In Fact, 1200 Calories a Day Is a Hunger Diet.

Over the past few weeks, over the years, I’ve started counting calories again to gain weight for the upcoming master boxing match. I don’t have much to lose, and I’m in no rush, so I started with what seemed like a conservative goal of around 2,000 calories a day, hoping for a gradual weight loss.

Two days later, as I sat at my desk and listened to the rumbling of my stomach, all I could think was, “How the hell can you survive on a 1200 calorie a day diet?” I’m in good shape considering I’m an elderly millennial raising a hyperactive toddler in the midst of a pandemic, but I’m definitely not an athlete.

The collective wisdom I’ve heard all my life is that if you’re a woman looking to lose a few pounds, 1200 calories a day is the right amount, 1500 if and only if you are active. The idea that a woman can lose a little weight by consuming 1,800 or 2,000 calories a day is almost unheard of, a feat that you could only handle if you were an Olympic-level athlete who trained for hours every day.

1200 calories is a number I’ve heard all my life, starting at a very young age when I first got acquainted with the concept of diet, and this number forms the basis of almost any commercial diet. whether it’s the sturdy, old-fashioned WW (once called Weight Watchers), where you calculate points based on the nutritional value of a food, or the new kid on the block, Noom, who has all the energy of self and not like those other diets. ” except that the diet is one that recommends consuming 1200 calories a day.

The 1,200 calorie supply per day dates back to the 1920s.

The concept of consuming 1200 calories a day for weight loss has been around since the 1920s thanks to a book called Diet and Health: The Key to Calories, which was widely read by Americans. Despite 100 years of evidence that this recommendation doesn’t work, the idea just won’t die. (Something else was considered a “good idea” in the 1920s: adding the radioactive element radium to toothpaste, food and drink, which only stopped after several factory workers – mostly young women – died an incredibly painful death from poisoning radium.)

These diets rarely work. A person can lose weight in a short amount of time, but they end up getting so hungry that they give up the diet, usually restoring what they have lost, if not more. “Many of my clients have tried 1,200 calories in the past,” said Jamie Nado , a nutritionist who specializes in helping people improve their relationship with food. “They either couldn’t stick to it because there wasn’t enough food, or they stayed with it for a while, maybe even lost a lot of weight, but then either after that they had a really bad relationship with food, or they gained all the weight.”

There is a reason for this, which stems from the fact that, for the vast majority of women, 1200 calories a day qualifies as a starvation diet. “Most women need more than 1200 calories just for normal survival in the body,” Nado said. “The fact that people are trying to live off of this, exercise for so many calories, is just ridiculous.”

1200 calories is half of a woman’s daily energy requirement.

The average adult woman in her 20s and 60s burns about 2,400 calories a day, according to a recent study published in Science in August. This is an average: smaller women and / or those with a slower metabolism burn less, while larger women and / or those with a faster metabolism burn more. Lead author Herman Ponzer , a professor at Duke University, noted in an email to Lifehacker that 1,200 calories a day is about half of what the average woman needs.

Unlike what our fitness trackers tell us, we also don’t start out with some low baseline energy requirement, “earning” the right to consume extra calories every time we move. Instead, our bodies have evolved to use a relatively fixed amount of energy each day , a concept known as “limited total daily energy expenditure.”

What this means is that while physical activity is very important to our long-term health, including maintaining weight, it does not burn as many extra calories as we think, and it will not lead to weight loss without a conscious effort to reduce the amount of food we eat. you eat.

Instead, our bodies act as if our daily energy consumption is a fixed budget, which it will switch to different processes so that at the end of the day everything is the same number, only to start all over again. the next day.

If we are sedentary, our body will channel this extra energy into energy-intensive processes such as our immune system and stress responses, which in small amounts help us ward off infections and avoid danger, but in large amounts lead to chronic disease.

If we are very active, such as when we exercise for something, our bodies will burn more energy in the short term, but eventually they will adapt and our energy needs return to an amount that is closer to our average daily amount.

If during this process we are able to gain muscle mass, our metabolism will increase along with our average daily energy requirements due to the increase in the amount of lean mass in our body. Our hunger will also increase, as this is our brain’s way of keeping us at a stable weight, which has been necessary for our survival throughout human history.

1200 calories a day is like the Minnesota fasting experiment.

Given that a woman’s average daily energy requirement is 2,400 calories per day, this equates to 1,200 calories per day of diet, on par with the Minnesota Fasting Experiment , which was conducted in 1944 to try to find the best way to refeed people in distress. from hunger.

In this study, 36 young healthy men were recruited for a one-year experiment. For the first three months, they spent calibrating the amount of food they needed each day. For the next six months, the volunteers survived on approximately 1,570 calories per day, which was about half of their daily calorie needs. In those six months, they lost about 25% of their weight. For the past three months, the participants have been given the opportunity to eat as much as they wanted.

In addition to losing weight, the participants developed concerns about food that lasted long after the fast ended. They also developed problems such as anxiety and depression, and eating patterns similar to those of people with anorexia, bulimia, or overeating.

Participants in the Minnesota Hunger Experiment were highly motivated volunteers. They believed that their participation in this experiment would improve the results of the hungry, and that they would live and eat in a strictly controlled environment. Even then, they had problems that continued after the fasting period ended.

Deprivation diets can lead to a hectic eating cycle

In real life, what usually happens is that a person goes on a diet that consumes 1200 calories a day, survives on this amount of food for several days, maybe even several weeks, if he is extremely motivated, at which point he usually falls. winner, eating more to make up for hardship.

There is also a high probability that they may not count accurately. “People are terribly bad at tracking what they eat,” Ponzer said. “It’s possible that dieters aiming for 1200 calories a day will end up with a less dramatic reduction.”

For the vast majority of people, these diets will not work in the long term, which means they will eventually regain weight and develop a disrupted relationship with food along the way. “What I hear the most about 1200 calories a day is that even if they can stick with it, they are paltry,” Nadeau said.

There is no easy answer to diet

When I talk about how “we” are fighting healthy eating, it’s not an abstract “we” – I include myself in it. In addition to absorbing all the messages that society presents to us, I also grew up with a father who alternated extreme diets and overeating, and also belittled women in the family who dared to weigh more than the minimum, which he said was calculated , was about 5 feet 6 inches high and 110 pounds. My sister responded to this pressure with hunger. I responded to this pressure with repetitive cycles of emergency diet and emotional eating.

I spent most of my adult life trying to forget what I learned as a child. The major breakthrough came when I found a sport I loved that had a ripple effect on me, teaching me my body’s ability to be strong. I have found that I enjoy feeling strong, and that in order to achieve that strength, I need to respect my body’s needs, including eating a more balanced diet.

Nado offers a similar approach to the clients she works with, encouraging them to develop habits that add wealth to their lives, rather than take away. “You really have to take a proactive attitude to say, ‘I’m not going to diet anymore, I’m not going to starve myself or limit myself to lose weight anymore,” Nado said. Instead, she recommends focusing on developing good habits that make our lives better, whether it’s trying to eat more vegetables or fiber-rich protein, or finding physical activity that we enjoy.

In the world we live in, this may seem like radical advice, but in a less chaotic world, this is common sense. Unfortunately, our confused thoughts about health and nutrition are more common than many of us even think. It has been many years since I considered 1200 calories a day to be enough food, and yet, even with everything I know about how my body works and what it needs, it’s hard to shake the feeling that 2000 calories in a day is too much. a large number of.

I ended up increasing my food intake again based on my body’s feedback. As much as I want to compete again, which will include tracking my weight as needed, my priority is to stay strong. I may be in the process of working out this as I go, but one thing is for sure: I’m not going to starve myself.


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