The 1200 calorie myth

SOPHIA HERBST
Last updated 15:00 04/03/2014

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I’m not sure why ‘1200’ became the magic number of calories women should consume if they want to lose weight.

I’m not even sure how I know of this number. I just seem to know it, and my friends know it, and my mum knows it too. Somehow, somewhere, I was taught that if I want to have a flat stomach and tight bottom, I need to limit my calorie intake to 1200 a day. And take up cardio.

What I do know is that 1200 is the general number of calories health professionals say women simply cannot drop below without suffering negative health consequences.

Interesting, isn’t it? 1200 calories is actually the line between health and what they call ‘starvation mode’ – a dangerous tightrope many women are trying to walk, because they believe it is the path to thinness.

If you reach starvation mode it means your body realises it is not getting enough food (calories). It thinks that you are starving and slows down your metabolism in order to conserve energy. And because your body thinks you are starving, when you do feed yourself, it will try to store more of your calories as fat to use as long-term energy deposits.

Calorie deficiency can wreak havoc with your blood sugar levels, reduce bone mass, cause weakness, fatigue, cold intolerance, irregular menstrual periods, dizziness, constipation and swelling of the hands and feet. If a woman decides to become thin by maintaining a steep calorie deficit (1200 calories is very steep) and pairs it with long sessions of steady-state cardio, it can also lead to thyroid issues. Too little T3 (hypothyroidism) and the body accumulates body fat with ease, almost regardless of physical activity level. Women inadvertently put themselves into a hypothyroid condition when they over work their bodies through cardio exercise.

Put simply, if you are attempting to make it through a busy day on just 1200, and then you perform cardio to burn calories, you really are not going to succeed. Actually, you will probably pass out.

It is unfortunate, then, that there is one – and only one – message the majority of weight loss campaigns use to when targeting women: calories, calories, calories.

More specifically, fewer calories.

Calories are the enemy. You must either reduce your consumption of them, or obliterate them via exercise. Calories are the devil. Calories must be avoided at all costs. Calories must be burned away pronto, quick, before that cookie hits your thighs.

For example, have a look at this Yoplait yogurt commercial (which was actually pulled off the air due to complaints that it promoted disordered eating):

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Or how about this Trop50 commercial that both portrays women as airheads and perpetuates the message that they should strive to look as thought they have ‘had work done’:



I am constantly frustrated by the way health and nutrition is marketed for women versus men. Compare women’s and men’s health magazines and you immediately see the difference in keywords. The former frequently use terms like “drop kilos fast!”, “calorie-torching workout!” and “low-calorie foods”. Men’s magazines prefer to use keywords like “build”, “power” and “strength”. I haven’t come across a men’s magazine cover that talked to its readers about burning calories or losing kilograms.

Focusing on calorie counting alone is a shallow and harmful approach to health and nutrition. A healthy body cannot be measured simply by kilograms, and consuming fewer calories does not equal good nutrition.

I am especially saddened by the blatant misinformation fed to women by the media about how to be fit, or even, what fitness is. 

I am tired of watching my friends be mislead on how to be healthy. I am so annoyed by this skinny obsession, which robs women of their power. Think of all the potential that is thrown out the window when women deprive themselves of food on their quest to be thin - and the great things women would accomplish if we weren’t dieting all the time?

And hungry people are – let’s be honest – complete a***holes. I don’t know about you, but when I’m hungry it means I’m cranky, distracted, irritable and miserable.

Please do not limit your calorie intake to under 2000. Eat unprocessed foods like fruits and vegetables. Eat eggs, lean meat, dairy in moderation.

Please do not throw your own physical – and mental – potential out the window by starving yourself. Really, it’s not worth it.

I felt compelled to write this as the misinformation has got to stop. Women need to reclaim the power.

Sophia Herbst is a Seattle-based freelance writer, blogger, and proud feminist. When she's not writing for Cody, a health & fitness start-up, she's changing the conversation about social & cultural issues through her blog.

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