Noom got lit up this week on Twitter over, as we’ve been saying, being a fanced-up run-of-the-mill 1200-calorie diet. Or as one tweet put it, an eating disorder, referencing the app’s way of suggesting eating more of its its preferred “green”-category foods, like lettuce, in order to feel full on such a meager calorie budget. But I’d like to focus on the 1200-calorie diet part. It’s time to put the 1200-calorie diet in the grave,1 culturally speaking.
Can people make changes to their bodies with a 1200-calorie diet? Yes.
Can you carve an ice sculpture with a wrecking ball? Also, technically, yes.
Here is an instructive example: A 2012 study followed 9,000 people who did a commercial weight loss program for a year, eating either 500 calories a day, 1200-1500 calories a day, or 1500-1800 calories a day.
In terms of a deficit relative to normal caloric intake (lets say 1800-2000 calories), with perfect adherence, and going off the metric of pound of body weight equivalent to 3500 calories, the 1200-1500-calorie subjects should have lost 52-83 pounds, mathematically speaking. The 500-calorie subjects should have lost 135-156 pounds.
What really happened was the vast majority of the 500-calorie subjects lost between 5 and 45 pounds. Most of the 1200-calorie subjects lost between less than 1 pound and 26 pounds. Most of the 1500-1800 calorie subjects fell somewhere between gaining 2 pounds and losing 24 pounds (not that different, notably, from the 1200-1500 calorie people!).
Why didn’t the diets work like they should have, mathematically?
Two possible scenarios:
- Their adherence was not perfect, purely as a result of “accurately tracking calories can be tricky”;
- or their adherence was not perfect because it is practically difficult to be in a huge deficit all of the time. It just sucks. You’re hungry, understandably! And that is not an issue of willpower but a biological reaction your body is having to being underfed, so it goes, “I crave food.” Newer research shows that in these scenarios, bodies will also work to try and conserve energy. To a body, biologically, it’s better to conserve body mass and potentially make us feel like shit and have no energy, rather than let us feel happy and healthy up until the precise moment we’ve depleted all our mass and our organs shut down. It’s a time out. Also understandable.
This does not mean that it’s impossible for anyone to ever change their body composition. But one of the reasons people end up talking past each other on the matter of 1200-calorie diets is that the same approach doesn’t work out the same for everyone.
For instance, a bodybuilder a decade into their hobby might eat 1200 calories a day (in addition to following many more precise diet rules) in the days leading up to being up on stage in order to shrink their skin to the muscles they’ve been bulking up for a year.
But that bodybuilder:
- Has muscle mass to spare;
- Is (hopefully!) at this point a highly experienced manipulator of body composition, or is working with a coach who is;
- Is only on that diet for a strategic amount of time;
- And maybe most crucially, only expects the results to last for a matter of days, or even a matter of hours, while they’re being judged on stage during the competition. It’s not a lifestyle. It’s not a result that’s expected to last forever
1200 calories is an incredibly blunt instrument for… nearly all people2, and there are more sustainable and less damaging strategies out there.
It is profoundly common for health-sphere people to overload on the intensity of their approach as a way of covering their own ass. If the relentless 90-minute P90X workout was too hard? You’re the one who’s really out of shape! If the 1200-calorie diet was too hard to stick to? You’re the one who lacks willpower! They’re trying to maximize the potential of “results,” but potentially at a long-term cost. There are many people in the related Noom-reaction comments on the r/1200isplenty subreddit who are convinced they are not able to live their lives on more than 1400-1500 calories per day without gaining weight. That may be true for some, but… likely not for good reasons.
I would argue that the aspiring dieter also latches onto the 1200-calorie approach because they are falsely sold the idea that it’s possible to be as quick and dirty about dieting as possible, hoping they can just grit through a really aggressive deficit, lose the weight, and close the book.
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But bodies claw back: aggressive diets will deplete muscle mass, making weight regain easier and subsequent diets harder. An aggressive diet is like swimming as hard and fast as you can out into the ocean. Maybe you accomplished something, but now you are in the middle of the ocean. How do you live? It’s very different here, where there is no land, or food, or friends, or modern conveniences.
Therefore, RIP the 1200-calorie diet. You’ve done enough, and by that I mean, nearly nothing. Time for other things and ways of thinking about our bodies. Time for weights go up, and caring for our muscles, and locating as little value as possible in our weights and shapes, and as much as possible in how we feel and what we can do.
What subscribers will be getting next: How does one make friends in the gym? Is there anything that makes it easier? And you didn’t really ask this, but is it…. ….. …. advisable? Answers to all these questions and more, coming Sunday after next in the paid-subscriber version of this newsletter! As ever, a paid sub also gets you access to the full archive.
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A research triumph for the #midgirlwalk!!: "we estimated that approximately 110 000 deaths per year could be prevented if US adults aged 40 to 85 years or older increased their MVPA by a small amount (ie, 10 minutes per day).”
I am loving @lindsayloves2lift’s journey into strongman.
I am tired of the like, “[celebrity] CLAPS BACK at Twitter user or whoever”-style news cycles, however, love Alicia Silverstone here.
On another personal note: Leg day? I recommend it HIGHLY.
The central issue with fitness trackers, to me, is that they are oversold as airtight motivation tools; however, "These technologies have, in essence, druggified even exercise” is a bit dramatic. Also, counterpoint, how else would we know the specific clutchness of Patrick Mahomes? (Go Bills, though; they deserved this!!)
Enjoyed this “best and worst fitness trends” video from Justina Ercole.
Many of you messaged me about Blogilates’ ostensible muscle-building journey that rests on… 1500 calories per day. Regardless of what she does, what happens to her is not applicable to most people due to, dun dun dun… training history. Fortunately, the concept of creating a “training history” with our muscles is available to all!
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Sir who trudged to his favorite Jamaican restaurant in a snowstorm only to find it closed: I relate to your dedication to good food. Please claim your free meal!
While I imagine some or even much of Jackass has not aged well, as someone with two hilarious brothers, nothing delivers better on the specific wonderful experience of brother-having than Jackass. Therefore, I loved this profile of Wee Man.
Likewise, this profile of Kim Stanley Robinson, one of like three people who communicates well and accurately about climate change.
That’s all for this week. I love you for reading, thank you, maybe check to see if your local globogym has updated its equipment recently; you could be in for the time of your life! Let’s go—
As ever, I don’t override any medical professional who actually knows you. But I’d love to override the experience of anyone seeing other people doing 1200-calorie diets and saying, “That sounds good; I’ll have that,” with no other input or interrogation. ↩
I would love to know how we even landed on 1200 calories as the “magic” number; my best guess is that it’s because it is the basal metabolic rate for an “average-sized,” “normal” BMI (120lbs!), sedentary, average-height (5’4”) woman. Right to the BMR would be an EXTREME calorie deficit for anyone; I think few dietitians of sound mind would recommend anyone cutting so close to the bone of “minimum calories needed to survive if you were in a coma.” Also, most humans are bigger than this, thus need more food.