Why 1200 calories a day is NOT an appropriate goal – part 1


I was chatting with a friend recently who was telling me all about her friend’s weight woes.

“She can’t lose weight and she’s only eating 1200 calories a day!”

This friend is also very active and has always been in a bigger body, as has her mum. She is very strict about her 1200 calorie limit, and sticks to it regardless of how active she is.

Hearing about it made me sad. And it made me angry. But the friend I was talking to does not come from a HAES or body positive space so my -beginnings- of a soap box rant were met with criticism and judgement. So get a cup of tea my friends because I am fully getting on my soap box now and telling you exactly why a 1200 calorie/day limit is a bullshit number to be aiming for.

Please, please don’t restriction your intake to 1200 calories.

Why? Well, as dietitians we are trained to calculate how much energy and individual might need. We use our knowledge and clinical judgement to determine how much energy and protein you need as well as carbohydrate and fat and all the vitamins and minerals that you need to stay healthy.

And, let me tell you, the person who actually needs 1200 calories a day is as 50 kg woman who literally does nothing but lie in bed all day.

If you are bigger (in height and weight) and more active than a bed bound woman… you are going to need more calories to fuel you while you do all the fabulous things in your day to day life. That’s because you need energy (read: calories) to support those activities.

You need energy just to allow all the individual cells in your body to carry out their normal processes. Your heart needs energy to pump. Your brain needs energy just to keep firing signals to keep you breathing, to make sure you blink, and to regulate your digestion.

If you’re active and on your feet during the workday, you need extra energy so your body can make it through the day. If you aren’t so active at work, you still need some energy to help support your busy brain.

If you find a rad way of moving your body that you enjoy and one that leaves you feeling invigorated and energised (as opposed to exhausted and let down), then you need more energy.

I’m gaining weight, shouldn’t I eat less?

Weight gain is a very complex physiological process. While calories out vs. calories in do count, there are lots of other things that we need to consider as well (stay tuned for a future post on this)

Eating past the point of comfortable fullness at meal times on a regular basis is probably not going to be very fun or comfortable for you. If you do this over a long period of time, combined with non-hungry eating you may experience weight gain.

But you might also notice the scales creeping up if you eat too little.

Your body really likes to keep things nice and stable, and this includes your weight. If you eat less than you need to, your body (clever thing) does a couple of things to encourage you to eat more. It does not want you to lose weight. Losing weight was once associated with times of starvation so essentially by eating too little your body puts out a little panic signal so it can prepare for the lean times ahead.

 Your body starts to prioritise fat storage. The production of your hunger hormone, Ghrelin goes up and at the same time the production of the hormone that helps tell your body that you are full goes down. In short: you’ll be hungrier than normal and much more interested in food that you would normally be. This is your body’s desperate attempt to get you to eat more.

If you ignore these hunger signals that your body is sending you, you could be in trouble.

Ignoring your hunger signals can mean you arrive at the dinner table starving. You will eat quickly, ignoring how fabulous your meal tastes because you. Just. Have. To. Stop. The. Hunger. You’ll eat so quickly that you’ll have trouble recognising when you are starting to feel full until all of a sudden you are sooo uncomfortably full. Then you’ll feel bad about your self because you couldn’t stick to your diet. Cue feelings of shame, helplessness and a renewed focus to be better and eat less tomorrow. Rinse and repeat.

And you know what? Relying on an external number to tell your body what it *should* need in terms of energy is the biggest bit of bull going on here.

What can I do instead?

You were born perfectly equipped to know how much you need to eat for your needs. Remember how I said we can estimate the amount of energy you need in a day. It’s an estimate. Learning to tune into your body and trust those signals your body is sending you is going to help you determine the right amount of energy for your body.

I need to be crystal clear here, I’m not saying eat whatever you want, whenever you want and in unlimited amounts. I’m saying you can trust your body to tell you exactly what it needs. I’m going to cover this in a lot more detail in part 2 of this post.


Stay tuned for part 2, which will be available next week! I highly recommend subscribing to my blog, so you can get part 2 delivered directly to your inbox. I wouldn’t want to you miss it!

P.S this post looks a little boring without any outbound links. But I couldn’t find any articles to link you to that didn’t include some sort of food or body or fat shaming and you, you fabulous thing, don’t need that shite!

Photo credit: Practical Cures


14 thoughts on “Why 1200 calories a day is NOT an appropriate goal – part 1

  1. Clair says:

    Great post, and something that should be read by many people. In addition to what you said about altered hormone levels of leptin and ghrelin to encourage weight gain, the body also decreases it’s oxidation of fats and tries to hang on to them that way.


  2. Jane says:

    What if you take medication that affects appetite? Then your hunger cues will be off. And wouldn’t seasoning or anything that makes food taste extra good (better than the ingredients themselves) also throw you off? I agree that 1200 calories is a ridiculous goal, but some people do need to think about the numbers.


    • Courtney says:

      I totally agree that medications that affect appetite would make it harder. Probably best to speak to your dietitian about that one! As for your comment about seasoning, I’m not really sure what you mean? If we’re eating mindfully and intuitively with our hunger and fullness signals seasoning shouldn’t make a difference. Are you meaning about those times when food tastes so good you feel like you can’t stop eating? I would love to know more about this


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