1,200 Calories a Day Is a Starvation Diet, Actually

After many years of counting calories, I have been resuming my efforts to lose weight in preparation for a masters boxing match. I don't need to lose much and I am not in a rush so I began with a goal of about 2000 calories per day, hoping for gradual weight loss.
Two days into the process, I was listening to my stomach grumble as I sat at the computer. All I could think of was: How the hell can someone survive on 1,200 calories per day? I'm a millennial geriatric parent of an active toddler during a pandemic. But I'm not an athlete.


My experience has taught me that 1,200 calories per day is enough to lose a few pounds for a woman who is active. It is not possible for a woman to lose weight while still eating 1,800 or 2000 calories per day. This feat would be impossible if she were an Olympic-level athlete who worked out long hours every day.

1,200 calories is what I have heard my whole life. This is how I started to learn about dieting at a young age.

1.200 calories per day was suggested by the 1920s

Due to a book entitled Diet and Health: with a Key to the Calories, which was widely read by Americans, the idea of eating 1,200 calories per day to lose weight has been around since the 1920s. Despite 100 years of research proving that this recommendation does not work, it will not die. (Another good idea was to add radioactive element radium into toothpaste, food and drinks in 1920s. This was only after many factory workers, mostly young women, died from radium poisoning.

These diets are rarely successful. Although they may help people lose weight temporarily, they will eventually feel hungry and want to stop following the diet. They usually end up gaining as much or more of what they have lost. Jamie Nadeau is a registered dietician that helps people to re-discover their relationship with food. Jamie Nadeau: Many of my clients have tried 1,200 calories. Either they couldn't stick with it because there isn't enough food or they had a bad relationship with food and gained it back.


That's because 1,200 calories per day is considered a starvation diet for most women. Nadeau stated that most women need more than 1,200 calories to maintain their normal survival functions. It is absurd that people try to live and exercise on this amount of calories.

Half of the daily energy requirements for a woman is 1,200 calories

Recent research published in Science in August found that the average adult woman aged 20-60 burns approximately 2,400 calories per day. The average woman who is smaller or has a slower metabolism will burn less calories than women who are larger and/or have faster metabolisms. Herman Pontzer, a Duke University faculty member, stated in an email to Lifehacker that 1,200 calories per day is about half the amount that the average woman needs.

Contrary to what our fitness trackers tell us, we don't start at a low base energy requirement and have the right to eat more calories whenever we move. Our bodies evolved to consume a fixed amount of energy every day. This is called constrained total daily energy exp.

This means that, although exercise is important for long-term health and weight maintenance, it doesn't burn as many calories. It won't cause weight loss unless you make conscious efforts to reduce your food intake.


Our bodies instead act as if our daily energy consumption is a fixed budget. It will shift to different processes to make it equal at the end of each day. Then, we start over the next day.

Sedentary people will use their extra energy for more expensive processes such as the immune system and stress response. These are small things that help us fight off infection and escape danger but can lead to long-term diseases.

When we are active, like when training for something, our bodies may burn more energy temporarily, but eventually they will adapt and our energy needs will return to a level that is close to our daily average.

If we gain muscle, our metabolism will increase, as well as our daily energy requirements, due to an increase of our body's fat-free mass. As our brains attempt to maintain a steady weight, our hunger will increase. This is essential for survival in human history.


The Minnesota Starvation Experiment uses 1,200 calories per day.

The average energy requirement for women is 2,400 calories per day. This would mean that a 1,200 calorie diet would be comparable to the Minnesota Starvation Experiment in 1944. It was designed to determine the best way to refeed those who are starving.

For a year, 36 healthy, young men were recruited to participate in this study. The first three months were used to calibrate the daily food intake. These volunteers survived on an average of 1,570 calories per day for six months, approximately half their daily caloric requirements. They lost an average of 25% of their bodyweight over the course these six months. The last three months were spent allowing participants to eat as much or as little as they liked.

Participants developed a food obsession that continued long after they had stopped starving. Participants also experienced anxiety and depression as well as eating habits similar to those with anorexia or bulimia.

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment participants were motivated volunteers. Participants believed that their participation would help starvation victims and they could also live and eat in a controlled environment. They developed problems that continued long after they were starved.


A person may eat 1,200 calories a day for a few days and then they'll be able to survive on that amount for several more days if they're very motivated. After that, they'll usually stop the diet and eat more to compensate for the loss.

They might also not be accurately counting. Pontzer stated that people are not good at tracking their food. It is possible that dieters who aim for 1,200 calories per day might end up with a lower reduction.

These diets will not work for the majority of people. They will gain weight again and develop a disordered relationship to food. Nadeau stated that the worst thing about 1,200 calories per day is that they make it difficult for themselves to keep to it.

Diet culture is not an easy topic to solve

This isn't a problem that we are unable to solve. I am a part of this discussion. I absorbed all the messages society gave me as a child. My father was a crash-diet and binge-eater who also ridiculed women who weighed more than the bare minimum. He measured in at 5' 6" and 110 lbs. This pressure caused my sister to become a starved teen. This pressure pushed me to resort to emotional eating and crash dieting.


My adult life has been spent trying to learn from the mistakes I made growing up. My biggest breakthrough was when I discovered a sport I enjoyed, which taught me about my body's strength potential. I found that I enjoyed feeling strong and that I had to respect my body's needs. This meant eating a healthier diet.

Nadeau recommends a similar approach to clients she works with. She encourages them to create habits that bring joy to their lives, not take away. Nadeau stated that you need to be proactive and say, "I'm not going to die anymore. I'm not going to restrict my diet or starve myself to lose weight." Instead, she suggests focusing on creating good habits that improve our lives, such as eating more vegetables, fiber-rich proteins, and engaging in physical activity.

This may seem like extreme advice in the world we live, but it is common sense in a more disorderly world. Our disordered thoughts about nutrition and health are more widespread than we realize. I haven't considered 1,200 calories per day an adequate amount of food in years. Despite all the information I have about my body and its needs, it is still hard to believe that 2,000 calories per day is excessive.

Based on my body's feedback, I decided to increase my food intake. While I would love to be able to compete again, which will require me keeping track of how much weight I have, my priority is staying strong. Although I am still learning, I know that I will not be starving myself.