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A 1,200-calorie diet is a popular low-calorie diet for quick fat loss.
However, you may wonder how much weight you can lose with a 1,200-calorie diet and whether this calorie allowance is safe or healthy.
This article explains what to eat and avoid on a 1,200-calorie diet for weight loss, whether the diet is healthy and safe, and provides a sample 1,200-calorie diet meal plan.
What is a 1,200-calorie diet?
A 1,200-calorie diet restricts daily calories to 1,200.
For reference, a 2,000-calorie diet is considered adequate to meet most people’s calorie and nutrient needs.
But not everyone needs a 2,000-calorie diet — you may need more or fewer calories based on your age, gender, body size, and physical activity level.
However, most people have calorie needs higher than 1,200 per day.
Consistently eating fewer calories than you need to support normal bodily functions and physical activity is necessary to lose weight.
For this reason, a 1,200-calorie diet is popular — and effective — for fat loss.
Low-calorie foods to eat
A 1,200-calorie diet can be very limiting.
As such, you should emphasize nutrient-dense foods, which are high in nutrients but relatively low in calories.
Although commonly vilified for the sugar content, including some fruit in your diet is important.
Fruit provides vitamins, minerals, appetite-suppressing fiber, and they contain a high water content.
Berries, apples, melons, oranges, and stone fruits like cherries, peaches, and apricots are the best options.
Nonstarchy vegetables lack the calories and carbs that starchy vegetables like corn, potatoes, peas, and beets contain.
Like fruit, nonstarchy vegetables are high in water and packed with beneficial nutrients.
Aim to fill at least half your plate with nonstarchy vegetables.
Nonstarchy vegetables include:
- amaranth leaves
- bok choy
- brussels sprouts
- sweet peppers
Milk and dairy products are packed with high-quality protein and essential nutrients including calcium, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin B12, potassium, zinc, and magnesium (1).
Still, milk naturally contains carbohydrates and should be limited to 2–3 cups per day to keep your calories low.
Stick with skim milk since it contains less fat and fewer calories than low-fat or whole milk.
Low-fat cottage cheese and Greek yogurt are also great sources of protein and are easy on your calorie budget.
If you avoid dairy due to an intolerance, allergy, or different reason, soy milk is a good alternative.
Lean animal proteins
Lean animal proteins are rich in protein but low in fat.
Limiting foods rich in fat is especially important since fat contains more than double the calories per gram of carbs or protein.
Increasing your intake of protein while following a low-calorie diet decreases appetite, reduces muscle loss, and increases metabolism (2).
The best lean protein sources include:
- skinless, white-meat poultry
- sirloin and tenderloin steaks
- pork loin
- egg whites
Aim to consume 0.55–0.73 grams of protein per pound (1.2–1.6 grams per kg) of body weight daily (3).
For a 150-pound person, this equates to 83–110 grams of protein.
Legumes — beans, peas, and lentils — are lean protein sources, but they are generally high in carbs and therefore calories.
As such, if you follow a vegetarian diet, it can be difficult to get enough protein from your diet while still limiting your calories to 1,200.
While rich in carbs, whole grains provide B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, copper, magnesium, and dietary fiber.
As such, including some whole grains in your diet provides important vitamins and minerals while staving off hunger.
Some of the best sources of whole-grains include:
- brown rice
- whole-wheat bread or pasta
Low- and calorie-free beverages
Unless you’re drinking a protein or meal replacement shake, it’s best to get your calories from food — especially since you’re limited in calories.
This is partly because liquid calories tend to promote less satiety or feelings of fullness than solid foods (4).
Beverages with few or no calories include diet sodas, carbonated or flavored waters, and plain coffee and tea.
High-calorie foods to avoid
Limiting or avoiding high-calorie foods is necessary when you have a 1,200-calorie limit.
While some high-calorie foods like avocado, whole eggs, nuts, and nut butter contain many healthy nutrients and are fine in limited amounts, others contain lots of calories but few nutrients.
Consequently, it’s difficult to stay within your calorie limit and still get enough nutrients.
High-calorie foods to avoid include:
- most fast food
- processed meats like bacon or sausage
- full-fat dairy
- beef ribs
- ice cream and other dairy desserts
You should also avoid sugary drinks, including specialty coffees, sweetened tea, and regular soda or energy drinks.
Also, limit most alcoholic beverages since they can be high in empty calories while providing little to no nutrition.
Sample 1,200-calorie diet menu
Here’s a sample 1,200-calorie diet menu that contains 147 grams of protein:
- Breakfast: 1 whole egg with 4 egg whites and 1 cup (148 grams) of blueberries
- Snack: 1 cup (227 grams) of plain non-fat Greek yogurt mixed with a Hidden Valley Ranch Dip packet, and tomatoes, celery, broccoli, and sweet pepper slices for dipping
- Lunch: 6-ounce (170 grams) grilled chicken breast with 1 cup (195 grams) brown rice cooked, and 1 cup (185 grams) of broccoli
- Snack: 1 cup (227 grams) low-fat cottage cheese with half-cup (122 grams) of sliced peaches
- Dinner: 4-ounce (113 grams) baked pork loin with asparagus spears
Use seasonings, spices, and low- or calorie-free dressings and sauces to flavor your meals.
Olive oil spray and small amounts of butter or margarine are fine.
Is a 1,200-calorie diet healthy?
A 1,200 calorie diet can be healthy, but it depends on how well it’s planned, your current health, and your physical activity level.
The diet requires a lot of planning to ensure you’re getting enough nutrients while staying within the calorie limit.
Supplementing with a multivitamin and mineral supplement can help you cover any nutrient shortfalls.
If you intend to follow a 1,200-calorie diet for more than a few months, you should take a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement, even if you believe you’re getting enough nutrients through your diet.
A simple and inexpensive supplement like this one from Nature Made works great for both men and women.
The most common side effects of a 1,200-calorie diet include fatigue, constipation, and cold intolerance (5).
Athletes, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and other people with increased calorie needs shouldn’t follow a 1,200-calorie diet.
How much weight can you lose on a 1,200-calorie diet?
A 1,200-calorie diet can be effective for weight loss.
For most people, a 1,200-calorie diet can help them achieve a healthy rate of weight loss of about 0.5–2 pounds (0.23–0.91) per week, if not more (6).
People with a higher initial body weight will experience faster weight loss than someone with a lower starting body weight.
Men also tend to lose more weight than women under similar conditions, and more active people will lose more weight on a 1,200-calorie diet than those who are less active (7).
If you are not losing weight on a 1,200-calorie diet or losing weight at a slow pace, consider tracking your calories more closely to ensure that you’re staying around the 1,200-calorie limit (8).
However, keep in mind the strictness of a 1,200-calorie diet — it can be hard to follow for long periods and weight regain is common without healthy lifestyle and behavior changes (9).
The bottom line
A 1,200-calorie diet is a popular and effective weight loss diet.
The diet emphasizes mostly nonstarchy vegetables and lean protein, but also includes limited amounts of fruit, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products.
However, due to the diet’s low number of calories, it can be difficult to follow long-term and get enough nutrients without a multivitamin and mineral supplement.