The best 1,200-calorie diets aren't necessarily paleo, vegan, gluten-free or low-carb. A quality low-calorie diet may display these labels, but most importantly it offers an array of nutrients from a variety of whole, filling foods. Instead of being beholden to a specific plan that features foods you don't enjoy, learn to choose the optimal foods for your calorie intake to help you lose weight. Divide the calories up over three meals and one or two snacks. Each meal contains about 300 to 350 calories, with each snack containing 100 to 150 calories.
Guidelines for Consuming 1,200 Calories
A plan that contains foods from all the major food groups offers you the carbohydrates, protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients you need for energy and good health as you attempt to slim down. The U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPlate guidelines advise that, to be nutritionally sound, 1,200-calorie diet should consist of 5 ounces of protein, 3 cups of low-fat dairy, 2 cups of vegetables, 1 1/2 cups of fruit, 5 teaspoon equivalents of healthy oils and 5 ounces of grains. You can afford about 120 calories daily from foods that make your meals taste good but don't offer much nutritional value -- such as coffee creamer, mayonnaise or honey.
The foods you choose within each of these food groups should be of the highest nutritional quality. For example, choose proteins low in saturated fat, such as salmon, white fish, chicken breast, lean ground turkey, flank steak, tofu and tempeh. Opt for whole, not refined, grains, including brown rice, 100-percent whole-wheat pasta and bread, barley and quinoa. Go for a variety of vegetables that span the rainbow -- leafy greens, red peppers, purple eggplant, yellow squash and occasional servings of starchy ones, such as peas and sweet potatoes. Choose whole fruit rather than sweetened varieties or juice, which has concentrated calories and no fiber. Quality dairy consists of low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese or solid cheese. A glass of skim milk or low-fat kefir are other dairy options. Healthy fats come from olive or avocado oil, whole avocados, fatty fish, nuts and seeds.
Option One on 1,200 Calories
Split the servings of each food group throughout your meals and snacks. In this plan's configuration, breakfast consists of an ounce of grains with 1/2 cup of fruit and 1/2 cup of dairy. For example, have 1/2 cup of cooked oatmeal with 1/2 cup of blueberries and 1/2 cup of plain yogurt; or a cup of shredded wheat with 1/2 cup of sliced banana and 1/2 cup of skim milk.
At lunch, opt for 1 ounce of grains, 1/2 cup of vegetables, 1/2 cup of fruit, 1 cup of dairy and 2 1/2 ounces of protein. A sample meal includes a slice of whole-wheat bread alongside a salad composed of 1 cup of raw baby spinach, 1/2 cup of orange slices, 1 tablespoon of slivered almonds and 2 1/2 ounces of grilled chicken, dressed with balsamic vinegar and a teaspoon of olive oil. Have 1/2 cup of strawberries and a cup of nonfat plain yogurt for dessert. You could alternatively have a 2 1/2-ounce salmon fillet roasted and served with 1/2 cup of brown rice and 1/2 cup of steamed broccoli with an 8-ounce glass of skim milk and a plum.
Dinner consists of 2 ounces of grains, 1 cup of vegetables, 1 cup dairy and 2 1/2 ounces of protein. Have a cup of 100-percent whole-wheat pasta topped with 1/2 cup of marinara sauce and 2 1/2 ounces of lean ground turkey. Top with 1 1/2 ounces kof shredded Parmesan cheese, and have 1/2 cup of steamed, sliced zucchini on the side. A cup of quinoa alongside 2 1/2 ounces of broiled tilapia with 1 cup of sauteed kale, served with 1 cup of skim milk, and a small apple for dessert also fits this plan.
Have two snacks, one that contains an ounce of grains and 1/2 cup of fruit -- such as five woven wheat crackers with a small pear -- and another with 1/2 cup of vegetables and 1/2 cup of dairy -- such as 1/2 cup of low-fat ricotta cheese mixed with fresh basil and sliced grape tomatoes.
Option Two for 1,200 Calories
You could also plan your 1,200-calorie day to start with 1 ounce of grains, 1 cup of dairy and 1 ounce of protein. For example, have a hard-boiled egg with 1 1/2 ounces of low-fat mozzarella and half of a whole-wheat English muffin; or 1/2 ounce of walnuts sprinkled into 1 cup of plain, low-fat yogurt with a drizzle of honey and two 3-inch-diameter, whole-wheat pancakes.
Lunch consists of two grain servings, 1/2 cup of vegetables, 1/2 cup of dairy and 2 ounces of protein. Mix 2 ounces of water-packed tuna with 1/2 cup of chopped celery, carrots and bell pepper and a teaspoon of mayonnaise. Serve on two slices of whole-grain bread with 4 ounces of milk to drink. Alternatively, have four rye crispbreads with 2 ounces of deli turkey, a 3/4-ounce slice of cheddar cheese and one large, 3-inch diameter sliced tomato.
For dinner, consume 1 ounce of grains, 1 cup of vegetables, 1 cup of fruit, 1 cup of dairy and 2 ounces of protein. Stir-fry 1/2 cup of cubed tofu with 1 cup of snap peas and serve over 1/2 cup of brown rice -- season with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, garlic and ginger. A cup of raspberries and an 8-ounce glass of low-fat kefir finishes the meal. Alternatively, have 2 ounces of broiled lean hamburger on one-half of a whole-wheat bun with a cup of carrot sticks on the side. A cup of low-fat, plain yogurt with 1 cup of strawberries is an after-dinner treat.
At snack time, have 1/2 cup of fruit, 1/2 cup of dairy, 1 ounce of grains or 1/2 cup of vegetables. For example, have a 4-ounce cup of skim milk and a peach as your first snack and a cup of tomato juice with a small piece of cornbread for the second.
A Final Meal Plan for 1,200 Calories
Keep breakfast simple with just 1 cup of fruit and 1 cup of dairy. Grab a cup of nonfat plain Greek yogurt with a cup of blueberries for breakfast; a glass of nonfat kefir with a squeeze of maple syrup and an orange on the side; or 2 cups of low-fat cottage cheese with 1 cup of fresh cherries.
For lunch, have 1 1/2 ounces of grains, 1/2 cup of vegetables and 1 cup of dairy. Mix 1/2 cup of low-fat ricotta with 3/4 cup of whole-grain spaghetti and 1 cup of steamed broccoli; make a salad with 3/4 cup of quinoa, 1/2 cup of chopped cucumber and red pepper and 1 1/2 ounces of feta cheese; or have a cup of soy milk alongside a small whole-wheat pita and 1/2 cup of hummus.
Dinner contains 1 1/2 ounces of grains, 1 cup of vegetables, 1/2 cup of fruit and 2 ounces of protein. Meal ideas include 2 ounces of roasted pork tenderloin with 1 cup of mashed sweet potato, 3/4 cup of wild rice and 1 cup of grapes; 2 ounces of grilled chicken in 1 1/2 6-inch corn tortillas with 1 cup of sauteed onion and peppers, two thin slices of avocado and 1/2 cup of diced mango; or 1 cup of black beans with 3/4 cup of brown rice, 1/2 cup of chopped tomato, onion and cilantro and a small clementine.
At your morning snack, enjoy 1 ounce of grains, 1/2 cup of dairy and 1 ounce protein. For example, have 2 tablespoons of hummus with five whole-wheat crackers and 1/2 cup of skim milk. Later in the day, snack on 1 ounce of grains, 1/2 cup of vegetables, 1/2 cup of dairy and 2 ounces of protein. You could enjoy 1 cup of romaine lettuce, a 3/4-ounce slice of Swiss cheese and 2 ounces of low-sodium ham on top of half of a whole-wheat English muffin.
You can vary the way you split up the calories and nutrient requirements according to your hunger levels and schedule. If you don't like a food suggested, substitute it with one you do enjoy -- such as exchange a peach for an apple, green beans for broccoli or gluten-free, whole-grain bread for wheat bread.
A diet with 1,200 calories is the lowest you can maintain without risking nutritional deficiencies and loss of lean muscle tissue. If you find you're too hungry on this minimal-calorie diet, consider increasing your calories slightly. You'll lose weight a little more slowly but may find a less-restrictive plan more manageable.
You'll also need to increase calories if 1,200 calories per day causes you to lose weight at a rate faster than 3 pounds per week consistently for several weeks. Losing weight too fast can put you at risk for developing gall stones and other medical complications.