Why 1,200 Calories a Day is Bullsh*tNov 30, 2022
Active menopausal women need to toss this bad advice in the trash
By Selene Yeager
Women have been indoctrinated with the 1,200-calorie-a-day diet. It’s just part of the ocean of diet culture we all swim in. Countless articles, books, and diet platforms, including Noom, Weight Watchers, and even the freakin’ NIH promote 1,200 to 1,500-calorie diets for women who are “watching their weight”.
These diets are all based on the notion that weight management is all about “calories in, calories out,” which doesn’t guarantee meaningful, lasting weight loss even in laboratory studies. How your body burns and stores calories depends on myriad factors, including what type of foods you’re eating, your personal metabolism, your gut microbiome, and more. (Stay tuned for an upcoming Hit Play Not Pause podcast with Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford about all of this; and in the meantime, check out her thoughts in this Harvard Health piece.)
These diets are also just that: diets. They’re designed (albeit poorly, since they rarely yield lasting results for those who follow them) for weight loss, specifically to lose a pound a week, as Weight Watchers says here. But the message that seeps into our larger consciousness is that 1,200 calories is all women need to eat, and it’s something I hear to a distressing degree.
That’s simply bullshit. Full stop. Research shows that the average woman aged 20 to 60 burns about 2,000 calories a day. So even if you’re aiming for 1,200 as part of a weight loss regimen, you’re going way too low — especially if you’re active.
Active women who don’t eat enough run the risk of low energy availability (LEA) and relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S), which can cause fatigue, muscle loss, bone loss, and brain fog, among other symptoms that can be confused with and exacerbate the symptoms of the menopause transition. It can also turn down your metabolism, so you hang onto and store more fat rather than lose it (if that’s your goal).
So how many calories should we be eating? Experts like Dr. Cody Stanford believe we should stop counting calories and focus on eating nourishing foods. I’ll co-sign that all day every day. But if we want to bury the 1,200-calorie BS, let’s go down this rabbit hole a bit further. If I go to an online calorie burn calculator and plug in my weight (~135), height (5’5”), age (53), and sex (F), I learn according to the Harris-Benedict equation that my BMR (that’s the calories I need just to keep my organs functioning) is about 1,300 calories a day. My total energy expenditure (based on normal human activity like walking standing up and walking around) is calculated at about 1,800.
As an active woman, I need more — often way more — than that. Sports nutrition guidelines, including those from the Stanford FASTR program, recommend getting 5 to 7 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight a day for general training and between 7 and 10 grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight when ramping up into heavy training blocks. So, for me, that would be around 300 grams of carbs, which is about 1,200 calories for baseline training, and about 500 grams or 2,000 calories of carbs when I’m lifting, riding, running, and swimming lots. That’s just from carbs.
Does that number make your head explode? Let’s look at why it shouldn’t. I’ve taken some snapshots of my daily calorie burn on different types of training and non-training days. For background, I used my heart rate monitor and/or power meter when possible to get the calorie burn numbers as close to accurate as possible, realizing that tracking is an inexact science.
Below is a normal day of moderate training. I got up and swam for less than 30 minutes and went for a two-hour moderate ride at lunch. That’s essentially a 3,000-calorie day.
How about a day when I sit on my bum and write for more than 10 hours and get just a bit of exercise throughout the day including a little yard work, walking the dog, and cleaning up?
That’s still a 2,200-calorie day.
A long day out with friends on a conversational ride? That’s more than 4,200 calories, a number that would be exponentially higher if we were going hard.
How to eat that many calories? Full disclosure, the only time I’m counting calories is when I’m trying to make sure I have enough of them stuffed into my jersey pockets and bike bags to get through a ride. But for the sake of this piece, I looked up the calorie counts of what I eat on a typical moderate training day.
I start any given day with a green drink like Ancient Nutrition with some creatine blended in a cup of soy milk. That’s about 100 calories. Breakfast could be a bowl of oats with generous scoops of blueberries and seeds, Greek yogurt, and heaping tablespoons of some kind of nut butter. That’s about 500 to 600 calories. Add some coffee with foamed milk. The morning meal is easily approaching 650, sometimes 700 calories.
Lunch is generally a bowl of leftovers. Let’s say beans and rice, roasted vegetables, and a chunk of chicken along with a bowl of yogurt and fruit. That’s easily 500 to 600 calories.
Exercise snacks are a couple of fig bars or something similar at about 200 calories a serving.
Dinner looks a lot like lunch but either meal may be a bit bigger or smaller depending on the day. If I’ve had a big ride, it could be a burrito the size of my plate. In the evening, I might snack on some mixed nuts. Maybe there’s a beer, and NA beer, or a glass of wine in there. The total there is easily 700 calories all said and done.
That brings the grand total to about 2,200 calories. If I'm riding for more than an hour or two, I’ll pack snacks so I have 200 calories an hour and have a recovery drink or snack afterward, which will boost my energy intake along with my energy expenditure.
As someone who has battled years of eating disorders and disordered eating in her past, it’s a huge relief to have reached a place where I don’t worry about restricting myself to 1,200 or 1,500 calories or fear food. When I did that, there were inevitably times I would find myself raiding the kitchen just eating whatever I could. I would make sure certain foods weren’t in the house because I couldn’t “control myself” around them. That’s all gone. Because I feed myself — really feed myself — I’m not walking around thinking about food, trying not to think about food, trying to resist food, bingeing on food, and not even enjoying food.
I have energy to train and my weight is far more stable than when I would be restricting it. That said, I am not trying to lose weight and I fully respect that some women have that as a goal. If you’re expending 2,200 and only taking in 1,200, however, is that sustainable? If the statistics on weight loss and regain are any indication, the answer is no. Because of how the body defends weight and responds to dramatic restriction, that kind of extreme restriction might not even work.
I won’t pretend to have all the answers when it comes to matters of weight loss. It’s the topic of literally tens of thousands of studies. Given what we know about the poor track record of the diet industry and uber restrictive diets, however, I feel confident in saying that 1,200 calories a day for active and/or athletic menopausal women is not the way to go. Working with a sports dietitian who can help you feel and perform your best while helping you optimize your personal body composition for your personal body type, whatever size that may be, is a better avenue, and one I’ve seen work best for many.
In the end, if we want to perform, we need to eat. Women perform better in a fueled state and for the majority of women that means considerably more than 1,200 calories a day, no matter what the diet industry tells you.
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