When I assess any diet or nutrition plan I ask myself 3 questions to decide if it’s worthy. Barring any medically related dietary restrictions, if the diet does not meet all of these requirements, I usually don’t recommend it.
- Could I follow it?
- Is it nutritionally balanced?
- Is it sustainable?
My rationale is this: I am an informed and health conscious person, with a fair bit of discipline, and accustomed to a high level of daily food monitoring in order to manage my own diabetes. I figure, if it’s not something I could or would want to follow on a daily basis, and if I can’t identify clear nutritional challenges, then how can I justify suggesting it to my client?
1200 calories a day is what I would consider a restrictive diet.
I see lots of people of all shapes and sizes wanting to lose weight, trying to follow a 1200 calorie diet, believing this is the only way to shed those pounds. 1200 calories a day is what I would consider a restrictive diet and I used the word “trying” because most people can’t follow it. And that’s not because they have a weak will.
I’m not sure why 1200 calories became the magic weight loss number. Likely because it’s thought to be the lowest acceptable intake before being malnourished. In other words, this is the minimum amount for most humans to simply maintain the daily activities of living. In my practice, I try not to lead people on a path of mere sustenance but rather, one of optimal performance and nutritional satisfaction.
In the short term, a 1200 calorie diet won’t kill you.
A 1200 calorie diet won’t kill you and it might even deliver some weight loss. Some of which, mind you, is likely just water weight, due to the inherent carb limitations on such a low calorie plan. I digress… In the long term though, there are many reasons NOT to go down this restrictive diet path, including the possibility that it could actually lead to weight GAIN, and a slower metabolism.
For at least these reasons, a 1200 calorie diet doesn’t pass my test, and I don’t recommend most people follow one because quite frankly following a 1200 calorie diet sucks! It’s just too hard.
Restrictive diets eliminate the joy of eating, and worst of all, compliance with it is close to impossible. Poor compliance makes the client feel like a failure themselves, not to mention makes ME a failed nutrition counsellor. From experience and based on the literature, feeling like you’ve “failed” downward spirals into demotivation, bingeing, unhealthy relationships with food and body image, and a general lack of self efficacy – a component we know is key to success.
Before you attempt a 1200 calorie diet, think about what you’ll be giving up.
Bye bye wine, sayonara summer’s night frozen yogurt, ta ta to that small chunk of chocolate or cheese. Oh and forget about going out for lunch or dinner cuz that ain’t happening on this diet. I don’t mean to be harsh, but the reality is, in order to meet your nutrient needs on this type of plan, you need to be extremely discriminating. Every single calorie counts here because there’s not a lot of wiggle room, and each item you choose must be nutritionally dense to ensure you’re meeting your needs.
From seeing the results of the body composition tests I do in my office, 1200 calories falls below most women’s basal metabolic rate. Even for the older, sedentary women it may JUST meet it. Keep in mind, that your basal metabolic rate doesn’t account for ANY general physical activity like walking, stairs, gardening etc., let alone higher intensity exercise. It essentially reflects your needs in a coma. This is the antithesis of optimal health and performance.
If you’ve been on this kind of calorie count and wondered why you’re feeling tired, or your performance at the gym totally sucks, or you haven’t progressed past those 8 pound dumbbells you’ve been lifting for months, this may be a clue. Pretty hard to do much of anything, let alone perform when you’re eating just enough to sustain life.
It’s true that a 1200 calorie diet may be less detrimental to a very sedentary individual who sits at a desk for 9 hours without moving at all. But exercisers beware. For those of you who include focused exercise in your routine or have very active lifestyles, watch out for over restrictive diets, as well as ones that over limit carbs. Food is fuel. Carbs are the gas for your motor and protein is important for building muscle mass. Also, nutrients support immune function, proper bowel function and tissue repair.
Can’t do a whole lot of any of this with a restricted calorie diet.
If you’re following a 1200 calorie diet, working out a few times a week, and not progressing or losing weight, a few things may be at play.
1. Not enough fuel to support exercise leaves you tired. Tired people can’t work as hard thus you’re never working out to your full potential. Keep in mind, no fuel = slower recovery, so tomorrow’s workout will likely be pretty lame as well.
2. Not enough fuel stores to support exercise or muscle growth. In this case your body must create energy so it’s likely breaking down some of your protein stores, aka lean muscle tissue to get you through the activity. Keep in mind you’re looking to BUILD muscle not break it down. Per pound, muscle burns almost 3 times as many calories as fat, so we want more of it, not less.
3. Low calorie diets have been shown to increase stress hormones in some, which can lead to weight gain or stagnation. Metabolism isn’t properly stimulated so you become more efficient on minimal calories, setting yourself up to gain weight if and when you decide to eat more.
Having seen enough clients trying really hard, yet frustrated with lacklustre results on these restrictive, low calorie diets, I would recommend a diet that’s sustainable and supports fuelling your body to support optimal health and performance. Even 1500 calories is usually more reasonable.
The healthiest way to shed excess body fat is to eat a balanced diet that supports your own lean body mass, while increasing your level of physical activity. If you want the most customized results, locate a dietitian or gym that can offer an accurate body composition analysis. Strength building programs that build lean muscle mass make you more awesome, and they increase your body’s ability to burn more at rest so you can have your food, and eat it too!
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