Is the Magic 1200 Calorie Threshold Too Low?
Here in the B2C community, we have a variety of clients who seek our nutrition guidance. Our clients, mostly female, range from bikini competitors and busy entrepreneurs that only have time to hit the gym a few hours per week all the way to stay at home moms. Needless to say, our clients have their own unique circumstances that must be taken into consideration when developing a fat loss program.
Lately, there has been a trend in which popular social media athletes demonize coaches that prescribe clients a caloric intake they deem is too low. Usually stuff starts to hit the fan when someone mentions they are eating at or below 1,200 calories per day. While we agree that this intake is not recommended for most individuals, there are some cases that necessitate dropping calories low. My hope is that this information will help alleviate some of the confusion, allow you to sift through the social media BS, and continue reaching your goals.
Today, let’s focus on the average everyday woman who isn’t rocking a solid year-round photoshopped six-pack.
Why is 1,200 calories the magic number?
It seems 1,200 calories and above is blue skies and daisies while 1,199 calories and below is a manic tornado coming to wreck your world. Why? Honestly, we do not know. Some muscular famous athlete with a large following probably mentioned it at some point in time. Without personally knowing the individual following the <1,200 calorie fat loss plan, judgments surrounding their current state of nutrition should not be made.
It is important to evaluate the entire situation before jumping to conclusions. Is a 32 year-old, mildly obese, front office assistant woman (let’s name her Nicole) with little spare time to make it to the gym and no history of building lean body mass suitable for 1,200 calories? Or are we talking about a high level athlete preparing for her 12th bikini show this year who is also doing 10 hours of cardio a week while struggling to lose that last 4% body fat? The former probably would be all right on a short-term 1,200-calorie diet if her goal were to see initial rapid weight loss to spark motivation and adherence. If it’s the latter, then we have a serious concern of long-term hormonal related health issues. She should consider finding a coaching staff that has her health and best interest at heart.
Weight loss is primarily based on manipulation of energy balance.
In essence, if you burn more calories than you consume throughout the day, you will lose weight. How do we determine, then, the amount of calories that need to be decreased to see a substantial drop in body fat?
First, we need to determine daily maintenance calories (the number of calories consumed on a daily basis to maintain current body weight each day). After taking daily activity level and workout habits into consideration, we can then reduce daily calories enough to create the appropriate deficit to reach fat loss goals.
Typically, coaches will start with a total 500-calorie per day deficit, which will yield about one pound of weight loss per week. This 500-calorie deficit can be created with a combination of diet, increased daily activity, and increased energy expenditure in the gym. After a few weeks, adjustments can be made based on the rate of weight loss, energy levels, and body composition changes.
There are quite a few methods that can be used to get an estimate of maintenance calories.
Keep in mind there are merely starting point, and adjustments will likely need to be made based on the individual within the first few weeks.
– Bodyweight (lb) x 14 or 15. Some coaches use this to get in the ballpark. This is a fairly inaccurate measurement and will usually overshoot maintenance calories and require greater adjustment within the first few weeks.
– Harris-Benedict Equation. This method takes into account weight, height, age, and a daily activity factor (1.2-1.9) when calculating maintenance calories. The equation is slightly different for males and females, so make sure you are using the appropriate one.
– Katch-McArdle formula. This unisex formula uses lean body mass (LBM) to estimate a basal metabolic rate and an activity factor (1.2-1.9) when calculating maintenance calories. To understand those terms and learn how to calculate lean body mass see our article on how to measure body fat (Link body fat article here). We like using this formula since knowing LBM can get us a closer estimate. Caution must be used since most people estimate a far lower body fat than they actually have, and this can be problematic in yielding an accurate calorie recommendation.
At this point, we have established the following:
– maintenance calories must first be calculated before determining dieting calories
– accurate body fat calculations and daily activity levels are very important
– an energy deficit is needed for weight loss
Now look at how the above factors can affect an individual’s ability to reach their fat loss goals.
Let’s go back to Nicole, our earlier example of the front office assistant. Nicole is 5’3”, currently weighs 160 pounds, and has estimated her body fat to be at around 28%. Her weekly routine involves little activity and an occasional 30-minute cardio session. This leads us to choose an activity factor of 1.3 when calculating her maintenance calories. After going through the calculations, we estimate that Nicole maintains her current bodyweight at approximately 1,960 calories. We know the importance of initially decreasing numbers on the scale for most women, so we begin with a 500-calorie deficit, which results in 1,460 calories per day. For simplification, we created her energy deficit only by removing calories from her diet and not increasing energy expenditure. This number should yield a decrease of approximately one pound per week. Initially, scale weight may drop a bit faster to the reduction in water weight that accompanies a decrease in carbohydrates. This is fine, and in fact can be beneficial at first, as it will help increase motivation and thereby keep her dietary adherence high.
All is fine and dandy until it comes time for Nicole’s first check in. She is a little unhappy with her fat loss results, not very motivated with her new program, and now she doesn’t like her new coaches (that’s us!) very much. Come to find out, Nicole had actually underestimated her body fat level by a good bit. After exchanging progress photos and using the correct technique of calculating body fat, we determine that Nicole comes in right at 45% body fat. We know it can be hard to grasp or even process such a large increase, but we need this true value in order to best serve Nicole, the client. After recalculating her maintenance calories using her actual body fat, we come up with a baseline intake 1,605 calories. Then, once introducing an actual 500-calorie deficit, her target intake is 1,105 calories. It is only once we drop her calories this low that we begin seeing the expected results. Nicole is now re-motivated and loves her coaches. (Again, for this example we created the 500-calorie deficit only by decreasing calories from Nicole’s diet. If Nicole were able to increase her activity level or energy expenditure in the gym, we would not need to reduce her calories as much.)
Here we use an extreme example of following this plan for a year to show the impact of the above situation. The changes to the calculations using Nicole’s actual body fat would be the difference between losing around 52 pounds per year versus 15.
But wait, now we have crossed the threshold of the magic 1,200-calorie barrier. We are sure to be lashed out against by the social media calorie police. Is a 1,105-calorie diet appropriate for our client? For Nicole, yes. She is fairly young, slightly obese but otherwise healthy, has room to increase her daily activity levels, and is motivated to lose body fat. Would we recommend this diet for the long-term? We don’t recommend any fat loss diet for the long-term. If the duration becomes an issue toward reaching fat loss goals, we can structure re-feed days and other options as necessary.
Who else may be a contender for a sub 1,200-calorie diet?
Anyone with a daily maintenance caloric intake of 1,700 calories or less. How about the lady who is recovering from an eating disorder and 1,050 calories a day is the most she’s eaten in the past years. Maybe increasing calories to 1,200 is a goal she has been working towards diligently every day for several weeks. A one-time snapshot of someone’s nutrition does not show history of trends. Every person’s situation should be evaluated thoroughly before rendering any feedback or suggestion.
Is it safe to maintain below 1,200 calories?
As Nicole gets close to her goal we will slowly begin working back up towards her maintenance calories. Staying below 1,200 calories long-term, in Nicole’s case, is not recommended because she will continue to lose weight. Once she achieves her goal, we will get her back up to maintenance calories. No one should be at a 500-calorie deficit for any longer than absolutely needed. Low energy, satiety issues, and the need to exercise strict self-discipline at social functions can accompany fat loss diets and negatively impact quality of life. Achieving maintenance calories will provide a lot of dietary freedom so that low energy, satiety, and social functions will no longer be of concern.
As we begin adding calories back into the diet, there is still a deficit until the maintenance level is reached. This means weight loss will continue until we find maintenance calorie intake. Typically after a fat loss program, it will take the body a few weeks to readjust back to maintenance calories. Due to the hormonal and physiological changes that take place, it may take up to four weeks to reverse these. Some refer to this process as metabolic adaptation. This change is important to note as some people may have the desire to jump right back up to maintenance calories while the body has not yet compensated to the extra caloric intake. This could result in accumulating unwanted body fat. It is important to take a calculated approach toward increasing calories until the new maintenance intake is attained. Some refer to this process as reverse dieting. If lean body mass increases as calories are added back in while on a strength training program, these factors could result in a higher maintenance caloric intake while maintaining a leaner physique.
(See Related: Reverse Dieting)
Wrapping Things Up
You might be wondering about the popular female athlete with the killer lean figure who claims to maintain her bodyweight eating over 2,300 calories per day. Do not compare yourself to her. Keep in mind that if she were to be actively trying to shed fat, she would not be consuming nearly as much food. As well, she is likely highly physically active with more lean body mass than the average female, which would require more calories to maintain her weight.
Most of you are not in that kind of situation. No matter how much you want to believe the above program will work for you, it probably won’t. Why? Because you’re not her. Use these athletes as motivation for reaching future goals, but remember where you currently stand in your own journey and appreciate your unique differences.
The details surrounding nutrition programing demonstrate why it is important to have a coach who is educated on nutrition, cares about long-term health, understands the complexity of the human body, can custom tailor programs, and is not trying to sell a garbage “get shredded quick” gimmick. There is no merit behind the magic wraps, detox teas, or stomach distorting squeems being marketed by the most popular social media figures. There are no short cuts for diet adherence, smart nutritional choices, and hard work.
Is a 1,200-calorie diet suitable for everyone? No, but there are situations in which a 1,200-calorie diet can be okay. Remember, there are only a few ways to create an energy deficit. We typically encourage all of our clients to increase daily activity and strength train multiple times per week. This allows us to reach the desired caloric-deficit while keeping calories as high as possible and maximizing gains in lean body mass. For those that are unable to increase their daily activity levels or energy expenditure in the gym, these low calorie diets may be the only means available for achieving fat loss goals.
Each person presents a unique set of circumstances with their desired goals. It is our job as coaches to use our knowledge and tools to put a program together that works towards those goals, and sometimes that includes a 1,200-calorie diet.
- Find maintenance calories first and then create a deficit for weight loss
- Energy deficits can be achieved through increased daily activity, increased energy expenditure while training, and calorie restriction
- 1,200-calorie diets can be appropriately used for reaching goals
- Nutrition programs should always be customized with long-term health in mind
- There are no substitutions for diet adherence, smart nutritional choices, and hard work
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