A 1,200-calorie diet is considered a low intake that should prompt weight loss in most people. If you're combining it with regular exercise but not seeing changes on the scale, you might wonder why you're working so hard to lose weight without results. Weight loss does occur when you eat less and move more, but underfueling, underestimating your caloric intake and even some medical conditions can cause weight loss to stall.
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Is Your 1,200 Calorie Count Accurate?
You may think you're eating 1,200 calories per day, but unless you weigh and measure every morsel you put in your mouth, you can't be 100 percent sure that's your intake. A study published in a 2006 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people underestimate their calorie intake at large meals by an average of 40 percent. Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University and co-author of "Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics," wrote in The Atlantic in 2012 that the average underestimation of caloric intake is 30 percent, for all meal sizes.
This means that if you think you're eating 1,200 calories per day, but eyeballing portions, you could actually be consuming more like 1,560 to 1,680 calories daily. This means the calorie deficit you're creating is far smaller than you think and not yielding a measurable weekly loss.
Have You Stalled Your Metabolism?
Ironically, being too diligent in your eating and exercise regimen can cause a slowdown in your metabolism and inhibit weight loss. If a 1,200-calorie diet creates more than a 1,000-calorie-per-day deficit and you're exercising on top of that, your body may slow down its calorie-burning processes because it senses starvation. Your body starts to use lean muscle mass as fuel to preserve the fat it thinks it needs in case of emergency. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so your metabolism drops and it's harder to lose weight.
Psychologically, your body can be negatively affected by your strict calorie standards, preventing the weight loss you expect. Strictly counting calories and exerting willpower increases stress on your body, which stimulates the release of the hormone cortisol, according to a study published in a 2010 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine. Excessive levels of cortisol can cause your body to hold onto fat.
Are Your Really Eating Healthy All the Time?
If you're not keeping a food journal, you may be subconsciously blocking out any cheats and overestimate how healthfully you're eating. A fancy coffee drink, glass of wine, food samples in the warehouse store, a bite of homemade cookies at the office or extra dressing at lunch may not register to you as a violation of your diet, but these calories add up.
A food diary in which you write down everything you eat may reveal more splurging than you thought. It can also help you identify when you use food as a coping mechanism for anxiety, stress or loneliness. Record how much water you drink and how many hours you sleep, too. Too little of either can also stall weight loss.
Are You Doing the Right Exercise?
Exercise routines that look exactly the same day after day may cause you to hit a plateau. Your body gets used to the stimulus, and you stop seeing results. Mix up your routine a bit by trying a new activity -- jog instead of getting on the indoor cycle, for example. Reorder strength-training exercises, and add more sets or increase weight as other alternatives. Also, ask yourself if you're exercising as much as you think you are. Getting to the gym is admirable, but if you spend more time in the steam room than on the gym floor, you're unlikely to see results.
When you skip the weights in favor of the elliptical trainer, you're also doing your body a disservice. Strength training builds lean muscle mass to boost your metabolism.
If you're working at a steady pace for your entire cardio session, you may also be missing out on results. A paper published in the Journal of Obesity in 2011 concluded that high-intensity interval training, in which you alternate short bouts of high-intensity work -- such as sprinting -- with low-intensity work -- such as walking -- helps you burn fat more efficiently than steady-state exercise.
Are You Holding Out on Other Activity?
A large calorie deficit can make you subconsciously slow down all day long. Regular gym sessions may also make you feel like you have an excuse to take the elevator instead of the stairs. And, when you do hit the gym -- you may not be working as hard as you think because you just don't have the fuel.
Paring back too much on everyday activity, such as household chores or walking errands, can prevent weight loss. Less intense workouts also may diminish your daily calorie burn. If your slight calorie intake makes you feel deprived, tired and weak, consider increasing how much you eat daily by 100 to 250 calories so you have the energy to burn more calories overall.
Have You Checked With Your Doctor?
If you're positive your calorie intake and exercise routine are on point, you may need to make an appointment with your doctor just to make sure everything is OK. Certain conditions, such as hypothyroidism, can make weight loss much more challenging. Some prescription medicines, such as steroids and antidepressants, also inhibit weight loss and may even cause weight gain. If your inability to lose weight has a medical cause, your doctor can then help you come up with solutions.
- Ask the Dietitian: Overweight and Weight Loss
- Annals of Internal Medicine: Meal Size, Not Body Size, Explains Errors in Estimating the Calorie Content of Meals
- The Atlantic: Why Calories Count: The Problem With Dietary-Intake Studies
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010: Chapter 2: Balancing Calories to Manage Weight
- Go Ask Alice: Ideal Caloric Intake
- Oxygen Women's Fitness: Are You Underfueling?
- Psychosomatic Medicine: Low Calorie Dieting Increases Cortisol
- Journal of Obesity: High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss
- Health: 5 Surprising Reasons You're Not Losing Weight
- ABC News: 10 Reasons Women Can't Lose Weight