Eating 1200 Calories Per Day & Not Losing Weight (Why?)

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It can be so frustrating to eat as little as 1200 calories per day and NOT lose weight.  This is especially true if you were successfully losing weight at this intake level in the past but it doesn’t seem to be working now.

So why aren’t you losing weight at 1200 calories per day?  Not losing weight and/or inches at an intake level of 1200 calories can be related to calorie tracking inaccuracies, inconsistency with your food intake, binge eating, lower activity levels, or underlying health conditions such as hypothyroidism.

You don’t have to give up on your diet if you’re struggling to lose weight while eating 1200 calories a day. There are several strategies you can implement to overcome these challenges and reach your goals.

In this article, I’ll cover:

  • 5 reasons you’re not losing weight eating 1200 calories per day
  • 6 steps to take if you’re not losing weight eating 1200 calories per day
  • Realistic results and expectations when eating 1200 calories per day

Not Losing Weight Eating 1200 Calories Per Day

5 reason not losing weight eating 1200 calories per day

When an individual is not losing weight at an intake of 1200 calories per day, it usually comes down to five main reasons:

  • The actual intake is not truly 1200 calories
  • You’re not sticking to 1200 calories consistently
  • Body composition is changing
  • There is an underlying medical condition 
  • Eating 1200 calories does not create a calorie deficit

1. The Actual Intake Is Not Truly 1200 Calories

Many people who believe that they are only consuming 1200 calories are mistaken, especially if they do not accurately track their intake.  Certain approaches to eating take the emphasis off of calorie counting, but “keto,” “Paleo” or “clean” does not mean that you’re following a low-calorie diet.

In order to know your true calorie intake, you have to carefully weigh and measure ALL calories consumed, including food and beverages, condiments, and supplements. 

This includes salad dressings, sauces, and seasonings such as Flavor God seasonings, as well as calories in beverages — for example, sugar, milk (even non-dairy options like almond milk or oat milk), or cream in tea or coffee.  

Getting your true intake also means including the bites and licks you take to sample while cooking or baking, the French fries you steal off of a friend’s plate, or the bites of leftover food from your kids’ plates.

I suggest using a food scale like this one to accurately measure your food rather than relying on volume measurements like tbsp or cup measures or your eyes to “guesstimate” portion sizes.  

Then you should record the foods and amounts you’re eating in a macro tracking app. However, many apps have unverified or inaccurate entries in their databases. Logging an incorrect food item could throw your total daily calorie count off by several hundred calories.

I recommend MacroFactor for this reason.  The foods in MacroFactor’s database are verified by registered dietitians so you can ensure they’re as accurate as possible. Use the code FEASTGOOD to get a free 2-week trial. 

Start your free trial on either Apple or Google play.

Apps Store
Google play

Finally, “calorie-free” foods are very rarely truly calorie-free, except in a very small serving size.  Labeling rules allow items with less than 5 calories per serving to be rounded to zero, but as soon as you have a large serving or several servings, the calories start to add up.  Stick to the recommended serving size, or add calories/macros for larger servings.

When you accurately record ALL calories consumed from ALL sources by weighing and measuring and tracking all foods and beverages ingested and using verified sources in a food database, then you can see what adjustments are necessary to get a true intake of 1200 calories.  “Missed” calories can add up to hundreds per day.

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2. You’re Not Sticking to 1200 Calories Consistently

Once an individual achieves an actual intake of 1200 calories, it can be hard to stick to this low level consistently.  For most people, 1200 calories is a very low intake and can lead to extreme hunger and uncontrollable cravings.

For example, a common cycle I have seen in clients is that they start the week with a lot of resolve and good intentions (often after a cheat day or a weekend of indulgent food choices and overeating) but then lose consistency towards the end of the week.

The client considers their behavior to be “good” (sticking to 1200 calories per day and doing workouts as planned) on Monday-Wednesday, but happy hours and social pressures at the end of the week and on the weekend kick in, causing them to overeat.  

This means that despite having 3-4 days where actual intake is truly 1200 calories, the other days are much higher and so is the average for the week.  

A week might look like this:

  • Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday: 1200 calories per day
  • Thursday: 2100 calories
  • Friday: 1200 calories
  • Saturday and Sunday: 2500 calories per day
  • Total calories for the week: 11,900
  • Average calories per day: 1700

In this scenario, actual intake really is 1200 calories for four days, but this low level of intake creates so much restriction and deprivation that it is followed by episodes of overeating that lead to a much higher intake on the other three days of the week.

Clients can feel very embarrassed and ashamed about this pattern and may not accurately record all of the extra foods eaten, if at all.  This can lead to food logs that only show 1200 calories per day even if the average daily intake is 1700 calories (as an example), which may not be low enough to lose weight.

When clients “increase” their intake to 1500 calories per day, the deficit is easier to manage and the episodes of overeating decrease, resulting in a true average daily intake of 1500 calories.

Key Takeaway: Find a calorie intake level that you can realistically maintain over the course of a week without extreme hunger and cravings.  Drinking lots of water and eating minimally-processed whole foods with high water and fiber content can help with feelings of fullness to help manage appetite while eating 1200 calories per day.

3. Body Composition Is Changing

It is possible for some people to lose body fat and gain lean muscle mass at the same time, in which case the scale may stay the same but your body composition is changing.  This is more common for individuals who are new to resistance training and/or have a high starting weight.  

You could be making progress, but you won’t see it if you are relying solely on your scale weight.  I recommend adding additional markers of progress:

  • Progress photos: take photos in the same outfit, lighting, and poses at regular intervals (i.e. every two weeks)
  • Circumference measurements: measure at least your chest, waist, and hips with a soft measuring tape at regular intervals
  • Physical performance: track weights for benchmark lifts such as squats and deadlifts, and/or measure your running pace
  • Subjective measures: keep records of your mood, energy, and sleep

If you are not losing weight with an actual consistent intake of 1200 calories per day, incorporate these additional metrics of progress, along with subjective indicators of your quality of life, to keep track of how your body is changing.

4. There Is an Underlying Medical Condition

If you are still not seeing progress with an intake of 1200 calories per day after considering your actual, consistent intake and assessing all measures of progress, it’s possible that an underlying medical condition is impacting your metabolism.

Hypothyroidism (or underactive thyroid) is a medical condition in which your thyroid gland does not release enough thyroid hormone into your bloodstream, which slows your metabolism down.  This means that a calorie intake level that would normally result in a calorie deficit is no longer low enough to cause weight loss.

Please seek guidance from your doctor or health care provider for diagnosis and treatment if you suspect a medical condition could be impacting your stall in weight loss if you are not making progress with an intake of 1200 calories per day.

5. 1200 Calories Does Not Create a Calorie Deficit

If your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE, or how many calories you burn each day through exercise, non-exercise activity, and simply existing) is only 1200 calories, then an intake of 1200 calories is your maintenance level of calories and you will not lose weight eating at this level.  

Outside of medical conditions such as hypothyroidism (discussed in the previous section), there are other scenarios in which TDEE could be as low as 1200 calories. 

For example, a five-feet-tall 50-year-old woman who weighs 100 lbs and has a sedentary lifestyle may have a suggested maintenance intake of 1200 calories per day.  

You can use an online calorie calculator to see information about suggested maintenance intake levels based on age, height, weight, and activity level.  Simply input these parameters and press the green Calculate button.

When suggested maintenance calories are only 1200 calories per day, weight loss may not be appropriate OR a calorie deficit should be created by adding some physical activity rather than decreasing calories further.

Please discuss what is appropriate with your healthcare provider.  You should consult with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

Steps To Take if You’re Not Losing Weight Eating 1200 Calories Per Day

steps to take if you’re not losing weight eating 1200 calories per day

Six steps to take if you’re not losing weight while eating 1200 calories per day are:

  • Assess your intake honestly
  • Commit to at least one week of hitting your calorie targets
  • Review progress and challenges
  • Assess training frequency and intensity
  • Assess daily activity outside of working out
  • Consider medical conditions with your healthcare provider

1. Assess Your Intake Honestly

Ask yourself two important questions and be very honest with yourself if you’re not losing weight on 1200 calories per day.

  • Are you accurate?  As we saw earlier, there are many reasons why actual intake could be inaccurate, including failing to track certain foods, inaccurate measurements of foods, and incorrect entries in an app’s food database. Pay careful attention to these areas to ensure accuracy.
  • Are you consistent?  Even if intake is accurate, are you able to hit that actual intake level consistently?  If not, troubleshoot reasons why not, such as extreme hunger, emotional eating, social outings, etc.  

Focus on minimally-processed whole foods with high water and fiber content to create feelings of fullness.  Seek out alternative sources of comfort and stress relief including counseling, if appropriate, to reduce emotional eating.  Come up with a plan for managing eating during social outings — perhaps you will bring your own food or review the menu in advance to make choices that work for you.  

If you’d like help with any of these aspects, please book a complimentary consultation with one of our Registered Dieticians or nutrition coaches.  We are a team of caring, trained professionals equipped with resources to assist in all of these areas and more.

2. Commit to At Least One Week of Hitting Your Calorie Targets

Once you know how to track your intake accurately and you have strategies in place for consistent intake, track for at least one week to fairly assess your progress.

Include measures of progress beyond just your weight on the scales such as photos and measurements.

3. Review Progress and Challenges

After one week of consistency, review what progress you made and what challenges you encountered.  If there were no challenges, brainstorm for scenarios that you could see coming up in the future as obstacles — perhaps a certain social engagement, a work project that causes you to miss a workout, or forgetting to pre-plan a meal.  

Take your actual or envisioned challenges into account and proactively come up with various solutions as to how to overcome them.  I call this adding tools to your toolkit to “fix” various problems as they arise.

For example, you might identify restaurants or grocery stores near your office that have healthy go-to options for a quick meal when you forget or are unable to bring a prepared meal from home.  If you have to miss a workout, you might be able to go for a walk during your lunch break instead.

4. Assess Training Frequency and Intensity

Consider whether you are sticking to your planned number and length of workouts.  During a calorie deficit, energy levels can naturally start to drop off because you are not getting as much energy from food.  

This can make it more tempting to skip a workout or cut short the planned number of sets and/or reps.  When this happens, you will not be burning as many calories from exercise as in the past, which reduces your TDEE and therefore means a smaller deficit for a given calorie intake level.

You will need to decide whether it is realistic to stick to the planned number and length of workouts or if you will reduce your intake further to maintain the same calorie deficit.  Or, you can accept a smaller deficit that allows you to continue to make progress, just at a slightly slower pace.

5. Assess Daily Activity Outside of Working Out

Similar to energy for training, when you reduce your calorie intake, your body will also subconsciously try to compensate by moving less during the day.  This means less fidgeting and pacing, not taking the stairs, etc.

As such, you’ll need to make a conscious effort to keep your non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) the same.

NEAT is purposeful movement outside of planned workouts.  A good estimate of NEAT is step count, so focus on maintaining at least 7,000-8,000 steps per day.  You can achieve this by parking farther away, taking the stairs whenever possible, and pacing when you’re on the phone, for example.  

6. Consider Medical Conditions With Your Healthcare Provider

If you have tried all of the steps above and you are still struggling with weight loss, consult with your doctor or another healthcare provider to consider testing for any underlying medical conditions that could have an impact on your ability to lose weight.

Realistic Results & Expectations When Eating 1200 Calories Per Day

realistic results and expectations when eating 1200 calories per day

Most people can expect to lose weight when eating 1200 calories per day.  The rate of loss is impacted by how much of a deficit 1200 calories is compared to an individual’s TDEE, which is influenced by many factors including sex, height & weight, and activity levels inside and outside the gym.

Generally speaking, a calorie deficit of 3500 calories is the amount considered necessary to lose one pound of fat, and a reasonable and sustainable rate of weight loss is 0.5-1.0lbs per week for women and 1.0-2.0lbs for men.  This means a deficit of 250-500 calories per day for women and 500-1,000 calories per day for men.

Note, however, that weight loss does not come from body fat alone. Lean body mass (also called fat-free mass) can be up to half of total weight loss.  This is important to realize because lean tissue is considered to be “metabolically active,” meaning that it burns calories even at rest.

I’ll discuss the importance of lean body mass for burning calories in the sections below.

1. Sex

In general, caloric requirements are higher for men than they are for women, largely due to the fact that men naturally tend to have more lean mass than women.  

For example, the general recommendation for a moderately active female between the ages of 19-30 is approximately 2000-2200 calories per day to maintain her weight.  

This means that an intake of 1200 calories per day would represent a deficit of 800-1000 calories per day, which is a very large deficit and would, in theory, mean losing 1.6-2lbs each week. This is nearly double the recommended amount of sustainable weight loss for a female. 

For a male of the same age who is also moderately active, the recommendation is 2600-2800 calories per day.  

The calorie deficit becomes even more dramatic, at 1400-1600 calories per day, and would result in him losing 2.8-3.2lbs per week, in theory.

I say “in theory” because it is very unlikely that an individual would continue to have the same total energy expenditure (TDEE) of 2000-2200 calories per day for a woman or 2600-2800 calories for a man throughout the entire course of a fat loss diet.  Energy output would become lower, which I’ll discuss in the sections on activity below.

2. Height & Weight

In addition to lean body mass, an individual’s height and weight also contribute to their daily calorie expenditure.  Taller and heavier people will naturally require more energy than shorter, lighter individuals to support basal metabolic functions such as breathing and circulation to maintain their body size.  

This is your resting metabolic rate (RMR), which accounts for 60-70% of TDEE for most people.

A small person who works out regularly and has an active job could have a total energy requirement that is greater than a large person who is sedentary and has a desk job, even though the larger individual would still have a higher RMR.

Also, as body weight goes down, so does RMR, even when much of the weight loss is from body fat.  

Even though fat tissue is not metabolically active the way lean tissue is, meaning that it does not burn calories on its own, it does contribute to lower RMR because there is less overall body mass for your muscles to move around when you are walking, sitting, standing, etc.

All other things being equal (training, etc.), this is why most people cannot continue to lose weight at the same calorie intake indefinitely.  As their bodies become smaller and lighter, it takes fewer calories to maintain this new lower weight and what used to be a calorie deficit intake becomes a calorie maintenance intake.

3. Activity Level in the Gym

Activity levels in the gym (or other structured forms of exercise) contribute to “exercise activity thermogenesis” (EAT).  This means calories burned during exercise. 

Obviously, the longer and more intensely someone trains, the more calories they will burn from exercise, and this will impact their TDEE and rate of loss. 

As we saw earlier, during a calorie deficit, it can be harder to maintain the same EAT because there will be less energy to train, which makes it harder to train for as long and/or as intensely.

4. Activity Level Outside the Gym

The final piece of TDEE is non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). As I mentioned above, this is any activity outside of planned workouts that helps you burn calories.

Even though many people think of their structured workouts as major sources of calories burned, NEAT actually accounts for more of the TDEE for most people.  

So get out there and get moving — a few thousand extra steps per day can be enough calories to make a difference between a calorie deficit and maintenance calories.

Frequently Asked Questions

Will You Lose Weight Eating 1200 Calories Per Day?

Yes, if you are truly eating 1200 calories per day consistently over a period of time (at least one week), you will lose weight, unless you have a serious underlying medical condition that has impacted your metabolism or if you have a starting body weight of less than 100lbs.

Is 1200 Calories Enough for a Woman?

No, an intake of 1200 calories is generally not enough for most women to sustain even the most basic metabolic functions of the body such as breathing, circulation, and digestion at rest.  For most women, it will result in the loss of regular periods, hair loss, weakness, and a lower immune system.

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About The Author

Lauren Graham
LAUREN GRAHAM

Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement.  Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete.  She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.