Some people follow 1,200-calorie diet plans to promote fat loss and reach their goal weight as quickly as possible.

While it’s true that cutting calories is an effective way to lose weight, research shows that reducing calorie intake too drastically isn’t good for long-term health or weight loss.

This article reviews 1,200-calorie diets and covers the potential benefits and downsides associated with low calorie dietary patterns.

Woman cooking in the kitchenShare on Pinterest
10’000 Hours/Getty Images

A 1,200-calorie diet is a way of eating that limits the number of daily calories you consume to 1,200. This diet is considered a low calorie diet because it provides significantly fewer calories than most adults need to maintain their weight.

Many healthcare professionals, including doctors and dietitians, prescribe lower calorie diets as a go-to strategy for weight loss.

A common recommendation for weight loss is to decrease calorie intake by 500–750 calories per day. This usually translates to a low calorie diet of 1,200–1,500 calories per day for adult females and 1,500–1,800 calories per day for adult males (1).

Note that 1,200 calories is at the low end of the recommended low calorie diet ranges for females.

Some researchers categorize low calorie diets as dietary patterns that deliver 800–1,200 calories per day, while very low calorie diets are categorized as diets that deliver fewer than 800 calories per day (2, 3).

These diets are typically followed for short periods of weeks to months to promote rapid weight loss.

Low calorie and very low calorie diets are commonly used in clinical settings under medical supervision, such as weight loss centers, but they’re popular with the general public as well.

In fact, many weight loss coaches, personal trainers, and popular dieting websites offer 1,200-calorie meal plans, promising that following a 1,200-calorie diet will help you “slim down fast.”

These diets typically promote the use of “low calorie,” “fat-free,” and “reduced-fat” foods to help keep calorie intake low and usually involve calorie counting so that dieters make sure they’re staying under their daily limit.

While a 1,200-calorie diet may be appropriate in the short term in certain situations, 1,200 calories are far too few for the majority of adults.

Plus, while you may initially experience fast weight loss when dramatically reducing your calorie intake, studies show that low calorie diets rarely work for keeping weight off long term (4, 5).

Creating a calorie deficit is necessary for weight loss. Cutting calories by 500–750 calories per day, as some healthcare professionals advise, is likely to encourage weight loss, at least in the short term.

Many studies have shown that following low calorie diets, including 1,200-calorie diets, can promote weight loss.

For example, a study including 2,093 people with obesity demonstrated that a medically supervised 1,200-calorie meal replacement diet resulted in an average fat loss of 4.7% over 12 months (6).

In another study, adults followed a commercial weight loss program that provided either 500, 1,200–1,500, or 1,500–1,800 calories per day.

After 1 year, those eating 1,200–1,500 calories per day experienced an average weight loss of 15 pounds (6.8 kilograms). However, 23% of the 4,588 people following the 1,200-calorie diet dropped out of the study (7).

Studies have found that while initial weight loss using low calorie diets, like 1,200-calorie diets, is typically rapid and substantial, it’s often followed by greater weight regain, compared with diets using only moderate calorie restriction.

In the commercial weight loss study mentioned above, researchers observed that rapid weight loss during the first 3 months was associated with greater regain during the 9-month weight loss maintenance phase in all three of the diet groups (7).

Another study involving 57 people with overweight or obesity noted that after following a very low 500-calorie diet for 5 weeks or a low 1,250-calorie for 12 weeks, study participants regained 50% of the weight they lost over 10 months, on average (8).

This is because low calorie diets induce metabolic changes that conserve energy and prevent weight loss, including increased appetite, loss of lean body mass, and reductions in the number of calories burned, all of which make long-term weight maintenance difficult (9, 10, 11).

This has led many health experts to recommend eating patterns that use only small reductions in calorie intake to promote weight loss while minimizing the negative metabolic adaptations that are associated with low calorie diets (12).

Following a 1,200-calorie diet may provide some health benefits, but it’s important to note that these benefits are associated with calorie restriction in general and are not specific to 1,200-calorie meal plans.

Regularly consuming more calories than your body needs can lead to many effects, including weight gain, increased heart disease risk factors, and diabetes (13).

Fueling your body with the right number of calories is essential for overall health and well-being.

Many studies have shown that calorie reduction, in general, can benefit health by promoting weight loss, reducing heart disease risk factors like LDL (bad) cholesterol, and decreasing blood sugar levels and inflammation (14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19).

There’s no question that losing excess body weight has positive effects on health and that staying within your individual calorie needs is best for your body.

However, the methods used to promote weight loss matter. Using very low calorie, restrictive dieting methods is strongly associated with increased chances of weight regain over time.

Therefore, while losing excess body weight can benefit your overall health, it’s important to choose healthy, sustainable weight loss methods over more extreme dietary patterns.

It should be noted that some research has shown that people with moderate or severe obesity who follow low calorie or very low calorie diets under medical supervision lose weight and improve their blood sugar and lipid profiles, which can improve overall health (20).

Still, these diets are typically followed for short periods and usually associated with high dropout rates due to their restrictive nature.

Nonetheless, if you’re interested in following a low calorie diet for weight loss, it’s important to speak with a qualified healthcare professional for advice.

Calorie needs are highly individualized. They depend on many factors, including body size, age, and activity levels. A 1,200-calorie diet is inappropriate for most adults.

Though calorie requirements vary from person to person and accurate needs can only be determined using specific equipment or calculations, the average adult female needs around 2,000 calories per day to maintain their weight, while an adult male needs around 2,500 (21, 22).

Again, these numbers are only averages. They don’t reflect the differences in calorie needs due to factors like age, activity levels, and height. However, these estimations give you an idea of how low 1,200 calories is.

A 1,200-calorie diet is much too low for most people. It can result in negative side effects, like dizziness, extreme hunger, nausea, micronutrient deficiencies, fatigue, headaches, and gallstones (23).

Furthermore, a 1,200-calorie diet can set you up for failure if long-term weight loss is your goal.

Restricting calories leads to metabolic changes in your body. These include increases in hormones like ghrelin and cortisol, which drive hunger, as well as a drop in resting metabolic rate (RMR), or the calories that you burn while at rest (12, 24).

This leads to greater chances of weight regain over time, as well as a cycle of repeated periods of weight loss followed by weight regain, which commonly leads to feelings of despair.

Weight cycling is detrimental to mental health. Research has shown that repeated dieting and weight cycling can stress the heart and may lead to a higher risk of eating disorders, type 2 diabetes, and even death (25, 26).

Oftentimes, people looking to lose weight choose diets based on how quickly they can produce the desired results. However, it’s important to consider the long-term health consequences of overly restricting calories.

While choosing a restrictive, low calorie diet that delivers well below your daily calorie needs is likely to result in quick weight loss, keep in mind that some of that weight loss is in the form of muscle mass. Muscle loss and other metabolic adaptations can lower your RMR (12).

Large calorie deficits not only lead to unfavorable changes that make maintaining weight loss harder but also can take a serious toll on your emotional well-being.

The majority of studies suggest that dieting does not work. Instead, using healthier, less extreme weight loss methods is a better choice for supporting weight loss and weight loss maintenance over time.

For example, instead of cutting your intake down to 1,200 calories — which usually involves a lot of calorie tracking that can be time consuming — try a few of the following evidence-based, sustainable weight loss tips:

  • Eat whole foods: Prioritize whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, beans, fish, nuts, seeds, and eggs. Whole foods are packed with the fiber, protein, and healthy fats your body needs to thrive.
  • Limit or avoid added sugar: Reducing your added sugar intake is a healthy way to promote weight loss. Common foods high in sugar include soda, cakes, ice cream, candy, and cereals (27).
  • Cook more meals at home: Limit or avoid takeout, restaurants, and fast food, and cook more meals at home. People who cook more meals at home tend to weigh less and have a healthier diet than those who eat more meals outside the home (28).
  • Increase daily activity: One of the best ways to promote healthy, sustainable weight loss is to create a calorie deficit by increasing the number of calories you burn. Try adding in daily walks outside, taking exercise classes, or joining a gym (29).
  • Work with a knowledgeable healthcare professional: Weight loss can be intimidating and stressful. A knowledgeable dietitian or other qualified healthcare professional can help you lose weight in a sustainable, approachable way.

While losing weight using healthy, sustainable dietary approaches may take more time, it reduces the unfavorable adaptations that occur in the body during extreme calorie restriction. It can also help increase your chances of avoiding weight regain.

A 1,200-calorie diet is a low calorie eating pattern that typically involves counting calories and eating reduced calorie foods to promote quick weight loss.

Although a 1,200-calorie diet is likely to promote short-term, rapid weight loss, metabolic adaptations that occur during calorie restriction make keeping the weight off long term extremely difficult.

What’s more, 1,200 calories is well under the average number of calories that most adults need to fuel their bodies.

While diets providing 1,200 or fewer calories are a popular tool for weight loss, it’s better for your overall health to choose a diet that fuels your body in a healthy way and promotes slow yet sustainable weight loss that can be maintained for life.