Here’s what you need to know before trying a 1,200-calorie diet

If you’re looking to lose weight with a diet plan, it’s likely that you’ve stumbled across a 1,200-calorie diet. A quick Google search yields pages upon pages of 1,200-calorie meal plans, including one from the prestigious Cleveland Clinic. Sounds legit, right? The truth is that 1,200 calories a day may not be the best option for you. Here’s a look at the pros and cons of a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet.

What is a 1,200-calorie diet?

A 1,200-calorie diet is a low-calorie diet. For the average adult, this 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. Here’s a peek at what a 1,200-calorie weight-loss diet looks like.

What you might eat in a day on a 1,200-calorie diet plan

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

Lunch: Tuna salad plate made with 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

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-per-day limit.

Related: To keep your brain sharp, load up on these foods.

Benefits of a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet

For people who have a lot of metabolic complications, such as prediabetes 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.

Downsides of a 1,200-calorie diet

What’s even more important than whether you can lose weight on a 1,200-calorie diet 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 attempt to lose weight will go on to 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.

Should you follow a 1,200-calorie-a-day 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. In addition, a low-calorie diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies. 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 you can get major health benefits, including improving blood sugar and cholesterol levels, with very modest weight loss — just 5% of your body weight. 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.

Here’s some simple advice to try:

  • Prioritize whole foods over heavily processed ones. 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 diet 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. In addition to sound nutrition strategies, developing the tools and skills to navigate these types of challenges can help you manage your weight — and your health — without going on a very low 1,200-calorie diet.