In September, Jamie Nadeau, a 32-year-old nutritionist based in Massachusetts, posted a TikTok that went semi-viral. “Is 1,200 calories right for you?” she asked in a voiceover while pointing at a MyFitnessPal screenshot and smiling. “Here’s how you know,” she continued. Then she revealed that 1,200 calories is actually only enough daily nutrition if you’re an “8oish lb dog” or a toddler.
The comments to her video are pretty clearly split; half of them are from people agreeing, while the other half are women trying to rationalize why 1,200 calories is exactly right for them. “It’s the only way I lose any weight,” wrote one woman. Another wrote that 1,200 seemed like a lot and that she would “stick to 800.” “The comments were really upsetting,” Nadeau told me over the phone in late December. “It showed how disordered so many women eat and think about food.”
Here’s an unscientific but still upsetting poll: It seems that nearly every woman I know has done the 1,200-calorie diet at some point in their lives, including myself. The diet is pretty simple: Count your calories diligently, and make sure you don’t go over 1,200 for the day. (If you’re active, maybe you can consider 1,500.) Most regimented diet programs, like Weight Watchers, are similarly based on a 1,200 caloric intake, just hidden behind a “point” system so it doesn’t feel like calorie counting. Earlier this week, I asked my Instagram followers if they’d ever tried eating just 1,200 calories a day, and every reply was from a woman who had attempted, and often failed, at eating so little.
“I definitely thought that was the ‘correct’ amount of food as a teen,” one woman wrote back to me. “It is not.” Another called it a “fucking brutal deficit” to try to live on. One woman told me how she used to eat just 1,200 calories, but now that she’s pregnant, is struggling with the necessity to eat more and gain a little weight. Many of these women said they kept food diaries, used MyFitnessPal, counted macros or cut down carbs. Most learned the magic 1,200 number in middle or high school, carrying on with the diet until their twenties or thirties.
They hoped to lose weight; instead, they felt faint all the time, were ravenous when it was time to eat, and binged when they couldn’t take it anymore. They perpetually felt guilty for whatever food choices they made. At its worst, eating so little even temporarily can screw up your metabolism for life, making your body think it’s always in survival mode. Diet culture is pernicious and the 1,200 calorie diet is so ubiquitous that it feels almost ridiculous to ask if anyone’s tried it. When I asked one friend if she had ever tried it, she replied with incredulity. “Of course,” she said. “Didn’t everyone?”
Every woman of every generation in my family has attempted this diet, from my 65-year-old mother to my 30-year-old cousins. A 1,200 calorie diet, according to most nutritionists or food experts, is a restrictive, unsustainable, likely unhealthy diet for any adult woman. So if it’s so bad for us, why do we keep trying it — and failing — only to blame ourselves instead of the diet itself?
Louise Foxcroft, a medical historian and author of 2011’s Calories and Corsets, a book about the history of dieting over the last few thousand years, believes that the 1,200-calorie diet goes back much further than most modern diets. “It really goes back to late 19th-century Europe, and especially in Germany, they were doing a lot of work on calories and calorie counting,” she told me. “For some reason, even though Europeans remained to a certain extent dubious about the worth of calorie counting and dieting, it took off in America in a really big way.” And while 1,200 calories isn’t necessarily enough for most adult bodies, it’s not like it’s a completely arbitrary number; it came from calculations during the late Victorian period, a measurement of calories in, calories out. That kind of weight loss logic has since largely been debunked — there are so many other factors that come into play with weight loss, from hormones to how processed your food is.
In 1918, a doctor named Lulu Hunt Peters published Diet and Health: With Key to the Calories. It was one of the first modern diet books ever released. As the beauty ideals were changing from bosomy women with cinched waists in corsets to women with thin, slender frames in straight loose dresses, she suggested calorie counting as a way to lose weight.
There are so many other factors that come into play with weight loss, from hormones to how processed your food is.
Her suggestion of counting your calories now sounds ridiculously simplistic, but at the time, no one was really thinking about slices of bread in terms of calories. “For Peters, dieting demanded control and vigilance,” reads the About the Author in the 2010 edition of the book. Eating 1,200 calories a day wasn’t just about keeping your weight under control, it was also about being patriotic: Diet and Health came out around the end of World War I, and while rationing wasn’t law, for some it was important for Americans not to hoard food “in their own anatomy.”
So what did consuming 1,200 calories a day look like for Peters? 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.
This book, a bestseller in both 1924 and 1925, helped popularize the diet that has in large part influenced calorie counting for nearly 100 years. “It’s one of those things that took hold, and was everywhere in the 1920s and 1930s in America, and just became the bedrock of belief about diets, but actually is wrong,” Foxcroft said. “It just sets up all those sorts of psychological problems, all that punishment and redemption.”
But even in contemporary times, 1,200 calories a day doesn’t amount to much food either. It’s a cup of oatmeal, a small turkey sandwich on thinly sliced bread, a cup of cut-up carrots with green beans, and four ounces of boneless chicken with a small sweet potato. It’s one McDonald’s Big Breakfast (with the hotcakes, so at least there’s that).
Losing weight, if that’s the goal, though it doesn’t have to be, does require a calorie deficit, but the food intake doesn’t have to be so tiny. “When you’re in such a huge calorie deficit, you’re going to be hungry, and your body is going to tell you that by making you crave certain things or think obsessively about food all day long,” Nadeau said. “You stick to it for a few days but then you give yourself a cheat day and that could be a 3,000-calorie binge 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.”
For years, my mom strictly ate 1,200 calories daily to her utter detriment: She was always hungry, and naturally, always cranky, constantly looking for low-calorie alternatives to her favorite foods. Our house was stocked with Skinny Cow fudgesicles, which were around 100 calories a pop, but tasted like the sink water left over after you washed off a bunch of fudgesicle sticks. She ate them anyway, pretending that they tasted the same as regular full-fat fudgesicles, and sated her hunger. Inevitably, I did the same diet for most of my teen and adult years, suffering through 1,200-calorie days that left me starving before I would snap and start bingeing in a panic because it felt like food could be taken away from me at any minute. I counted every low-cal rosemary cracker, every rice cake with a tablespoon of low-fat peanut butter, every ounce of sliced turkey down to the decimal. Even researching for this article felt like being pushed back into a diet I didn’t want to do anymore — a reminder of how much of my life was spent denying myself basic nutrients so I could eventually shrink to an “acceptable” size.
A lot of Nadeau’s TikTok comments were from teenage girls asking what is the right number of calories to be eating, namely if you want to lose weight. But that’s an impossible number to give because everyone’s body requires specific things, Nadeau explained. She said she doesn’t give caloric guidelines to her clients in general. “Any range puts that number in your head,” she told me. There are just too many variables to consider for any one person, from environmental, to hormonal, to genetic.
That’s all any diet is really about: control. Do you have enough control over yourself to eat only a fraction of what your body requires?
I haven’t eaten a strict 1,200-calorie diet in the last few years, but when I did, blood work from my doctor’s office would reveal that I was malnourished, despite eating exactly how much I was supposed to eat every day. (Instead of suggesting I reorder my diet, my doctor put me on 10 weeks’ worth of B12 shots, right in the left ass cheek.)
And the 1,200 calorie diet is often a just gateway to other diets like Weight Watchers or Noom, which might present their programs as being more complicated or more about wellness, though they still suggest customers eat essentially only 1,200 calories dressed up in an app. Restrictive diets trigger binge eating, which has become more of a temptation during the pandemic as we are trapped in our homes with little to do and nowhere to go. When you finally let yourself eat, you lose any semblance of control that you ever had.
Because that’s all any diet is really about: control. Do you have enough control over yourself to eat only a fraction of what your body requires?
“The trouble with that is, once you hit your 1,200, and then you eat cake last thing at night, you’re going to feel really upset with yourself, aren’t you, miserable, like you failed, which is ludicrous,” Foxcroft said. “But the whole diet industry works on that, on that misery and that humiliation because you fail. So then you buy some more diet food or another diet book and you try something else, and you fail again.” For most diets, the failure is the point. For a 1,200-calorie diet, the goal is no different: Try it, crash, and then try it again.
Weight loss, regrettably, comes down to some simple but tough tasks: less junk food, smaller portions, steady exercise, and a doctor who understands you and your body’s metabolism. Still, the 1,200-calorie diet will persist, and for many, it’ll be “successful” in its efforts to shrink you down. 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. ●
This story is part of our Body Week series. To read more, click here.