential Drawbacks

  • Nutritional deficits – hard to meet vitamin/mineral needs.
  • Low energy levels.
  • Loss of muscle mass.
  • Rebound weight gain afterwards.
  • Increased hunger and cravings.
  • Slowed metabolism over time.

Who May Benefit from 1200 Calories

  • Short, sedentary women under 5’4″.
  • Petite older women with slower metabolisms.
  • Those with doctor supervision for rapid weight loss.

Potential Health Risks

  • Nutrient deficiencies.
  • Gallstones.
  • Electrolyte imbalances.
  • Refeeding syndrome.
  • Menstrual dysfunction.
  • Bone loss.

Due to the health risks, eating just 1200 calories per day should only be done with medical monitoring and not be continued long-term.

Healthy Low Calorie Meal Ideas

If you do decide to reduce calories to around 1200 per day, here are some healthy meal ideas that can help you meet your nutritional needs:

Breakfast Ideas:

  • Oatmeal made with milk and berries.
  • Scrambled egg white omelet with vegetables.
  • Greek yogurt with fruit and nuts.

Lunch Ideas:

  • Salad with grilled chicken, veggies, and balsamic vinaigrette.
  • Vegetable soup.
  • Grilled chicken sandwich on lettuce wrap.

Dinner Ideas:

  • Shrimp and veggie stir fry with brown rice.
  • Turkey burger with sweet potato fries.
  • Grilled salmon with roasted broccoli.

Snack Ideas:

  • Apple slices with peanut butter.
  • Greek yogurt.
  • Kale chips.
  • Hardboiled egg.

Focus on getting plenty of protein, fiber, and nutrients in your meals. Taking a multivitamin can help fill any nutritional gaps.

Lifestyle Tips for Managing Hunger on 1200 Calories

The very low calorie intake can leave you feeling hungry. Here are some tips to help manage hunger:

  • Eat plenty of protein and fiber which promote fullness.
  • Consume more low calorie foods like fruits, veggies and broth soups.
  • Drink water before and between meals.
  • Engage in distraction activities.
  • Spread meals and snacks evenly throughout the day.
  • Weigh and measure portions to avoid overeating.
  • Get enough sleep as lack of sleep may increase hunger.
  • Consider intermittent fasting to allow larger meals.

The Risks of Very Low Calorie Diets

Consuming just 1200 calories daily qualifies as a very low calorie diet (VLCD). Here are some of the risks associated with VLCDs:

Nutritional Deficiencies

It’s difficult to meet all your nutritional needs with so few calories. Deficiencies in vitamins, minerals and important nutrients may develop over time.

Muscle Loss

VLCDs lead to faster loss of lean body mass and muscle. This can lower metabolism and make weight regain easier.


Rapid weight loss increases the risk of developing gallstones which require surgical removal.

Electrolyte Imbalances

VLCDs can cause low levels of electrolytes like potassium, sodium and magnesium. This may lead to symptoms like fatigue, headaches, cramping and cardiac issues.

Refeeding Syndrome

Transitioning back to normal food intake can result in refeeding syndrome, which is shifts in fluids and electrolytes that can be fatal.

Other Issues

Other side effects may include fatigue, cold intolerance, hair loss, irregular menstrual cycles, constipation, and headaches.

Making Sure You Get Proper Nutrition

If choosing to eat 1200 calories per day, special care must be taken to meet nutrient needs. Some tips include:

  • Focus on nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and dairy.
  • Limit processed foods which are often high calorie but low nutrition.
  • Take a daily multivitamin to help fill nutritional gaps.
  • Consider meeting with a registered dietitian to design a personalized eating plan.
  • Get regular blood work done to check for nutritional deficiencies.
  • Increase calories immediately if feeling unwell or very fatigued.

Is 1200 Calories Too Low Long Term?

For most people, eating just 1200 calories daily is too low to maintain long term. Here’s why:

Difficulty Meeting Nutrient Needs

Consuming so few calories makes it challenging to obtain sufficient nutrition in the long run. Deficiencies may develop over months to years.

Lowered Metabolic Rate

Prolonged calorie restriction can cause adaptive thermogenesis, which is a drop in metabolic rate. This makes weight regain likely when increasing food intake.

Increased Hunger and Cravings

Very low calorie diets often lead to intense hunger and food cravings, which increases the chance of binge eating and giving up.

Decreased Lean Body Mass

Losing muscle mass is common over time when consuming 1200 calories daily. This further lowers metabolic rate.

Nutritional Support Difficult to Maintain

Meeting with a dietitian or taking supplements can help in the short term but is difficult to sustain lifelong at such low calories.

Perpetual Deprivation

1200 calories allows little flexibility or enjoyment of food. Staying in this deprived state long term is challenging mentally and emotionally.

Health Risks of Sustained Calorie Restriction

Some health consequences that may occur when continuing a VLCD or very low calorie diet indefinitely include:

  • Gallstones
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Electrolyte imbalances
  • Loss of bone density
  • Reproductive issues and menstrual dysfunction
  • Anemia
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Malnutrition
  • Increased chronic disease risk

Due to these effects, consuming 1200 calories daily should only be done short term with medical guidance.

When Is 1200 Calories Appropriate?

There are limited situations where restricting intake to 1200 calories daily may be appropriate, including:

  • For sedentary women under 5 feet tall looking to lose weight quickly with doctor supervision.
  • Under a clinician’s care for weight loss prior to bariatric surgery.
  • As part of a monitored rapid weight loss program lasting 8-12 weeks.
  • With oversight from a registered dietitian providing micronutrient support.

However, these situations should be considered temporary, not long term eating strategies.

Healthy Weight Loss Tips

Here are safer tips for healthy long term weight loss and maintenance:

  • Aim for 1/2 to 2 pounds of weight loss per week maximum.
  • Reduce your daily calorie intake by 250-500 calories using portion control.
  • Increase physical activity with cardio and strength training exercises.
  • Eat plenty of fiber, protein and healthy fats at meals.
  • Fuel your body with whole, minimally processed foods.
  • Focus on behavior changes you can maintain lifelong.
  • Make sure any calorie deficit does not exceed 1000 calories daily.
  • Consult a registered dietitian and doctor for personalized guidance.

The Bottom Line

While eating 1200 calories per day may lead to quick short term weight loss, it is too low for most people to maintain safely or meet nutritional needs. Medical guidance and monitoring is strongly advised. Instead, aim for slow, steady weight loss while preserving muscle mass and nutrition. With patience and perseverance, you can achieve healthy, sustainable results over time.

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