A restrictive diet requires a person to reduce their daily intake, for example, to 1,200 calories. It may be safe and effective for some people, but 1,200 calories per day is not enough for others and can lead to malnourishment.

The number of calories a person needs each day depends on several factors, including age, sex, activity level, and body size. However, many nutrition labels base their recommendations on a 2,000-calorie diet.

Consuming 1,200 calories a day may involve a significant reduction in daily calories or may represent a slight reduction, depending on an individual’s usual calorie intake. For those who need fewer calories, a 1,200-calorie diet may be safe and effective for weight loss.

A person may need more calories than others if they are male, very active, pregnant or nursing, or have a certain medical condition.

This article explains the safety and effectiveness of a 1,200-calorie diet for weight loss, including meal ideas and frequently asked questions.

Food on a kitchen counter as part of a person's 1,200-calorie meal plan.-1Share on Pinterest
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The average adult needs 1,600–3,000 calories daily to sustain their body weight. When someone consumes fewer calories than they need, the body begins to shed weight. It does this first by burning fat and eventually other tissue, including muscle.

Most people need significantly more than 1,200 calories a day. Therefore, individuals who cut their daily intake to 1,200 calories can expect to lose some weight. This can be beneficial for people with overweight or obesity.

The National Institute on Aging highlights research that suggests that low calorie diets may offer additional health benefits.

In animal studies, lower-calorie diets helped animals live longer and reduced the risk of diseases such as cancer.

Observational studies of humans suggest calorie restriction can promote weight loss and may lower a person’s risk of conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

However, further studies are necessary. Not all research on animals applies to humans. Other factors may also be responsible for improved health, such as the specific foods people eat when following a low calorie diet.

Other factors

A 2021 review suggests that other factors contribute to weight management, such as meal timing and the type of food a person eats.

Some research also notes that weight loss is about more than the calories a person consumes and burns.

The body may change the rate at which it burns calories depending on how many calories a person eats. Therefore, an individual on a 1,200-calorie diet may burn fewer of them. This can slow weight loss.

It is possible that some people might not lose any weight or will need to remain on a restricted calorie diet for a significant time before experiencing results.

Weight loss will also vary between people. The authors of the 2021 review suggest that weight loss plans should be individualized and follow a person’s preferences.

For some people, an alternative approach, such as getting more exercise or consuming less sugar, might be a more suitable option.

It is more difficult to get essential macronutrients, such as proteins and fats, and micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals, on a low calorie diet.

Therefore, it is important to read nutritional labels and talk with a healthcare professional before trying this method of eating. A dietitian can help people create a personalized eating plan.

A very low calorie diet is not suitable for:

A 1,200-calorie diet can potentially be unhealthy for some people. For example, someone who receives all their calories from sweetened cereal, potato chips, or cookies may experience malnourishment.

Effects on the body

Extreme calorie restriction could impair a person’s immune function, increasing the risk of infections.

A major risk of long-term calorie restriction is malnutrition. This can affect the body in the following ways:

In children, malnutrition may also impair growth.

People on a 1,200-calorie diet need to eat nutrient-dense food to avoid feeling hungry and prevent malnourishment.

Lean proteins tend to be very dense in nutrients and low in calories. By contrast, white carbohydrates, such as white bread, contain more calories and fewer nutrients.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute provides menu plans and other information about which foods to choose when following a 1,200-calorie diet.

Some other meal and food ideas are as follows:


For breakfast, people can eat one of the following options:


People can try the following lunch options:

  • A can or pouch of tuna flavored with lemon juice or pepper
  • arugula salad with cranberries, walnuts, lemon juice, balsamic vinaigrette, and a light sprinkling of Parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup of Greek yogurt with honey, berries, and almonds
  • almond butter on a whole grain English muffin
  • 1 avocado with salsa
  • roast beef sandwich with low calorie mayonnaise, lettuce, and tomato on whole wheat bread


People can try the following ideas for dinners:

  • 2 ounces (oz) salmon cooked in vegetable oil, with pepper or lemon juice
  • avocado on whole wheat toast with a side of green beans
  • sweet potato with margarine and 4 oz grilled chicken
  • ½ cup brown rice with 1 cup steamed vegetables and low fat cottage cheese
  • 1 cup whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce and three turkey or soy meatballs

Snack ideas

The following options can make healthy, nutritious snacks:

  • mixed plain nuts without added sugar or salt
  • peach or mango
  • guacamole and raw veggies
  • ½ avocado with hot sauce
  • 1 serving unsalted canned mixed veggies
  • peanut butter on whole grain toast
  • 1 oz unsalted pistachios
  • ⅓ cup hummus with raw vegetables
  • string cheese
  • ½ cup sliced peaches and 1 oz prosciutto


Following a 1,200-calorie diet does not necessarily mean a person has to avoid any specific foods entirely.

Allowing an occasional small treat may make it easier to stick to this restrictive diet. However, very high calorie foods, such as large muffins or slices of cake, can make it difficult to stay under 1,200 calories for the day while maintaining nutritional needs.

Treats that could work within a 1,200-calorie diet can include:

  • small servings of treat foods, such as a single cookie or five potato chips
  • popcorn, which is low in calories
  • kettle corn, which offers a sweet crunch but without all the calories of most sweet snacks
  • seasoned and flavored whole wheat crackers, which provide a salty crunch similar to potato chips

Eliminating empty calories from the diet can free up more space for treats. Some sources of empty calories include:

  • sweetened beverages, including sugar in coffee, alcohol, and sweetened fruit juices
  • white bread and pasta
  • soda
  • oils and butter that are high in saturated and trans fats
  • high calorie condiments

Below are some common questions about a 1,200-calorie diet.

Will someone lose weight if they eat 1,200 calories a day?

A calorie deficit is one of the most important factors for weight loss. However, other factors, such as meal timing and the type of food someone eats, will also contribute to weight loss.

Weight loss may not happen the same way for every person. Some people may lose weight faster than others or benefit from different methods.

How many calories is too low?

Extreme calorie restriction — for example, reducing calorie intake by 40% — could have adverse effects on health. It may also be difficult to consume all necessary nutrients on very low calorie diets.

People can work with a healthcare professional to ensure they are eating a balanced diet while still achieving a safe calorie deficit.

Reducing the number of calories a person consumes can help them lose weight. Low calorie diets may also reduce the risk of certain diseases, such as diabetes.

However, weight is not the only or best measure of health. A person will not necessarily become healthier merely by losing weight.

In some cases, weight loss can even adversely affect a person’s health, especially if they eat unhealthy foods or do not consume enough essential nutrients.

A doctor or dietitian can help a person plan a custom diet and safe nutrition plan that offers a balance of nutrient-dense food alongside occasional treats.