The Myth of 1200 Calories

It’s no secret that I view the word diet as a four letter word. That’s because they are often dangerous, unhealthy, temporary, hard on the head and mostly a short term solution to a long term problem. Sure there are a few variations on a theme but most diets at their core are calorie deficit diets. Sometimes you do that while eating lots of fat or no cabs, cutting refined sugar or meal replacement shakes but at their core they are all cutting your calories. So often we’re told, hear of or are just put on a plan that gets us to take in 1200 calories to lose weight? Ask yourself some questions as you read through this:

  • Why that number?
  • Where did that number come from?
  • How can it be the same for everyone no matter how tall, short, fat or gender?
  • Can you even live on 1200 calories long term?
  • Why does everyone keep repeating it?
  • What does 1200 calories look like? What does it feel like?
  • Could 1200 calories be the right number?
  • Can you eat a different number of calories and still meet your weight loss goals?


Where did the 1200 calorie number come from?

Full disclosure, to a certain extent we don’t really know, that’s not satisfying at all is it? What I can tell you about though is the first known reference to 1200 calorie diets for weight loss originated in 1918, long before the internet and weight watchers, at least that’s what I read on the internet. A lady named Lulu Hunt Peters, who was in fact a medical doctor was the first to put forward the idea that the secret to losing weight was to limit one’s calorie intake. She herself had struggled with her weight and allegedly weighed well over 200 lbs at one point in her life. I say allegedly since I never met her largely due to the fact she died form pneumonia in 1930. Her best selling book Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories explained the idea of calories as a unit of energy measure and is the first known reference to 1200 calories a day to lose weight.

She actually got a lot right in her book, most of it really, but it certainly was of it’s time. She described human bodies as fireless cookers before we understood the major pathways of metabolism, she talked about balancing food intake with output and how exercise effects that. She even came up with a way to calculate your ideal weight in the same vein as BMI and the idea that 100 calories of pie wouldn’t fill you up as much as 100 calories of bread. That’s a concept modern terrible diets like noom are still pushing in the idea of calorie density. PS that’s one of the only best parts.

However it is a 100 year old diet at the same time. She assumed all women wanted to lose weight, discouraged women in particular from eating candy since we couldn’t help but binge in it (pushes away M & M’s and gummy bear) and suggested this would help women save the war rations for the little ones, plus she talked a lot about moral character. Yes she recommended 1200 calories for everyone presumably because it worked for her but it went a little deeper than “eat 1200 calories a day, that is all.”


What does 1200 calories mean?

Despite what you might have heard there is no standard definition of a starvation diet, certainly not by number of calories alone. I took a look at the scientific literature on the subject and while there is lots of discussion, some agreed upon facts there is no standard number of calories considered officially starving. So what is out there? Most experts agree that if your are not getting all the minerals, nutrients and vitamins from your diet necessary to sustain life you are by definition starving. Other experts argue that if you are eating a diet that will eventually kill you if something doesn’t change soon you are starving. But some experts don’t love that definition because if you are overeating, suffering diabetes or heart disease as a direct result of your diet you are starving to death too. Understandably lots of clinicians don’t think these two groups should be lumped together.

While the WHO (world health organization) and the UN (united nations) do mention calories in their qualifying criteria for food aid there is no hard and fast cut off for the number of calories available to you and your ability to qualify for food aid. Generally that goes by weight, specifically having a BMI under 18.5 with access to fewer than 1500 calories on average daily. So in some ways eating 1200 calories a day does qualify you for food aid but there is a key difference here. Being overweight and eating 1200 calories a day though maybe silly it isn’t starvation according to the WHO but eating 1500 calories and being underweight is, that should be at least food for thought.

Let’s talk next about your BMR or basal metabolic rate. This is essentially fancy speak for the number of calories you burn just to run your body on a daily basis. Things like keeping your brain going, your heart beating, your lungs breathing and your nerves firing. Essentially if you just lay or sit there all day moving hardly at all this is the number of calories you burn. If you take in less than this number of calories and just lay there you will eventually die from starvation. Although, it might take a very, very long time but let’s agree that we should all be eating more than our BMR. I encourage you to head on over to a site like this to calculate yours. It’s based on your age and height and a healthy weight for the most part. Just click sedentary for your activity level and see what it takes to just keep you alive. My BMR at 5’8” and age 35 is 1355 calories a day now if I was 5’0” and age 75 my BMR would be 1120 calories a day. So for very short and or very old people 1200 calories might be somewhat more reasonable.


Why is 1200 calories still a thing?

Dr. Lulu Hunt Peter’s book Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories was a national bestseller for four years in the inter war era. That is HIUGE and the advice contained there-in established Lulu Hunt Peters as a weight loss expert. Her advice was sound and it was the first time the world learned about the concept of a calorie in the first place, to the point she included the pronunciation in the book! Interesting fact, 100 years ago people were even shorter, men by three inches on average and women by an inch so that made the 1200 calorie number that much more reasonable, not a whole lot but it’s something. In science we have an accepted understanding that our discoveries are only made possible by standing on the shoulder’s of those that came before us. In other words but for the last person who discovered something big or small we wouldn’t have looked in the direction we did. The same idea likely grabbed hold here. Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters found from her experience that restricting calories helped her to lose weight, specifically 1200 calories, how short or tall was she? We don’t know. Then she wrote a fabulously popular weight loss book explaining her methods and it would have worked well for anyone who stuck with it. That book stayed on the best seller list for four years and diets that came after hers built on her findings. But the ubiquity of the 1200 calorie myth at this point is just stupid.

So if calorie restriction works and 1200 is stupid how do you decide what to eat?

Short answer is with your doctor or nutritionist. Closer to the new year when everyone is vowing to lose weight anyway I plan to write a post about how to finally do it for good, once and for all. The thing is that post is going to talk about calorie restriction a lot. For some really short still people the 1200 calorie number might even come into play. The thing is at this point virtually 50% of the population is overweight or obese, in some places higher and that trend is only increasing. So takeaway message many of us need to lose weight and the good doctor was right, calorie restriction in some form is what’s in order. My concern is the 1200 calorie model sets the vast majority, pretty much to the point of everyone, up to fail because you are so damn hungry. Then you binge on whatever isn’t nailed down and then give up. Also even if you are really ‘good’ and find a way to stick with it, it’s not a long term sustainable thing. So when you reach your goal weight you go back to your regular eating habits and so the struggle begins again. I also think that following a very low calorie plan can lead to disordered eating behavior for a few and that’s not territory you want to get into! I think its a good idea to eat the number of calories needed to maintain your goal weight and then just do that forever, done, simple!

I usually work my links into the text of my articles but I wanted to do something different this time so here are some posts you might want to check out on diets that I’ve written.

Just out of curiosity do you remember where you first heard the 1200 calorie rule? How old were you? I don’t remember where, probably a women’s magazine but I was like 12 years old! Isn’t that nuts? It’s also probably longer now with the internet and such? Have you ever tried the 1200 calorie diet? How did that go?

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