Health

No, A 1200 Calorie Diet Isn't A Starvation Diet When You're 5'1"

By Jaimee Marshall
·  9 min read
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We hear endlessly about the harms of diet culture. There's no doubt that the "skinny is beautiful" fad of the early 2000s did irreparable harm to many young girls' self-esteem. Objectively thin women were labeled as fat and plastered on the cover of Us Weekly for everyone to scrutinize. Yet, the pendulum has swung feverishly in the opposite direction. The discourse suffers from the same absence of nuance now as it did then.

Big is beautiful, healthy at any size, and thick thighs save lives. Most of these are opinions about aesthetics, which vary among individuals. Still, society has become obsessed with validating larger women at the expense of their health, truth, and science. And, hey, we live in a free society. If you want to believe that you can be healthy at any size wrongly, well, that's your business. However, it's led to a dogmatic system of beliefs in the fitness and nutrition community, transparently dominated by people with histories of eating disorders who project their poor relationship with food onto others. You can be a licensed nutritionist or dietician and give blatantly wrong and harmful advice. One of the most devious is that 1,200-calorie diets are starvation diets. It's incumbent on us to dispel this myth once and for all.

The Diet and Fitness Community Has Lost the Plot

A quick search for "1,200 calorie diets" on Google or YouTube would lead you to believe that eating 1,200 calories is equivocal to anorexia. Countless articles detail, in passive-aggressive language, how 1,200 calories are "only suitable for a child or a dog" and "is barely enough to keep you alive" and supposedly makes you feel lethargic, ravenous, and miserable. Of course, this is a ridiculous generalization. Sure, 1,200 calories are far too low for many people, particularly those with high basal metabolic rates (BMRs), but certainly not for all of them. I ate 1,200 calories per day for several months a few years back and lost a significant amount of weight without feeling deprived or exhausted, as these articles describe. As a 5'2" woman, I maintain my weight at around 1,450 calories, so if I want to lose a few pounds after going on vacation or eating a lot over the holidays, it's back to 1,200 calories I go. An amount that is perfectly healthy for my height and weight, by the way.

Why, then, do so-called experts with education in nutrition insist on speaking in absolutes? The number of times I've come across influencer videos or even fitness trainers I know who post propaganda trying to scare women out of eating calories that are proportional to their BMR is disheartening. "1,200 calories isn't enough for an adult human" is one I see proclaimed unbelievably frequently. Here's the problem – none of this advice is scientifically accurate. It's nothing more than a virtue signal to overcorrect for the mistakes historically made by public figures pushing dangerous dieting fads on young women. 

The Errors of One-Size-Fits-All Dieting Advice

I'm not going to sit here and tell you how many calories you should eat because that's entirely dependent on a host of factors to which I don't have access. It's interesting, though, how many of these women believe it's appropriate to tell me what's too little for my body, despite knowing nothing about me. We need to know someone's height, weight, and activity level to prescribe them any personalized dieting advice. What I can provide you with, however, are scientific facts and math – something notably amiss in these irresponsible statements. The reality is that a person much shorter in stature with a more petite frame will have vastly different caloric needs than a tall person with a large frame. Your height, weight, gender, and muscle mass influence your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is the number of calories your body will burn to maintain essential bodily functions. Your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) is a more helpful tool to determine how many calories you should eat because it factors in activity level (including non-exercise activity). 

Using a calorie calculator, we can determine how many calories a woman who is 5'1" and 115 lbs needs to eat to lose weight. Her BMR is about 1,206 calories, and her TDEE is 1,387. This second number is how many calories she should eat to maintain her current weight. If this woman were to eat 1,200 calories daily, she would have a very conservative calorie deficit. According to Legion Athletics' calorie calculator, based on the Mifflin-St. Jeor equation, this woman would only lose half a pound a week if she ate 1,187 calories daily. These numbers are for a woman leading a sedentary lifestyle, mind you. Let's say this woman works a sedentary 9-5 desk job and doesn't have time to exercise. For her, eating 1,200 calories is hardly even a deficit, let alone a starvation diet.

The only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you consume, but we all have different caloric needs.

Most people aim for a 500-calorie deficit per day to lose a pound in a week sustainably. This woman is already at a healthy weight, but she would also be healthy if she lost another 10 pounds. These are what some like to refer to as "aesthetic pounds." If she wants to lose a few more pounds to achieve a particular physique, it would be easier to increase her activity in some way, along with eating in a slight calorie deficit. This way, she would lose weight faster than purely relying on her minimal deficit through diet alone. That, however, isn't the point. If this woman were to listen to the pseudointellectual advice of 1,200-calorie diet shamers, she would believe that she wasn't eating enough and may even begin eating in a caloric surplus, causing her to gain weight. 

I see this often – influencers insisting that because they can eat 2,000 calories a day and lose weight, this must be true for everyone, and 1,200 calories is undoubtedly a measly amount to eat compared to 2,000, right? However, what's left out of this story? How tall is this person? How heavy are they? Do they strength train multiple days a week? There isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to diet and exercise, but the law of thermodynamics works the same. The only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you consume, but we all have different caloric needs. The amount I can eat to lose weight will not be the same as what you can eat to lose weight since we are not precisely the same.

1,200 Calories Is Plenty

Short women have fewer calorie needs than taller people, so they're more likely to eat around 1,200 calories when trying to drop a few pounds, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this! 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advised the following, "For a weight loss of 1 ½ pounds per week, daily intake should be reduced by 500 to 750 calories." It continues: "Eating patterns that contain 1,200 to 1,500 calories each day can help most women lose weight safely." Even women who maintain their weight at 1,950 calories per day could reduce their calories to 1,200 and still be within guidelines, though they'll likely be hungrier. 

In our modern culture, where convenience, comfort, and excess have become second nature, slight discomfort is treated as injustice rather than what it is – temporary discomfort in the pursuit of worthwhile goals. As long as someone isn't genuinely starving themselves or showing signs of an eating disorder, it's not a crime to want to improve yourself. The very notion of self-improvement is becoming villainized in online fitness and health spaces. I see nutritionists criticizing people who choose to eat healthily, accusing them of having orthorexia for eating "too clean" or not "eating enough" when they're eating plenty of calories based on their caloric needs. The promotion of eating more calories than you need to and glamorizing Snickers bars to promote balance is becoming very performative. These are the consequences of letting people with disordered eating histories dominate health and nutrition spaces. When you're a hammer, everything's a nail.

The very notion of self-improvement is becoming villainized in online fitness and health spaces.

1,200 calories aren't deprivation; for many, this modest calorie deficit promotes sustainable weight loss at an even slower rate than most people. Calorie tracking apps like MyFitnessPal don't give calorie recommendations any lower than 1,200 calories because, any lower than this, it’s unlikely that you're meeting your nutritional needs. The villainization of the 1,200-calorie diet traces back to Lulu Hunt Peters, a woman who wrote a book titled Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories, which became immensely popular in the early 1900s. 

A formerly overweight woman herself, Peters introduced the understanding of calories as scientific units and broke it down to the public how women could control their weight by thinking of food as calories. She introduced the notion of eating 1,200 calories a day to lose weight, which she described as morally virtuous and a symbol of patriotism while the nation was at war and food had to be rationed. Her advice became popularized, and 1,200 calories became the magic number for curing all weight loss-related problems. 

This Buzzfeed article villainizes eating 1,200 calories across the board simply because of its association with Peters, insisting that 1,200 calories are only enough for an 80 lb dog or a toddler. The source for this information is just a link to a TikTok video that's a few seconds long. She mischaracterizes 1,200 calories as this terrible, bland, plain diet, but that's if you eat bland food. Eat whatever you want – portion control. It may be problematic to suggest that everyone would benefit from a 1,200-calorie diet, but likewise, suggesting everyone would suffer from it is just as harmful and false. The insistence that 1,200 calories are unhealthy is so ubiquitous that people have created entire subreddits like r/1200isplenty so people can join a community of like-minded people on the same weight loss journey who won't shame them for choosing to eat 1,200 calories. The subreddit is for people with low TDEEs, such as petite women.

Closing Thoughts

The nutritionists, dieticians, influencers, and reporters who liken 1,200 calories to starvation tend to have something in common. You don't have to do much digging to find that most of them have a history of disordered eating, which may have even been the driving force behind their career. Wanting to prevent young women from falling down the deep hole of deprivation and starvation is admirable. The problem, though, is that this experience leads to biases against even reasonable approaches to dieting. Not everyone has an unhealthy relationship with food, so projecting our past experiences onto others leads to unfruitful conversations like this. Let's let people fuel their bodies whichever way they feel necessary without shaming or passive-aggressively making fun of them. 

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