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TOPIC: 1200, and why it won't work

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January 23, 2013 5:18 PM
This is going to be long, and sorry there is no TL;DR version! So for those of you who are frustrated with results, I would like to give you my input, for whatever it's worth.

I am one of you. I was always a bit chubby growing up and I damn near blew up in college, tipping the scale at 182 as a 5'6" sophomore. I put on the freshman 15, plus another 35 in my first two semesters. So I know what all of you are going through. I went through it. By 2010, (five years later), I was competing in my very first amateur natural bodybuilding show at 128 pounds and roughly 6% bodyfat. If it were not for an injury to my L4 disc, I would still be competing, and have no doubt that I would have obtained professional natural status. But as life would have it, I'm one of those that cannot "do", so I decided to "teach". I obtained my NASM personal training certification, which was a breeze, and went on to focus primarily on performance and general nutrition. That being said, my client list has been mostly group seminars at gyms, and womens groups primarily. I am not a personal trainer by's merely a continuation of my intense interest in the field. I do it in my free time.

Now, to this magical number that seems to be popping up quite a bit on these forums. 1200, and the associated abbreviations that go with them: BMR, TDEE. More importantly, I'd like to address the frustrations that come with these dictionary terms, and convoluted result of trying to follow a plan like this for moderately to severely overweight individuals.

Back in 2008, we were fighting a war on Calories In vs Calories Out. Which is just a fancy way of saying how much you eat vs how much your body uses per day. Much of the weight loss community had not come together in agreement on whether this was actually the golden rule. After all, there is much money to be made when you can convince entire sample groups that they could eat however much they wanted and still lose weight. That attitude has fizzled in the last few years, but it is still quite prevalent in other forms. I am very happy to see the fitness forums of today argue for the affirmative in this equation...and hope newcomers to the dieting world can accept it as an overarching statute in all their efforts.

1200 is a number that is guaranteed to make almost EVERYONE lose weight. Aside from the elderly, and very young, 1200 calories a day is a paltry sniff of food. It's a dab of nutrients, and it's almost impossible to follow on a consistent (years) basis. The number itself mocks you and makes you feel inadequate. How is it that others are eating only 1200 a day and my own gut is turning itself inside out? Why do I feel like I'm dying eating a measly 400 calorie snack, 3 times a day? That's because this number is basically the bare minimum you need to survive. You will live on...yes..but in misery. This is the kind of diet that borderline anorexic supermodels are on, and yet you don't look like them, do you? This is the BMR. Basal Metabolic Rate. It is what your body needs in order to maintain healthy tissue and organ function, to keep your heart beating and your brain working. What if your body doesn't get the amount of calories required for its basal processes? It looks to borrow, lend, from existing stores. Mainly, it looks for sugar. If there's none of that floating around, it goes for fat. No fat? it'll literally eat your muscles and organs until you no longer live. That's called starving to death. But, let's go back to just "body looking for fat" , which I assume most people on this website have an abundance of. Fat is your insurance. It's the rainy day fund your body has hoarded to ensure that if one day, you run out of food, it has a back up plan to keep you alive.

I always use this metaphor with my clients. Imagine you and I were stranded in the desert with only a canteen of water, and no hope of food. I would die a much quicker death than you. I do not carry alot of fat. I have no insurance. That's the price I pay for wanting a "beach" body. The price you pay in modern society where food is abundant? Obesity, heart disease, diabetes associated with insulin insensitivity. These are first world problems (no meme's please!).

1200 your BMR. so the solution must seem simple. eat 1200, eat it everyday, and eat it until you look like someone who only eats 1200 calories a day. It's literally that simple....or is it? No. No, it never is.

Severely overweight individuals cannot maintain something like a 1200 calorie diet unless they have incredible (and i mean incredible) willpower. That's just human nature. You see some progress in the first two weeks and you don't think a cheat day will hurt you. You let one cheat day become a second and third, and you're right back where you started, with interest. I'm not saying you can't do it. But if you had THAT much self control, I don' t think you would have gotten fat in the first place. That's just my opinion of course. If you are one of those people that can commit to a total 180 change, I applaud you. But this is where I would estimate 70-80% of people regress. The inability to eat only 1200 calories for the rest of your life. THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (assuming you don't exercise). If you put a gun to my head and said, eat 1200 calories a day for the next five years. I would probably be dead at some point before the time ran out. I'd like to think I am a beacon of willpower. But setting unrealistic expectations of yourself only leads to a crushing feeling of defeat.

I made that assumption in haste. Let's say you are one of the proud few who can do the 1200, and do it consistently, without fault or fail, for a very long time. Is 1200 the best place to start? Is it healthy to go from eating 4000 calories a day to 1200? The answer is no. Not physically, not mentally, not emotionally. You didn't put the weight on overnight, did you? Do you think it will come off overnight? Do you have delusions of losing 30 lbs in 2 weeks? If so, STOP READING. For the rest of you that have followed me thus far, allow me to elaborate.

Weight loss must be viewed as a PROGRESSION. What do I mean by that? Any sort of progression, or improvement in a task must be allowed to move forward. That is, there must be room for improvement at every step of the process. When we set a caloric goal of 1200, we move the end goal to the very beginning, and that is very, very bad. Think about it. If for any reason your weight loss plateaus, what would you do? go to 1000 calories and lose another five pounds and plateau again, with 150 pounds to go? Would you drop another 200 calories to 800? Or would you believe in this "starvation mode" that's floating around out there, and actually eat more? When you gain 3 pounds back the very next day, then what? You are setting yourself up to fail.

The metaphor for the point above is easy. Let's say you want to bench press 300 pounds. Let's say you can bench press 150 right now. What's the more sensible way to approach the task? Keep loading 300 pounds on the bar and failing? Or try for 155 the next time you attempt it?

Weight loss as a progression of events and milestones looks very much like something I experienced with one of my favorite clients. Let's call her Monica. This was our 40 week long dialogue. And an testimony to the power of client compliance!

Monica is a 300 (ish) pound woman in her late 30's. She has set a long term goal of 150 pounds lost, a VERY long term goal of being 120 pounds (like her college years), and an immediate goal of "lose 10 pounds". That's great. I love it when goals are laid out like this. I love it with they are realistic and periodized and given deadlines.

Monica has done her research and she says her BMR is 1350 (she's naturally pretty muscular!).. her TDEE is 2200, and currently she is eating about 3000-3300 calories a day (she's an honest and great food logger). Monica has started a women's cardio class at the local Taekwondo Academy that meets three times a week, she does weight training 3 times a week, starting two weeks ago, and she walks about 2 miles a day. THIS IS IMPORTANT. If you think you can lose weight and meet goals without exercising to some extent, stop reading. You've given up on yourself, and I cannot help you.

She asks me if she should eat 2000 calories a day.

I say, Monica, eat 3000. That's right. 3000 for a week. Between her cries of objection, I convince her to trust me. 3000 for one week.

A week later Monica comes to me and we weigh in. 301 pounds. She blames me for making her fatter, to which I tell her...I'm charging by the session so the less time she complains the more time we can work. Monica is a good sport, and we get through our workout and then I say to her that I want her to eat only 2700 calories the next week.

A week passes, and she comes in. We weigh, 297. She's thrilled. all her problems are solved 2700 calories and she lost 5 pounds! No, Monica. Eat 2800 this week. WHY she asks. She implores me. She begs me to bring her down to 2500. I tell her until she loses weight 4 consecutive weeks in a row, I will no longer charge her for the sessions.

A week later, after Monica has eaten 2800 a day, she comes back and we weigh in. 295. The next week after that?(still eating 2800), 295. The last and final week, she weighs in at 297 again. She's discouraged and I can tell. Despite wanting to comfort her, I keep a poker face. I tell her I want her to eat 2800 still, and eat it for the next two more weeks. I realize I'm on thin ice, and if she doesn't lose weight by her sixth week, we both have wasted six weeks time, and I have lost credibility and payment. But on the fifth week she is 294, and on the sixth, 292.

Monica loses weight at 2800 calories a day.

That's a net loss of 8 pounds over 6 weeks. More than 1 pound per week, despite Monica not being able to see it day by day. Despite her frustrations and wanting to tell me how to instruct her. Most of all despite her own doubts of if she was losing any weight at all. Over six weeks, Monica lost eight pounds. That is the hardest part of my job.

From there, the dieting process was an absolute delight. Instead of weekly sessions that she had to pay for, we touched base once a month in person. She emailed me all the time about her slip ups and the things that made her crave more food, or the events in her life that made her want to eat more and more. Most of it was just boredom, to be honest. Monica was bored, so she ate. But progression replaces boredom. It rewards incentive and motivation and ambition, so Monica was much happier.

The plan, after the sixth week was simple. Monica will reduce calories by 100 a week for six weeks. Six weeks later, she would be on diet of 2200 calories a day, while maintaining her commitment to exercise. The easiest way to do this was to cut fat...which is calorically very dense, and just so happens was her weak spot. She was eating more than 50% of her total calories in fat. A reduction of 10 grams per week was very achievable.

At some point, Monica got the idea, and didn't need me anymore. I had laid some invisible foundation beneath her that empowered her to make the decisions she knew would be beneficial. We still talk to this day, and Monica now weighs 147. She is aspiring to step on stage some day as a fitness model in her age group. I suppose that comes with the territory of having a bodybuilder as your nutritional trainer for 3 months. She is happy.

Now, if I were to have set Monica's start point at 2500, it may have all worked out just the same. But why didn't I? It's an interesting question after all. Why did I want her to start at 2800 and not 2500?

Weight loss is a PROGRESSION, and in any progression we must leave ample room for improvement. I had allowed for Monica to see improvement. This in turn fueled her motivation to continue. It eventually lead her to the more independent and free dieter that she has now become.

In the extreme case, if I had set Monica's start point at 1200, she would have lost weight. But beyond the initial period of weight loss, there is no progression. I could not have told her to cut another 100 without worrying if I was endangering her health. Certainly she would not have been able to progress and keep cutting another 500 off over six weeks. Imagine eating only 600 calories a day with 100 more pounds to lose!

I'm sorry this post was so long, but I felt that I might as well get it out there. 1200 won't work. there are no extremes in this thing we are all trying to do. Extremes are what got you here, seeking help. Moderation is what will bring you out, with a fuller and better understanding of your body than you ever though possible.

If anyone needs direction or guidance, I'm here to help. Please add me or PM me with your situation and I'll try to bring it into perspective.

**** If you have a specific question about your current situation, I will get to it. But please do not attach that as your friend request message, as I will be a clumsy fool and just click Accept, and lose it!!!**************
Edited by aelunyu On January 23, 2013 6:05 PM
January 23, 2013 5:24 PM
Holy cow, you weren't joking. Need to read when I have more time.
January 23, 2013 5:29 PM
Awesome post man
January 23, 2013 5:29 PM
hehe, sorry for the length, but I felt that my experiences would benefit many of the readers here!
January 23, 2013 5:30 PM
This was pretty interesting, I read the whole thing, thanks for posting it.
January 23, 2013 5:30 PM
I read it all. Simple and to the point, so to speak.
January 23, 2013 5:33 PM
Thanks for posting good info
January 23, 2013 5:34 PM
I appreciate you guys reading it. I hope it's of some help, at least =)
January 23, 2013 5:35 PM
MFP should make people read this when they sign up! Nice Job!
January 23, 2013 5:37 PM
Damn, nice job! :)
January 23, 2013 5:37 PM
This is great, thank you for posting
January 23, 2013 5:38 PM
Thank you for the info, I have managed to lose practically nothing eating 1200 calories for months, am now eating more, will see what happens!
January 23, 2013 5:39 PM
that's really interesting and It makes sense if you are really overweight, but if you only have say 5kg to loose, then 1200 would be OK......
January 23, 2013 5:39 PM
great read..makes sense too..
January 23, 2013 5:39 PM
Great post!
January 23, 2013 5:40 PM
January 23, 2013 5:40 PM

I am one of you...
...1200 calories a day is a paltry sniff of food. It's a dab of nutrients, and it's almost impossible to follow on a consistent (years) basis....

The number itself mocks you and makes you feel inadequate....You will live on...yes..but in misery.

well the thing is, you're not me.
You look like a rather muscular man, where as I am neither. When you turn into a 45 year old woman, then you'll be one of "me".
1200 calories a day probably is NOT enough for you, but its fine for me. I'm not starving. most days i'm not even hungry.
I woh't have to stay at 1200 calories for years, because I will get to my goal weight and eat more to maintain.

I'm not mocked, and I don't feel inadequate, and i'm not miserable.

perhaps you should change the thread title to end with "for me", since you can't stand there and tell me what's going to work for me.
January 23, 2013 5:40 PM
Thank you for sharing :)
January 23, 2013 5:40 PM
Really? I easily survive on 1400 a day and feel fine (I'm not even dieting) I'm only 18 if that matters? But I think you're over exaggerating, btw I'm a healthy weight 5'5 and 107 not at all "starving" myself like you claim o_o.
January 23, 2013 5:41 PM
January 23, 2013 5:41 PM
I read it all and love how you explained progression. The weight lifting analogy is great. I recently starting using a fitbit and realized my TDEE was much higher than I thought (although I leave plenty of room for gadget error since a piece of plastic can only be so accurate). Since then, I have actually increased my calories from 1600 to 2000 per day and have been losing weight. Thanks for the insight!
January 23, 2013 5:41 PM
I enjoyed the post, and I learned. Thank you. I wish you were local so I could meet with you myself.
January 23, 2013 5:41 PM
Excellent. Newbies dont believe u need to eat and do what u can maintain for life. I have learned alot in the past 9 mths, most I wished I had know when I started.
Great post really!
January 23, 2013 5:41 PM
Bumping for work read tomorrow lol Thanks for taking your time to post this.
January 23, 2013 5:42 PM
Read it all.........I LOVE IT> >>>I have no idea how people are eating 1200 calories and actually functioning. I usually have that much left after lunch.

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