Calorie Counting: “I’m Eating 1200 Calories And I Can’t Lose Weight!”

Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - 2:27pm

By Donna Feldman, MS, RD

“I only eat 1200 calories per day and I can’t lose weight! It’s not fair. There must be something wrong with my metabolism.” If you’ve ever felt that way about your own struggle with your weight, you’re not alone. It’s enough to cause dieters to give up in frustration. If you can’t lose weight eating a measly 1200 calories, why bother making the effort? It’s not your fault; you just have a bad metabolism.

What is the truth here? Are millions of people plagued with unusually slow metabolism? A prominent obesity researcher/physician once observed: If you have a patient who complains she can’t lose on 1200 calories, put that person in a research ward and feed her exactly 1200 calories; she will always lose weight.

In other words, the problem is not a slow metabolism. It’s a poor understanding of calories .

Calorie confusion is common

Surveys of calorie knowledge consistently show that consumers have a poor ability to estimate calorie content of foods. And no wonder. Data on calories, fat, protein and other food components were gathered years ago, based on portion sizes that are small and quaint by today’s standards. A “serving” of steak—at 4 ounces—is dwarfed by the 12 ounce portion served in a typical steak restaurant.

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Even with nutritional labels on most food packages, consumers remain unaware of exactly how much they’re really eating. Recent research on consumer behavior shows that people are happy to read the labels, but they don’t usually act on the information to avoid high calorie foods. Taste still rules in food choice. Other research shows that people will eat everything they’re served, whether the portions are modest or over-sized. Even nutrition professionals were fooled in a recent study, and overate when given extra-large bowls of ice cream. So it’s no wonder dieters have a hard time sticking to a 1200 calorie diet.

Why 1200 calories per day?

1200 is not a magic number. Weight loss regimens from decades ago focused on 1200 calories, and the concept stuck. In fact, many women lose weight on 1500 calories per day, or 1800 calories for men. Losing weight depends on burning more energy than you consume, so if you vigorously exercise every day, you can definitely lose weight on 1500 calories. However, if you are sedentary, losing weight by consuming a mere 1200 calories per day might take a while.

Here are some examples of what 1200 calories looks like in real food:

  • 1-pint container of premium/gourmet ice cream
  • 120 large potato chips
  • 4 plain bagels (no cream cheese or butter)
  • 30 cups frozen broccoli (plain, no sauce)
  • 3 cups regular granola
  • Eight 12-ounce cans regular soda pop
  • 11 large apples


Nutrition labeling includes calorie content. Make good use of that information. If you have tried sticking to 1200 calories in the past (or some other calorie limit) and still couldn’t lose weight, you were probably eating more calories than you thought. For many dieters, it’s the invisible calories eaten between meals, or consumed in beverages, that run up the daily total and sabotage weight loss. Remember: a latte on your coffee break, a handful of candy from a colleague’s desk, a sports drink during your workout, the French fries off your child’s plate—all these extras “count.” There are plenty of these calorie traps lurking in daily life. If you want to enjoy these treats, add them to your calorie total. Reduce your weight loss frustration by making food labels your friend.

Here’s a great resource for calorie counting: NutritionData.