If you're looking for a diet to help you lose weight, restricting calories allows you to eat the foods you love, just in smaller portions. The most common recommendation is limiting yourself to 1,200 calories a day for weight loss.
To make sure that 1,200 calories won't leave you starving, create a meal plan that provides the nutrients you need.
Understanding Your Caloric Needs
Every body is different, and without looking individually at what you need to be healthy, a diet can become problematic. For example, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that women in their 20s should eat between 1,800 and 2,000 calories a day. And then, you also have to take your physical activity level into consideration. The more active you are, the higher your caloric needs.
Make sure that your body gets enough calories — otherwise, it won't function optimally. If you're trying to slim down, look at the study in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of Research in Medicine Sciences, which states that limiting calories is an effective way to lose excess weight and keep it off.
The most common recommendation for weight loss is to consume about 1,200 calories a day, as noted in a November 2014 review published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. Break those calories into small meals and snacks. An easy way to do that is to eat three 300-calorie meals and three 100-calorie snacks a day.
Stretching 1,200 Calories
There are several different ways to break down those 1,200 calories, and it all depends on your preferences. You can do three meals and three snacks at 300 and 100 calories, respectively. Or maybe you'd prefer two 350-calorie meals and five 100-calorie snacks.
Skipping meals may seem like an easy way to reduce calories, but it can backfire. A small study with 57 participants, which was published in the August 2015 edition of the journal Obesity, suggests that high protein breakfasts support weight loss. A protein-rich meal will leave you feeling fuller longer, decreasing your caloric cravings later in the day.
If you still want to skip a meal, replace your lunch with a snack. Large meals can drain your energy and affect digestion — something to avoid when limiting your calories.
However you decide to break up your meals, the important thing is to get the energy and nutrients your body needs. And that doesn't just mean consuming enough protein.
What's a Well-Balanced Diet?
To get the most of your snacks and meals, you need to know what a well-balanced diet looks like. Otherwise, you may be missing essential nutrients that your body needs to function.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans states that higher intakes of fruits and vegetables are imperative to a healthy diet. The Guidelines recommends the consumption of whole grains, while acknowledging a lack of consistency among whole grains that requires individual consideration.
For dairy products, low-fat is your best bet. And while the Dietary Guidelines states a need for high protein intakes, it warns against getting too much protein from meat and eggs.
So, as you plan out the meals for your diet, think about the nutritional value of each of the components you're adding. You should be packing your meals full of nutrient-dense foods since they'll have minimal calories. The great thing about nutritionally dense food is it helps keep you full longer than empty calories like added sugars.
How to Get Your Vegetables
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that you eat vegetables from all five categories. So your diet should be rich in green, red and orange vegetables; legumes like beans and peas, starches and others. While the Dietary Guidelines says you should get vegetables from each of the five groups, there aren't any requirements on the form. You can eat them canned, cooked or raw.
Make sure you're eating at least 2 1/2 cups of vegetables a day. You don't need to have that much of each category. Rather, fill that 2 1/2 cups with vegetables from each group, selecting foods like broccoli, red leaf lettuce, carrots, lentils and cauliflower.
The goal is to mix your vegetables up with each of your meals or snacks. This way, you'll get enough fiber, potassium and vitamin A, B, C and E, among other nutrients.
The great thing about adding vegetables to each of meal is they don't take up a lot of calories. So you'll be filling your body with the nutrients that it needs while still leaving yourself space for more food later.
Read more: The 18 Most Nutritious Vegetables
Fill Up on Fruits
Another cornerstone of a healthy diet is getting enough fruits. Again, fruits provide essential nutrients that support the proper functioning of your body. And your body can always use more fluids. Of course, you may want to stick to juices that are 100 percent fruit to avoid empty calories.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests eating about 2 cups of fruit a day. It should be noted that all of these recommendations are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. So you may find that you have to fill up on low-calorie fruits to meet this marker. What matters most is to meet your nutritional requirements.
It doesn't matter if the fruits are canned, frozen or fresh. Note that one cup of 100 percent fruit juice is equal to a cup of fruit, though it may have too many calories. Instead, focus on eating a couple of cups of fruits like grapefruit, watermelon and blueberries.
Read more: The 10 Healthiest Fruits and Vegetables
Eat More Grains
Whole grains are healthy, but it's essential to limit your consumption of refined grains, such as breakfast cereals. These are high in calories and added sugars. Of course, if refined grains are something you don't want to give up, allowing a serving for one of your snacks should be OK.
Brown or wild rice and oatmeal are two healthy whole-grain choices that pair well with meals and don't add too many calories. You can try oatmeal for breakfast with blueberries and a hard-boiled egg on the side. That will get you the grains and fruits you need without a lot of calories.
While you may be tempted to cut grains completely, they are a good source of fiber, iron and zinc. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans only requires 6 ounces of grains a day, so they should be easy to incorporate into your diet. Enjoy them as a snack, sprinkle them over salads or use them in homemade desserts.
What About Dairy?
The best type of dairy is either nonfat or 1 percent fat, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. If you have dairy sensitivities, there are soy beverages fortified with the nutrients you may be missing from dairy. Or if your sensitives are lactose based, lactose-free milk is available as well.
What you need most from dairy foods is calcium and vitamins A, B and D. To ensure you're getting enough, the Dietary Guidelines recommends 3 cups a day. One cup of non-fat milk has just 101 calories. With this in mind, you may consider supplementing these nutrients and limiting your dairy intake to 2 cups a day.
As you're aware, milk isn't the only form of dairy. Cheese may be higher in calories due to its fat content, but nonfat Greek yogurt is a great option. It can provide the nutrients you need at a minimal caloric cost.
Don't Forget Your Protein
Protein is typically what a 1,200 calorie diet should be focused on. And lean protein sources can be the best sources of energy with the fewest calories. But as with any food group, your body has specific needs.
Your body needs at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram every day, according to a study in the March 2016 issue of Food and Function. If a majority of that comes from meat, it needs to be lean. Otherwise, stick to half meat and half nuts, seeds and soy products. Protein contains the wide variety of B-complex vitamins you need, along with other necessary nutrients like iron.
To stick to 1,200 calories without starving, you need to get the recommended amounts of each of these food groups. If, for some reason, you can't hit a goal for one of these groups, it's essential to talk to your doctor about supplementing your diet with the missing nutrient. And the only way to get all of these in a 1,200-calorie diet is to pick nutrient-dense foods.
- Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism: “Measuring Outcomes in Adult Weight Loss Studies That Include Diet and Physical Activity: A Systematic Review”
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020"
- Journal of Research in Medicine Sciences: “Weight Loss Maintenance: A Review on Dietary Related Strategies”
- Obesity: “A High‐Protein Breakfast Prevents Body Fat Gain, Through Reductions in Daily Intake and Hunger, in “Breakfast Skipping” Adolescents”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Eating to Boost Energy”
- USDA: "Grapefruit, Raw, Pink and Red, All Areas"
- USDA: "Watermelon, Raw"
- USDA: "Blueberries, Raw"
- Food and Function: "Dietary Protein Intake and Human Health."
- USDA: "Milk, Nonfat, Fluid, Protein Fortified, With Added Vitamin A and Vitamin D (Fat Free and Skim)"
- USDA: Supertracker
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: Xtreme Eating 2014
- Eating Well: 100-Calorie Snacks