Skepticism

Why 1,200 Calories IS Enough for Some People

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Content warning! In this video I’m going to be talking about weight loss and calories. If you have an eating disorder or other condition that might be worsened by that kind of talk, I highly suggest you give this one a skip!

So, it’s January, and that means New Year Resolutions! And for many Americans that means getting healthy. At the top of the month I posted a Tweet defending the idea of New Year’s resolutions, much to the surprise of many considering that in general, I’m a cynical bitch who doesn’t exactly exude optimistic ideas of self-improvement. Despite that well-earned reputation, I actually do believe in self-improvement and I think it’s a thing that everyone should genuinely concern themselves with. (At least, everyone who is comfortable in life. Obviously it’s hard to care about your physical or mental or psychological health if you’re struggling to pay rent or put food on the table.)

But for the rest of us, I don’t begrudge people New Year’s resolutions. Yes, it’s an “arbitrary” date but I like arbitrary dates! I like starting a new spread in my bullet journal every Monday. And yeah! I started bullet journaling as a New Year’s thing two years ago and I’m actually still doing it and it has demonstrably made my life better, as my patrons know because I’ve evangelized bujo in past vlogs. Like, it literally showed me that people CAN change. I can change. 

And while January 1 may seem arbitrary to some, it comes on the heels of some other “arbitrary” dates that don’t necessarily promote good health. For me in particular, and probably for many other Americans, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is basically a Dionysian free-for-all of sugar and alcohol and delicious fatty food and lounging around in my underpants watching a brainless Christmas special I’ve seen every year for 30 years.

So it makes total sense that at the end of that hedonistic month people might want to take a step back and kind of clean their shit up.

This year was particularly rough for me — I started 2020 planning to build muscle and improve my 5k time, but by March my goal for 2020 was just “don’t die.” Which I didn’t! So great March resolution. I stayed pretty healthy most of the year but Thanksgiving was dark. I knew we’d see COVID spikes, I had family that was getting together (and had a COVID scare because of it), and I had to basically cut a family member out of my life due to all of this. Honestly? I went to shit. I started drinking way too much, and eating all the things that gave me that warm fuzzy feeling from childhood Christmases: gingerbread cookies, egg nog, peppermint bark, cinnamon buns — I just did not give a shit anymore.

And I gained 5 to 10 pounds from it, which sucks. It sucks because, yes, I look in the mirror and feel bad, but more importantly that extra weight can literally cripple me. I’ve had really serious back issues my entire life, and over the years I’ve realized that the heavier I am, especially once I pass 150 pounds, the higher my risk of my back going out. It’s unbelievably painful — like, the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life, and it can take months of exercise and therapy to get back to the point where I can hobble around. A few more months and maybe I can sit, stand, and walk like a normal able-bodied person.

So on January 1, 2021 I resolved to lose that weight and build the muscle that I had hoped to build in 2020. I figure we have at least another 4 months of quarantine so by the time it’s over I can emerge and pretend that I had my shit together the entire time. I mean, to anyone who hasn’t watched this video.

I’ve done this before. About 8 years ago I realized my weight had creeped up without me noticing, so I did some research, figured out the most scientifically backed way to lose it, and I did it. Now I’m doing it again. What is that scientifically backed way? Simple! Counting calories.

When I eat and drink more calories than I expend, my body stores the excess as fat. To lose that, I just need to eat and drink fewer calories than I expend. This is simple but not easy, because it requires that I first do some calculations to determine how many calories I should eat each day, and then pay attention to every single thing I put in my body. And, of course, to not stuff my face the way I was when I put on the weight. To lose weight at a safe rate, which doctors suggest is 1 to 2 pounds per week, I need to eat about 1,200 calories per day. That’s what I did before, and that’s what I’m doing now. As you can see in this chart, I started January at 154 pounds. As of this recording, it’s been 2.5 weeks and I have lost four pounds. About 1 to 2 per week, exactly as promised.

So it worked before, it’s working now, I feel good and healthy and my back has stopped aching and feeling like it’s ready to snap with one wrong move. Imagine my surprise, then, when a normally science-savvy friend tweeted this article from Buzzfeed: “Who Taught Women That They Should Only Eat 1,200 Calories A Day?

“Women especially need more than 1,200 calories just to breathe and exist, let alone exercise and function throughout the day like a normal human being.”

Well! Here I am, a woman, eating 1,200 calories per day, breathing and existing and functioning throughout the day. Am I not a normal human being?

Let me say upfront that the Buzzfeed article is pretty light on the science. The author, Scacci Koul, bases most of the piece on expertise from a nutritionist on TikTok, who opens the article with “1,200 calories is actually only enough daily nutrition if you’re an “8oish lb dog” or a toddler.” Let’s nip that right in the bud: it’s not true. 

Your Basal Metabolic Rate is approximately how many calories you should be expected to burn by simply existing, and it encompasses most of the calories you burn every day. You can find out what yours is, more or less, using calculators that consider your sex, age, height, and weight. This isn’t going to be an exact number because everyone is a tiny bit different in terms of metabolism, but it’s close enough for anyone without a metabolic disorder (which is rare, and if you think you have one you can pretty much only find out by going to a doctor for some tests). But again, that number is only if you’re just flopped in bed all day. So then we look at your TDEE, or Total Daily Energy Expenditure. That number takes into account whether you’re sedentary (like at a desk all day), or you move around a lot during the day, or you exercise every day. So again, your TDEE isn’t going to be an exact number, but for most people it is absolutely close enough for figuring out how many calories you should eat to lose weight at a nice slow rate. In my case, my TDEE as a 40-year old 5’6 woman who does moderate exercise, is about 2,000 calories per day. Like, if I eat that I will remain at my current weight. If I eat 1,200 calories per day, that’s a deficit of about 800 calories. There are about 3,500 calories in a pound of fat, which means at a 800/day deficit it will take me about 4 days to lose one pound. In other words, 1-2 pounds per week. 

That’s where the 1,200 calorie “diet” comes from. Math. And it’s math that works! Is it actually more complicated than that? Yes: your body will get more calories from ultraprocessed food, and fewer calories from raw food, and your metabolism won’t be exactly the same as the average all the time, and sometimes you will eat a bunch of salty food and retain a bunch of heavy water, and scientists think that maybe the 3,500 calories-per-pound-of-fat number isn’t always accurate. But does any of that change the basic idea? Nope. If you log absolutely everything you put in your body, don’t give yourself “cheat” days, don’t have a serious metabolic issue, do the math correctly, and eat about 500 calories less than you expend every day, you will lose about a pound of weight every week.

The Buzzfeed article spends a lot of time discussing, with no links to real scientific data, how brutal it is to live on 1,200 calories. Let’s go back to that opening claim, that 1,200 calories is only suitable for an “8oish lb dog” or a toddler.” In fact, I can tell you that it is suitable for me, a 5’6 woman with a normal-to-overweight BMI while I’m losing weight, and it would be suitable for me every day if I were six inches shorter and a healthy weight that I wanted to maintain, or if I were this height but 70 years old and sedentary. Just because it’s not what I would eat if I were trying to maintain my current weight, and it’s not what I’ll eat once I’m at my goal weight, doesn’t mean it’s not appropriate for someone with a much lower TDEE than me. They exist.

And that’s the nice thing about “calories in, calories out.” It’s not a diet that says that each person must eat these specific foods and nothing else for the rest of their lives. It’s simply an understanding of physics. If you want your body to be larger, you consume more calories than you exert. If you want your body to be smaller, fewer. If you want to maintain, you eat about the same number of calories as you exert. The rest is up to you! You can fill those calories anyway you want. You can eat nothing but cookies if you want. I assume that’s what Koul did when she says her 1,200 calorie diet led to her doctor diagnosing her as malnourished.

But of course, if you want to maximize your health, or even just make the whole thing easier, then you do change what you eat. For instance, I eat more protein because it keeps me full for longer. I eat more vegetables because they fill me up more than chips would. I drink more water because of the same. Koul does this weird well-poisoning, writing about a woman from the early 20th century who ate 1,000 calories a day in the form of “ For breakfast, she recommends drinking coffee, tea, or a glass of skim milk. For lunch (350 calories), you can eat celery, olives, cornbread, and milk, or lettuce with mayonnaise, pickles, and melted cream cheese. And for dinner, which should be 650 calories, you could eat broiled halibut with lettuce and a whole wheat roll, or — yikes — stewed prunes in syrup with “10–12” peanuts, shredded whole wheat biscuits, and skim milk.” She even ends the article with it: “But hey, do you really want to follow a diet that originally recommended you eat a shit ton of prunes and skim milk for dinner? Life is short. Don’t waste it on dried fruit alone.” What the fuck? It’s not the skim milk and prunes diet. Here’s what I ate yesterday: for breakfast I had black coffee and an egg and cheese sandwich with kimchi and hot sauce. For lunch I had a cup of miso soup and two clementines. For dinner I had spinach lasagna. Then I watched a movie and had a gigantic bowl of popcorn. Total calories: 1,215. And no, I didn’t feel faint all the time, get ravenous at any point, or binge, like Koul suggests I should. I got a bit peckish around 5pm and distracted myself by reading until dinner.

I know counting calories is not for everyone. As Koul correctly mentions in her article, some people might get obsessive about it and it could feed into an eating disorder. Also, not everyone wants to lose or gain weight and that is okay! No one should be bullied for their weight, and it is up to each individual person to decide what is right for them. But for the vast majority of people who want to lose weight safely, calories-in-calories-out is the way to go. In fact, if you’ve ever been on a diet that “worked,” like the Atkins diet or the tomato soup diet or whatever, it worked because it got you to eat fewer calories than you were expending. It’s the machinery behind whatever skin the diet industry puts on it. And that’s why it’s not a diet. When I reach my goal weight, just like last time, I will need to keep checking in, watching what I eat, logging it if I have trouble keeping things in check.

Koul says that if people restrict calories too much, they’ll end up binging and undoing their work. That’s true! UK researchers found that people were more likely to lose weight with a caloric deficit of 600 calories per day instead of 800 that most women would experience on 1200, and much more for men. Again, that’s why calories in calories out can work: you don’t have to go down to 1200 calories. Hell, I think a lot of people who want to lose (or gain!) weight would benefit just by logging what they currently eat, without changing anything. You’ll be able to see where most of your calories come from, and where you can most easily cut back or increase your calories.

And yeah, there will be setbacks and that’s okay! I didn’t fail because I had two shitty months where I ate and drank too much. I succeeded by enjoying a good 5 years at a weight that lessened the stress on my back and made it easier for me to enjoy the activities I enjoy. I’m happy that I’m now getting back there. In fact, research like the CALERIE project out of Duke University shows that people who learn to count calories and get to a healthy weight by reducing their caloric intake tend to keep at it and maintain that weight years later. Sure, some people give up or regain the weight and never try again, but that also happens with any other habit. We don’t tell smokers not to bother giving up smoking because most people eventually have a smoke again. If you’re working on building new habits, it’s worthwhile to be kind to yourself and understand that you’re not perfect. You can always try again.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it over Koul’s that it’s possible to be healthy on a 1,200 calorie diet if you’re a person with a lower TDEE. The National Heart, Lung and Blood institute recommends that number for women looking to lose weight, suggesting a deficit of 500-750 calories per day for safely losing 1 to 1.5 pounds a week, without going lower than 800 calories eaten per day.

The National Institutes of Health conducted a meta analysis of 34 randomized controlled studies that found “low-calorie diets can lower total body weight by an average of about 8% during a period of 3–12 months. Weight-loss and weight-loss maintenance interventions lasting 3–4.5 years (4 studies only) resulted in an average weight loss of 4%.”

Animal models show evidence that very low calorie diets, far from being dangerous when proper nutrition is considered, actually extend lifespans. Researchers fed rhesus monkeys diets with 30% fewer calories than a control group for twenty years, and found those monkeys enjoyed reduced incidences of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Animal studies don’t directly correlate to humans, but they do often give us a hint of what we might expect to see in humans if we had the ethical review board’s permission and a lot of time on our hands.

That said, research on humans who restrict calories (without getting extreme about it) is similarly promising. The CALERIE project found that the group who reduced their calories by an average of 12% for two years “had reduced risk factors (lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol) for age-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. They also showed decreases in some inflammatory factors and thyroid hormones. There is some evidence that lower levels of these measures are associated with longer lifespan and diminished risk for age-related diseases. Moreover, in the calorie-restricted individuals, no adverse effects (and some favorable ones) were found on quality of life, mood, sexual function, and sleep.”

Again, I want to make it very clear that no one should be forced or cajoled or pressured into changing their body size (although I can certainly understand family and friends trying to help people who a doctor has established is dangerously underweight or overweight). It’s a shame that there’s so much stigma surrounding weight, because it really is a fun and interesting topic. Like, I feel like I’m back in 6th grade working on a science fair project when I track my calories and see my weight trending down at exactly the rate I hypothesized. And I think that speaking about it openly and scientifically allows us to at least begin to separate morality and emotion from the subject and help people who want to change their bodies.

Okay, the final wrap-up:

  • It’s nobody’s business what you do with your body
  • Research shows that if you want to gain or lose weight, your best and safest bet is calories in, calories out
  • Be kind to yourself, because a slip-up or a change in focus isn’t a failure
  • Exercise your self-control one time at the grocery store because if those Cool Ranch Doritos make it into your house you have to exercise self-control 24/7 and I don’t know about you but I just cannot do that

And finally, don’t get all your scientific data from nutritionists on TikTok. Or from randos on YouTube. Remember, I always link to a transcript in the dooblydoo that includes links to every study I cite. Thanks as always to my patrons at patreon.com/rebecca for making it possible for me to do all this research!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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6 Comments

  1. Well said.

    There’s a well-known community of “Healthy At Every Size” proponents who are anti-science and do a lot of damage with their views. It would be fine if they were content to do their own thing but they clearly want to drag others down with them by spreading dangerous misinformation. The number of calories you should eat daily is based on a number of factors, including your height, age, activity level and other things that are unique to you… NOT “whatever your body tells you feels right” lol. We live in an obesogenic environment where food is engineered to be as addictive as possible. Of course our bodies are going to tell us to eat more than we should.

    Congrats on the weight loss. “Simple not easy” is a great way to describe it. CICO has worked consistently for me too.

  2. I don’t disagree with your main point — that losing weight is a matter of expending more calories than you take in, and that some people can do just fine with 1,200 calories per day. My guess is that people vary enough that two people with the same age, sex, height, etc., might still have significantly different basal metabolism rates, so that some people might lose weight on 1,200 cal/day and others might gain.

    The problem is the way so many people — and especially so many doctors — assume that changing the number of calories you ingest is a simple matter of consciously deciding to eat less, and dismiss overweight people as simply lazy or morally deficient.

    But realizing or deciding that one needs to lose weight is only the beginning of the struggle A lot of things affect a person’s urge to eat, and most of them are not under conscious control. For some people, all they need is a change of eating habits (I think that is what Weight Watchers addresses), but for many people, there are underlying issues which must be addressed. One extreme example: some women who have been traumatized by sexual abuse as children end up feeling a lot safer when they are morbidly obese because they discover that their abusers are no longer attracted to them, (Bessel van der Kolk describes this in The Body Keeps the Score) and as adults they continue to associate being obese with safety. Attempts to get them to lose weight are useless unless the underlying trauma is addressed.

    As another example, I’ve realized that when I am under stress, I tend to feel a strong urge to eat something, and because of the stress, controlling that urge is simply one thing too many to cope with. My job over the past 10 years became more and more stressful, and my weight kept going up, despite my best efforts to eat healthy food and eat it in moderation. When I retired, my weight started coming down without my having to make much of a conscious effort. Interestingly, my weight started going up again when all the nonsense around the election started up (being trans, I felt directly threatened by the previous administration), and I’ve noticed that since the inauguration, my weight has started back down again. (As have my anxiety levels.) None of the other things I ever tried made my weight go down.

    1. “My guess is that people vary enough that two people with the same age, sex, height, etc., might still have significantly different basal metabolism rates, so that some people might lose weight on 1,200 cal/day and others might gain.”

      That guess is wrong. As I mentioned, metabolism definitely varies based on a lot of different things but generally it doesn’t vary that much. Again, if you think you have a serious metabolic disorder you should see a doctor to diagnose it.

      (And I agree with your other points. As I mentioned, it’s not easy.)

  3. You mentioned that a deficit in caloric intake will result in burned fat and I’m worried that you didn’t mention the posibility that the body will reduce muscle mass instead of burning fat.

  4. For me – I’ve tried to live on 1200 calories…and 1700 calories and even 2000 calories. Nobody’s ever dieted as hard as me or the other 1000s (millions?) of people who face a lifetime of being overweight or obese on the BMI scale. And if the science of the studies on calories in vs calories out were enough to make that change, then the solution really would be that simple. Here’s the thing – I’m a very healthy fat person without back problems.

    What science could really do to help me and all the people and children who are fat is to throw out the BMI scale, and create a true census of healthy people at all kinds of weights so I can stop being told haphazardly to lose weight when my doctor’s appointments are about things that are not relevant to weight loss.

    And I do not know nutrition science that well, but my roommate is a dietitian and is constantly tell me that most of the disease states attributed to obesity are actually attributed by correlation and not causation. So I’d love someone to look into that.

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