You know you need to eat less to lose weight, but just the idea of small portion sizes makes you hungry. A 1,200-calorie plan is commonly recommended because it prompts weight loss for the average person, who needs 1,600 to 2,400 calories daily to maintain her weight. Actually, 1,200 calories is about as low as you can go without losing muscle mass and jeopardizing a healthy nutritional status. It's even too low for men, who need a minimum of 1,600 calories a day to support their larger body size and higher amount of muscle mass.
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A single meal at some restaurants easily contains more than 1,200 calories, so you have to be diligent in choosing quality foods that fill you up and can be spread out over the course of the day. If you choose foods high in fiber, protein and water, your 1,200-calorie plan won't feel skimpy and leave you hungry.
Divvying Up a 1,200-Calorie Plan
Although you're trying to save calories, avoid skipping meals -- this can lead to extreme hunger that causes you to overshoot your 1,200-calorie-per-day goal. Instead, divvy your calories out over the course of the day. You may prefer to eat about 400 calories at each of three meals; 350 calories at each of three meals with one 150-calorie snack; or consume three 300-calorie meals with two 150-calorie snacks. Choose a pattern of eating that fits each day's schedule, your hunger levels and energy needs.
At each full meal, plan to have about 1 to 3 ounces of protein, a cup of vegetables and 1 to 3 ounces of whole grains. Adequate protein intake helps keep you feeling satisfied and prevents wild swings in your blood sugar that can cause cravings. Protein also helps you maintain lean muscle mass; losing muscle makes you experience a swift reduction in your metabolic rate. Vegetables and grains contain lots of fiber, which takes longer for you to digest and helps you feel full after meals.
Each day, also aim to consume at least 3 cups of low-fat dairy -- which also contains protein -- 1 1/2 cups of fruit and small amounts of healthy, unsaturated fats to help with satiety and nutrient absorption. When sticking to a 1,200-calorie plan, you don't have room for calories from sugary sweets, alcohol or sweetened soft drinks.
Breakfast gives you energy and keeps you from visiting the office break room for a doughnut or pastry. You want fiber, from whole grains, fruit and vegetables, and protein from lean sources. Sample meal ideas with about 300 calories include: one egg with two egg whites scrambled with cherry tomatoes, served on a slice of whole-grain toast with an orange on the side; a smoothie made with a small banana, a scoop of whey protein and a cup of skim milk; 3/4 cup of raisin bran topped with 1/2 cup of raspberries and 1 cup of skim milk; or a cup of low-fat plain Greek yogurt topped with 1 cup of blueberries.
Make these breakfasts contain closer to 400 calories by adding a slice of whole-grain toast, a tablespoon of nut butter, 1/2 ounce of chopped nuts or a piece of fruit to any of the options.
At lunch, fill up on fiber-rich, watery vegetables such as lettuce, cucumbers, radishes, sprouts, bell peppers, shredded carrots and baby spinach. A salad is a natural way to include this variety of vegetables along with 2 ounces of protein, such as grilled chicken or tuna canned in water, and about five woven-wheat crackers. Dress the salad with just a teaspoon of olive oil and fresh lemon juice.
Alternatives to salad include a Mediterranean-style plate that includes a small whole-wheat pita, 1 ounce of feta cheese, 2 tablespoons of hummus, 1 cup of raw spinach topped with three Greek olives, a handful of cherry tomatoes and a teaspoon of olive oil. A cup of brown rice topped with 2 ounces of stir-fried lean beef, 1/2 cup of broccoli and 4 ounces of low-fat yogurt also contains about 300 calories.
Add an extra tablespoon of hummus, an 8-ounce glass of skim milk or a piece of fruit to brings the calorie count of any of these meals up to 400 calories.
Avoiding restaurants helps keep your calorie count in check. If you do eat out, opt for a green salad with dressing on the side with a baked or grilled protein. Avoid fried foods, extra cheese, croutons and entress that are heavily sauced.
Use low-calorie cooking techniques, such as broiling, stir frying, roasting, grilling and baking, to prepare meals at home. For example, broil 2 ounces of salmon and serve with a small sweet potato, 1 cup of steamed broccoli and 1 cup of skim milk. Top 3/4 cup of whole-wheat pasta with marinara sauce, 2 ounces of lean ground beef and serve with a large salad made with 2 cups of greens, topped with 1 teaspoon of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to taste. Have 1/2 cup of raspberries or blueberries for dessert for either of these meals. A small whole-wheat roll with 1 cup of mixed vegetables and 2 ounces of baked pork tenderloin, with a dessert of 1 cup low-fat cottage cheese and a cup of chopped pears is another possibility.
If you choose to add an extra 100 calories, have a cup or two of extra vegetables, 2 extra ounces of meat or poultry, a small whole-grain roll or add an ounce of cheese.
100- to 150-Calorie Snacks
Skip processed snacks, even in small servings, and opt for whole foods instead. The fiber, protein and healthy fats in these snacks are more likely to fill you up than chips or a cereal bar. Try an ounce of low fat cheese with carrot sticks; a tablespoon of nut butter with 1/2 apple; 1/2 ounce of almonds with a plum; 1 cup of air-popped popcorn topped with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese; or string cheese with 1/2 cup of sliced strawberries. All contain between 100 and 150 calories.
A cup of skim milk or low-fat plain yogurt, a baseball-sized piece of fruit or a hard-boiled egg, and a few baby carrots are other quick options.
REFERENCES & RESOURCES
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Very Low-Calorie Diets
- Go Ask Alice: Ideal Caloric Intake
- Ask the Dietitian: Overweight and Weight Loss
- Experience Life: Protein Power
- Eating Well: What Does a 1,200-Calorie Diet Look Like
- USDA: Supertracker
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: Xtreme Eating 2014
- Eating Well: 100-Calorie Snacks