Have any of you ever tried the 1,200-calorie diet? It’s something I never heard of until I read this essay by Scaachi Koul at BuzzFeed News, but apparently it’s quite popular as a method for losing weight. Koul writes that she and every woman in her family has tried it at one point or another, usually at multiple points. “For years,” she writes, “my mom strictly ate 1,200 calories daily to her utter detriment: She was always hungry, and naturally, always cranky, constantly looking for low-calorie alternatives to her favorite foods.”
Koul did some research and learned that the 1,200-calorie diet originated in Europe in the late 19th century. Scientists were starting to develop nutritional science and at the time believed that the number of calories you took in every day should exactly match the calories you expended. But the diet itself did not become codified until 1918 when an American doctor named Lulu Hunt Peters published a book called Diet And Health: With Key To The Calories. Peters was a strong believer in the power of self-discipline. The 1,200-calories-a-day diet was also patriotic: at the time, Americans were in the midst of their participation in World War I and were rationing food on the home front. But a few years later, an even more important force began dominating women’s diets: fashion. After women abandoned corsets, they had to be skinny and lithe on their own. And so Peters’ book became a best-seller and the women of America became very hungry.
So what did consuming 1,200 calories a day look like for Peters? For breakfast, she recommends drinking coffee, tea, or a glass of skim milk. For lunch (350 calories), you can eat celery, olives, cornbread, and milk, or lettuce with mayonnaise, pickles, and melted cream cheese. And for dinner, which should be 650 calories, you could eat broiled halibut with lettuce and a whole wheat roll, or — yikes — stewed prunes in syrup with “10–12” peanuts, shredded whole wheat biscuits, and skim milk.
Doesn’t that all sound delicious? The modern version of this diet doesn’t sound much better: tiny cups of oatmeal, tiny chicken breasts and tiny sweet potatoes, and tiny turkey sandwiches. Or maybe one McDonald’s Big Breakfast for the entire day. It’s 2021: we have choices!
As dietician Jamie Nadeau recently pointed out—on TikTok, where else?—1,200 calories a day is not enough to sustain an adult human, even a delicate little female.
It is, however, enough to sustain my dog. So that’s good news!
Koul’s essay is worth reading, both for the dietary history and the cold, hard experience she brings to bear in debunking this extremely stupid and extremely unhealthy diet.