Is a 1,200-calorie diet a healthy way to lose weight?

You've likely heard that low-calorie diets are a way to lose weight quickly, and one of the most popular forms of that is the 1,200-calorie meal plan. When following this meal plan, you eat no more than 1,200 calories a day, including snacks.

How many calories should you be eating a day? The average woman needs between 1,600 and 2,400 calories a day to maintain their weight, and the average man needs between 2,000 and 3,000, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. So it goes without saying that the 1,200-calorie meal plan is restrictive for many people, and that's why it can result in fast weight loss.

To follow a low-calorie diet as safely as possible, you need to be vigilant about making sure you're consuming an adequate amount of nutrients to maintain your overall health. As a result, there's very little wiggle room to eat foods that aren't nutrient dense. Nutrient deficiency and a slower metabolism are two major drawbacks of following a 1,200-calorie meal plan.

If you're considering a 1,200 calorie meal plan, here's what else you need to know.

What is a 1,200-calorie meal plan?

A 1,200-calorie plan is a form of low-calorie diet that's pretty self-explanatory. You try to eat no more than 1,200 calories in one day — which, for the average adult, is the lowest calorie level at which it may still be possible to meet most of your nutrient needs through food.

When carefully planned, a 1,200-calorie menu includes sufficient protein to minimize any muscle you might naturally lose on a fast weight-loss plan, and it will hit most of your vitamin and mineral targets. However, because of the low calorie levels, it’s pretty inflexible, and it doesn’t have any room for fun foods that are devoid of nutrition.

Benefits of a 1,200-calorie meal plan

For people who have a lot of metabolic complications, such as pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes, a diet plan like this may help with weight loss and managing blood-sugar levels. In one year-long trial among more than 2,000 obese patients, the average weight loss was about 32 pounds after a year of eating this way. And many health measures, like HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, improved during the study period. Blood glucose levels among those with type 2 diabetes also improved.

However, study conditions don't always match real life. For example, support from a registered dietitian and psychologist was built into the study program, and the dieters had the opportunity to participate in classes on behavior modification. They were given carefully designed soups, snack bars and other meals to help them reach these goals, which means they didn’t have to do meal prep like most of us do — and they had a system in place for dealing with social and emotional triggers, like a food-filled birthday party or rough day at work.

Another study on a commercially-based low-calorie diet suggested that success depended on regular meetings with the health counselor, indicating that this support is key.

Some research in animals also suggests that low-calorie meal plans may boost your lifespan. A May 2022 study in mice out of UTSouthwestern Medical Center found that restricting calories by 30% to 40% and eating only when the circadian rhythm is active extended lifespan by 35% when compared to mice that could eat whenever and as much as they wanted. The research also found that the mice with restricted calories had better metabolic health, more sensitivity to insulin and blood sugar stability.

Downsides of a 1,200-calorie meal plan

What’s even more important than whether you can lose weight on a 1,200-calorie meal plan is if it’s possible for you to maintain most of what you lost, and therefore, continue to experience health benefits.

In one carefully designed small study among people who lost 10% of their body weight using a low-calorie diet — and who later attempted to maintain the weight loss over a nine-month period that did not include dietary counseling — participants regained on average about half the weight they’d lost.

About 80% of people who try to lose weight will regain it. Weight loss sets off a cascade of biological events that promote weight regain. For example, your metabolism slows down to account for your smaller size. That means you need to eat fewer calories as you lose weight to match your body’s needs. This can be difficult under ordinary circumstances, but after losing weight, it’s much harder because your body responds to weight loss by increasing its hunger hormones. So in essence, you need fewer calories than when you set out to lose weight, but as you do lose weight, you become even hungrier.

And, as noted with the above meal plans, even if you carefully outline your 1,200-calorie meal plan, it can be difficult to get the recommended daily allowance of all your nutrients. Poor nutrition can increase risk of several chronic health conditions, such as obesity, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, according to the CDC.

There can also be drawbacks to this meal plan if 1,200 calories a day is too big of a calorie deficit for your body. You might experience fatigue, nausea, dehydration, constipation, headaches and irritability, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

How much weight will I lose if I eat 1200 calories a day?

How much weight you'll lose on a 1,200-calorie meal plan depends on several factors, including how much you weigh and how active you are.

According to a report from Harvard Medical School, to lose 1 to 2 pounds a week (which most experts consider a safe rate), you need to eat 500 to 1,000 fewer calories a day than your weight-maintenance calorie count, or the amount of calories you should eat in a day to stay the same weight. To calculate your weight-maintenance calories, multiply your weight by 15.

If 1,200 calories a day is more than 500 calories lower than your weight-maintenance calories, you can expect to lose more than 1 to 2 pounds per week. If it's less, then you might lose fewer pounds a week.

1,200-calorie meal plan for 7 days

Here’s a peek at what a 1,200-calorie weight-loss meal plan looks like.

Day 1

Even though this menu is properly planned, it dips slightly below the daily recommended calcium, iron and magnesium levels. Ultimately, it’s difficult to achieve your nutrients from whole foods while staying within a 1,200-calorie limit.

Breakfast: 1/2 whole-wheat English muffin topped with 1/2 cup part-skim ricotta cheese, tomato slices and 1 teaspoon chia seeds.

Lunch: 1 can chunk white tuna, drained and mixed with 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil, 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar. Serve with 1/3 avocado and 2 small cucumbers, chopped.

Dinner: 5 ounces baked chicken seasoned with 1 1/2 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon Italian seasoning. Serve with 1 cup red potatoes roasted in 1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil and a side salad made with 2 cups mixed salad greens tossed with 1/2 tablespoon sliced almonds, 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese and tossed with 1 1/2 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil and 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar.

Snack: 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt and 1 cup strawberries.

Day 2

Breakfast: 1 whole-grain or almond-flour toaster waffle cooked according to directions and topped with 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt mixed with vanilla extract. Heat 1/2 cup frozen berries in the microwave for 1 minute. Pour berries over yogurt-topped waffle and add 1 tablespoon chopped nuts.

Lunch: Make a salad with 2 cups chopped romaine lettuce, 1/4 cup grape tomatoes, 3 ounces of store-bought rotisserie chicken breast, 1/4 avocado, 1 boiled egg, and 2 tablespoon feta cheese. Toss with 1 1/2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil and vinegar to taste.

Dinner: Marinate a 4-ounce chicken breast with 1/2 tablespoon chopped parsley, 1 clove garlic, minced, and the juice from 1/2 lemon. Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet at 425 degrees F for 25 minutes or until it is cooked through (165 degrees F). Serve with 1/2 cup brown rice mixed with 1/4 cup frozen peas.

Snack: 1/2 pear sprinkled with cinnamon and 2 tablespoons nuts.

Day 3

Breakfast: Make 1/2 cup rolled oats with water according to package directions. Serve with 1/2 cup berries and 1/2 cup Greek yogurt mixed in or on the side.

Lunch: Drain 2 1/2 ounces pouched or canned wild salmon and mix with 1 tablespoon store-bought pesto. Stuff the mixture with lettuce and tomato into a whole-wheat pita, and serve with 1/2 cup baby carrots.

Dinner: Cut a 4-ounce chicken breast into strips and toss with 1/2 bell pepper and 1/4 onion, cut into strips. Toss with 1 1/2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil and taco seasoning. Bake on a parchment-lined baking sheet at 425 degrees F for 25 minutes or until cooked through (165 degrees F). Serve over 1/2 cup cooked brown rice.

Snack: 1/2 cup cottage cheese and 1 orange.

Day 4

Breakfast: 1/2 cup cottage cheese mixed with 1/4 cantaloupe, cubed. Serve with 1 slice whole-grain toast spread with 1 tablespoon nut or nutless butter.

Lunch: Make a deconstructed sushi bowl using a mix of 1/2 cup cooked brown rice and 1/2 cup cooked cauliflower rice, 1/4 cucumber sliced into sticks, 1/3 avocado, chopped, and 3 ounces smoked salmon. Sprinkle with 1 nori seaweed sheet, crushed, 1/4 teaspoon sesame seeds, and reduced-sodium soy sauce to taste.

Dinner: Cut 1/2 sweet potato into rounds and toss in 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil. Spread on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 425 degrees F for 15 minutes. Flip the sweet potato rounds and add 1 zucchini, cut into rounds, and another 1/2 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil to the baking sheet. Bake another 15 minutes or until the veggies are to your liking. While the vegetables are cooking, heat 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil in a skillet and add 8 ounces extra lean ground turkey, breaking it up as it cooks. Season with 1 teaspoon of Italian seasoning and salt to taste. Reserve half the ground turkey for dinner another night (see Day 5).

Snack: Add 1/4 cup green olives (pitted) to 1/4 cup store-bought hummus. Serve with 1/2 cup baby carrots.

Day 5

Breakfast: Top 1 slice whole grain toast with 1/3 avocado, mashed, and 1/4 tomato, sliced. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve with 1/2 cup cottage cheese.

Lunch: Have 4 ounces store-bought rotisserie chicken with a tomato salad made with 1/2 cup grape tomatoes, sliced, and tossed in 2 teaspoons store-bought pesto. Serve with 1 orange.

Dinner: Cut1 zucchini into rounds and toss in 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil. Spread on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 425 degrees F for 15 minutes or until zucchini is cooked to your liking. Meanwhile, heat 1 cup frozen broccoli in the microwave. When vegetables are done, toss with 1/2 cup cooked whole grain spaghetti and the remaining 4 ounces ground turkey, reheated and cooked previously.

Snack: Split 1/2 banana lengthwise and spread each half with 1/2 tablespoon tahini (1 tablespoon total). Divide 1 1/2 teaspoon hemp seeds between the two halves.

Day 6

Breakfast: Chop 1/4 bell pepper and heat in a skillet coated with 1/2 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil. Meanwhile whisk two eggs and combine with 1/4 tomato, chopped, 1/4 cup baby spinach, and 1 tablespoon feta cheese. When bell peppers are cooked to your liking, pour the egg mixture into the skillet and scramble. Serve egg scramble with 1 orange.

Lunch: 1 can vegetable soup (preferably low-sodium) mixed with 2/3 cup canned, drained and rinsed chickpeas.

Dinner: Heat 1/2 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil in a skillet and add 4 ounces of peeled and deveined shrimp and 1/2 tablespoon taco mix. Stir and cook for about 3-4 minutes or until the shrimp are cooked through. Meanwhile, mix 1/2 tablespoon taco mix with 2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt. Serve shrimp over 1/2 cup cooked brown rice with 1/4 avocado, diced, chopped lettuce, salsa and the yogurt mixture.

Snack: 1/2 cucumber, sliced, served with 1 ounce cheddar cheese

Day 7

This meal plan comes from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and amounts to 1,247 calories. It doesn't meet the recommended dietary allowance for vitamin E (it hits 80%), vitamin B2 (96%), vitamin B6 (94%), calcium (68%), iron (63%) and zinc (73%).

Breakfast: 1 medium slice whole-wheat bread with 2 teaspoons regular jelly; 1/2 cup shredded wheat cereal with 1 cup 1% milk; 3/4 cup orange juice and 1 cup coffee.

Lunch: 2 medium slices whole-wheat bread, 2 ounces unseasoned, lean roast beef, 1 lettuce leaf, 3 medium tomato slices and 1 teaspoon low-calorie mayonnaise; 1 medium apple and 1 glass of water.

Dinner: 2 ounces salmon cooked with 1 1/2 teaspoons vegetable oil; 3/4 medium baked potato with 1 teaspoon margarine; 1/2 cup green beans seasoned with margarine; carrots; 1 small white dinner roll; unsweetened iced tea and water.

Snack: 2 1/2 cups popcorn with 3/4 teaspoon margarine.

Should you follow a 1,200-calorie meal plan?

In a nutshell, probably not. A plan like this is hard to maintain over time, and any short-term benefit you experience is likely to be canceled out if you aren’t able to sustain the weight loss.

It’s not necessary to restrict your food intake to this degree, even when trying to lose weight or get healthier. In fact, studies show that losing just 5% of your weight can lead to major health benefits, including improving blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Finally, while you do need to cut calories to lose weight, you don’t need to count them, particularly if you focus on some other factors. The Mayo Clinic Diet, for example, involves estimating and counting portions, but not calories.

Here’s some simple advice to try:

  • Prioritize whole foods over heavily processed foods. It’s easier to fill up on whole foods, such as chicken, fish, both starchy and non-starchy veggies, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

  • Have at least 2 cups of non-starchy vegetables at lunch and dinner. Eating a veggie-rich meal helps you feel full, which can reduce overeating.

  • Limit added sugars and refined grains. If you consume sugary drinks, one of the best things you can do is to swap them for unsweetened versions. Take note of food labels to shop for less-sweetened packaged food. When you want to treat yourself, do it mindfully. Think of splurges on a scale of so-so to totally worth it. Go for ones that are totally worth it to maximize your enjoyment and minimize eating less satisfying foods.

  • Learn how to deal with your food triggers. A 1,200-calorie meal plan doesn’t teach you how to handle free samples at the grocery store or events, like parties and happy hours. It also won’t help you pinpoint when you’re eating out of boredom or stress. Developing the tools to navigate these types of challenges can help you manage your weight — and your health — without going on a very low 1,200-calorie meal plan.

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