Open any diet book ever and you’ll find a 1200 calorie meal plan. Search for diets on the internet, you’ll get a 1200 calorie meal plan. Bikini body challenge? Yep, 1200 calorie meal plan. Ready made meals? A whole day of those will add up to 1200 calories too.
Why? It’s the ubiquitous number that every diet/wellness plan/lifestyle change has settled on for women wanting to lose weight. It was a crude calculation made on the outdated assumption that woman needed about 16oo calories – so lets whack 400 cal of that because math tells us this will produce weight loss.
Men and women don’t actually differ that much in terms of energy requirements. In fact, we now think it’s much less of a difference than we used to – and we’ve revised the numbers up. For good health the range is now at least 2000-2500 calories.
(PS: non-binary? We’ve got you covered – how much energy you need is determined by so many things – sex hormones and muscle being just one aspect)
Eating 1200 calories a day? You need to stop. Like, right now.
A person that actually needs 1200 calories a day is someone of small stature, little muscle mass who literally does nothing but lie in bed 24 hours per day. And that’s assuming that that person is perfectly well and not under any metabolic stress – such as recovering from surgery, getting over a serious illness or recovering from an eating disorder (for which their needs will be higher).
If you have some fat, some muscle, are taller than 155cm and are not bed bound your needs are going to be more than 1200 calories. For real.
Actually sticking to this low amount of energy every day means some pretty funky things are going to be happening in your body and the likelihood that you are in starvation mode is quite high. You are also probably doing some funky things to your mental and emotional health.
Starvation mode is what happens when your body doesn’t get enough energy. You brain and body think something is wrong and do a number of things in order to protect your set point- a weight range that you are genetically programmed to sit at.
Your body lowers your metabolism, so you burn less energy. At the same time, you hunger levels increase greatly. So does your attention to food. In summary, you burn less energy, spend a lot of time being ravenously hungry, eat more and think about food more often.
Your body will remember this time of starvation and push your set point a little higher to make sure it has enough energy in reserve for the next time it is starving (which it IS when the goal is weight loss).
Starvation mode and restrictive ways of thinking is also what sets you up for a binge. You don’t eat 3 packets of biscuits because you are addicted to them; you have set up a perfect storm. Your body needs more energy so it drives you to seek out filling and satisfying options and your mind is reacting to feeling deprived and told no. Humans tend to do funny things when told what not to do. Need an example? DONT think about pink elephants. For the next 10 minutes you are not to think about pink elephants. Think about anything you like, just not pink elephants.
Starving. For Science.
The famous Minnesota experiment confirms these ideas. From November 1944 to October 1945 36 young men were fed vary levels calories to determine their effects.
These men were on a semi – starvation diet at 1,570 calories. (so what is this saying about the drastically lower 1200 calories?!? Remember your needs are determined by a lot more than your sex). During this restricted energy phase the men experienced a lot of side effects, including a decrease in:
- Strength and stamina
- Body temperature
- Heart rate
- Sex drive
They also reported that feelings of increased hunger made them:
- Obsess about food
- Dream and fantasize about food
- Read and talk about food
They also suffered with fatigue, irritability, depression and apathy.
One of the more interesting aspects of this research study was the exclusion of one person’s data. The results of one of the 36 men were excluded because he did not meet expected weight loss targets. So it really goes to show that calorie restriction is not guaranteed to work.
Your body is a good calorie counter. Algorithms are not.
It’s impossible to accurately determine the energy you need. We (as Dietitians) have blunt calculations that we can use but at best they are an estimate. Your body is actually the best energy estimator that you have. for realz.
PS -how long did you go before thoughts or images of pink elephants popped into your head? I bet it wasn’t long.