How many calories should you eat for weight loss? The 1200 calorie rule and why it's meant to be broken. Picture of grocery bag full of food spilled over

What Are the Best Calories for Weight Loss?

nutrition May 12, 2023

If you are trying to lose weight (or, more accurately, lose fat), then you have to make sure your nutrition aligns with your goals.

Hang around the dieting world for a day, and you'll hear that you should slash your calories to 1,200 calories/day. But, if you hang around the science-based fitness world for a day, you'll see that a 1,200 calorie intake is frequently listed as the "what not to do" dieting advice. 

We want to help you achieve your weight loss goals, so in this post, we will answer the following questions:

How many calories should you eat?

How often should you eat for weight loss?

What else impacts weight loss?

As we mentioned above, what many people refer to as weight loss is actually fat loss, but because there is a discrepancy in what people are looking for when searching for information when we refer to fat loss throughout this post, please know we are talking about fat loss rather than weight loss overall.


How to Start Losing Weight

You may already know that the only way to lose weight is to be in a calorie deficit, but your calorie intake is not the only thing that impacts your progress along your fitness journey. Things like your stress levels, the quality of your sleep, and your hormones also impact your ability to lose weight.

The KJO Coaching Approach

At KJO Coaching, we teach our clients how to eat according to their goals (whether they want to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain weight) to ensure we set them up for success in their fitness journeys.

Telling you what to eat and when is only helpful while you are working with us and everything is going according to plan, but what happens when you no longer need to work with us (yes, the goal is to teach you to do all this independently) or you come across an unplanned situation (impromptu happy hour, anyone)?

A cookie-cutter template won't help you in those scenarios, which is why when we work with you, we teach you how to approach weight loss and nutrition so you can continue making progress for the rest of your life (and yes, when you maintain weight loss that is considered progress just as much as losing weight is).

The Best Daily Calorie Intake for Weight Loss? (Not This "Rule")

Let's go back to that 1,200-calorie rule that you've likely heard at some point. Have you ever wondered where it came from and who decided that 1,200 calories is "the best calories for weight loss"?

What if I told you that this rule started in the early 1900s? In 1918, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters first popularized the idea of calorie counting and seeing food as not just food but a number of calories. 

In her best-selling book, Diet & Health: With Key to the Calories, she first assumed that all women seek to lose weight, and to do so, all they must do is stick to a 1,200-calorie diet. 

Better yet, she placed a moral purpose behind this. She argued that eating so little supported the food rationing efforts around the time of WWI. In other words, eating 1,200 calories a day was patriotic. (What?? We know.)

Are you catching this? Society is still hung up on a dieting strategy that was taught over 100 years ago!

This so-called key to weight loss was developed before we understood the nature of human metabolism (a somewhat important piece of the puzzle).

Now, she didn't get it all wrong. In her book, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters described the human body as "fireless ovens" (a hint at metabolism) and explained how exercise played a role in the calories in vs. calories out game. 

But she definitely missed some crucial components of weight loss and overall health. Though, in her defense, none of this was discovered yet.

How Many Calories Do You Need to Lose Weight?

We've learned a lot in the last 100+ years about dieting, weight loss, fat loss, and our overall health. Possibly, the biggest lesson we've learned is that caloric needs vary from person to person. 

So, if you have a weight loss goal, you will have to figure out what your caloric needs are, and then you can create a calorie deficit from there. 

There's more to it than just calorie intake, but the concept of calories in vs. calories out matters a lot.⁣ How you achieve a caloric deficit (expending more energy than you're intaking) is up to you.⁣

Some people enjoy calorie counting and tracking macros, and we'd argue that self-monitoring your intake, at least for a bit of time, is helpful for everyone.⁣

We recommend tracking your food intake for at least a while because it's hard to know what/how much you need to cut back on if you don't know where you're starting or how many calories are in the food you're consuming.⁣ There are plenty of calorie-tracking apps that allow you to do this for free.

You may also want to check out this article to learn more about actively vs. passively tracking macros and what that can mean for your fitness progress. 

The following three steps will be your best calorie calculator to determine how many calories you should eat each day.

Step 1: Determine Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)

The first step to determining how many calories you need to eat daily, regardless of your fitness goals, is figuring out your basal metabolic rate, also known as BMR. 

Your BMR is the number of calories your body uses to maintain vital processes, such as breathing, heart rate, and brain function. 

Your BMR does not include any physical activity, so you aren't cutting calories based on this number.

As an example, a 5'7", 145-pound, 30-year-old female will have a BMR of around 1,450 calories, meaning 1,200 calories is less than the caloric intake needed for her body to function optimally. 

Your BMR will look entirely different. 

The calculation for BMR is slightly different for women and men.

Keep in mind that things like daily activity, exercise, digestion, body composition, sleep, stress, food composition, and water intake all play a role in your daily calorie expenditure, which is not reflected in this number!

Step 2: Determine Your TDEE

Next comes figuring out your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

Your TDEE is made up of your BMR, plus your physical activity (both workout and non-workout activity) and the thermic effect of food.

So, say our female from the above example goes to the gym twice a week and plays sports twice a week. Her ideal calorie intake would be about 2,250 calories a day.

TDEE is the number of calories you want to eat if your goal is weight maintenance.

Disclaimer: things like age, medical conditions, medications, if you're a professional athlete exercising 5 hours per day, stress, sleep, etc. all come into play when determining your personal TDEE.

Step 3: Determine Your Daily Calorie Intake for Weight Loss

The final step is determining how many calories to eat to achieve healthy weight loss. At KJO Coaching, our goal is to have you eat as much as possible while still making progress.

Looking at the above example, if that person's daily calories for maintenance are 2,250, then cutting out 1,000+ calories to get her to 1,200 calories per day is not only unnecessary but also unsustainable. She is more likely to achieve sustainable weight loss by only slightly reducing calories.

We recommend reducing your daily calorie intake by 10-20% if you want to lose weight.

That would be between 1,800 and 2,000 calories for our above example. You may find setting a calorie range like this is easier than having a set number of calories because it gives you some buffer room day to day.

Get Customized Macros

Achieving your fitness goals requires more than just counting calories. Your macros (carb, fat, and protein intake) also matter and will vary based on your goals and lifestyle.

For example, moderately active women will have entirely different macronutrient needs than sedentary men. This is where having customized calorie and macro targets comes into play.

Calculating your daily calories with customized macros is more complex than what we can put in a blog post, but if you want us to calculate your calories and give you the breakdown of what your macros should be, click here and message us "calculate macros."

We'll send you custom calories and macro targets for FREE.

What Food to Eat for Weight Loss

Now that you've determined how many calories you should eat to achieve your desired body weight, you have to consider what you're eating to achieve and maintain weight loss.

The quality and nutritional composition of your foods matter. 

Sometimes, just eating healthier and higher quality is enough to create a calorie deficit without diligently tracking calories.⁣ This is particularly true if you currently eat a diet high in processed foods or high-calorie foods in general.

"Healthier" usually means a balanced diet with more fiber, voluminous foods (more food volume for fewer calories, like veggies), whole grains, healthy fats, and protein⁣.

And all those things will be much more filling than processed foods or very calorically dense foods (not voluminous), so once you start eating more of these foods, you'll likely automatically eat fewer calories and, therefore, create a calorie deficit⁣.

The more filling your food, the less likely you are to eat more⁣ calories than you burn. 

Plus, once you start prioritizing nutrient-dense foods, you'll also notice changes in things like your energy and your sleep quality, which will make sticking to your healthy diet more appealing.

How Often to Lose Weight

Is it 6 small meals?⁣ Or 3 big meals?⁣

There's no magic answer. You need to ask yourself what makes you feel more satisfied.⁣

What do you enjoy more?⁣

Assuming you're in a calorie deficit, how often you eat comes down to personal preference, what's easier for you, and what makes you feel the best.⁣

When you're trying to make long-term lifestyle changes, you need to figure out what is sustainable for you, not what some influencer on social media says is the right number of meals to eat (the same goes for the right number of calories). 

P.S. Eating more frequently does not "stoke your metabolic fire" — it makes zero difference how you break up your calories throughout the day if the number of calories you eat remains the same.

What Time to Eat for Weight Loss

Does a big breakfast make you less hungry throughout the day?⁣ Or maybe you aren't hungry until later in the morning, and the last thing you want to do is eat immediately after waking?⁣

Perhaps intermittent fasting works wonders for your hunger, food cravings, and energy levels (or it could suck and make things worse — this is very dependent on the person and their unique physiology!)⁣.

Not eating after 7 p.m. won't magically make you lose weight, but if it keeps you from an extra 300–400 calories of snacks, it can help with weight loss or maintaining a healthy weight.⁣

Again, this comes down to what is sustainable for you and not what anyone else thinks is right

And if you aren't sure what the best option is for you, feel free to experiment! 

Try having a big breakfast first thing in the morning and see if it gives you more energy. Or, if you already do that, try delaying your breakfast by a bit to see if that leaves you feeling better throughout the day. 

Figure out what works best for you!

Your Metabolism and Sustainable Weight Loss

We've learned a lot since the days of Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters. 

One of the most important things to understand about how many calories you need is something called adaptive thermogenesis, which is just a fancy way to say your body is very smart and your metabolism adapts to what you give it. 

It doesn't matter if you could lose weight on 2,000 calories a day, if you consistently consume 1,200 calories a day (which is too few calories for your body to function optimally), your body will adapt to the lower calories through adaptive thermogenesis. 

You won't notice it, but your body will divert energy away from "less necessary" things like fidgeting, blinking, reduction in body temperature, and slowed cognitive functioning.

Don't Cut Calories Too Much

This adaptation is your body's way of focusing on keeping you alive and is exactly why you eventually plateau after you reduce calorie intake for an extended period of time. It's also why immediately jumping to 1,200 calories isn't the move you want to make for successful and sustainable fat loss.

You will, to some degree, have to keep lowering your calories or increasing your calorie expenditure through physical activity while dieting. Please seek a professional to help you do this to get the most effective (and safest!) results.

Click here and DM us "calculate macros" for free calories and macros targets based on your lifestyle and goals. You may be surprised at how high your daily calorie needs for weight loss can be.

Working with a fitness coach can help you sustainably reach your goal weight. We can help you minimize muscle loss (which will happen if you cut calories too drastically), work on your mental health around food (we have a psychologist on our team!), teach you about portion sizes and how to read nutrition labels, and show you a proper exercise routine that works for your lifestyle.

Your Mental Health During Weight Loss

If you find yourself constantly self-sabotaging and battling with issues of self-control, the issue might not be you. The thing that's holding you back from achieving your fat loss goals is likely your restrictive diet. 

Adhering to a 1,200-calorie diet is not easy from a psychological perspective. And just because you want to have a certain body fat percentage doesn't mean it will be easier with that goal as "motivation."

Research provides evidence that the more restrictive you are, the more likely you are to fail. 

When you follow a restrictive diet, you may feel deprived of certain foods that you enjoy or that you're used to eating. This can lead to feelings of frustration and boredom with your new restrictive diet and then feeling guilty when you deviate from the plan.

Following a restrictive diet can also cause you to develop an all-or-nothing mindset. This means that if you slip up or deviate from the plan, you may feel like you've "ruined" the entire day or week, leading you to completely abandon your fat loss goals.

Restriction won't help you with weight management or maintaining your progress. We always aim for the highest number of calories that can get you results because that's what is most sustainable long-term. Eating fewer calories may get you faster results, but you'll be more likely to gain weight again and be back where you started.

Your Ideal Calorie Intake

What we've learned since the days of Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters is that health, fitness, and fat loss are all individualized processes. 

Yes, there are some rules that generally apply (such as you need a calorie deficit to achieve weight loss), but there are also exceptions to rules based on individual circumstances, such as hormones, age, and activity level. These factors will determine how many calories you should eat to achieve your fitness goals.

If you have a weight loss goal, you can start by checking if you're ready to diet based on your current health and lifestyle. If you are ready to diet, the next steps would be to set some starting calorie goals — and better yet, set macronutrient targets (e.g., protein, carbs, and fats).

At KJO Coaching, we love tracking macros to monitor adherence to a calorie deficit. We'll even give you free customized calories and macros targets based on your lifestyle and fitness goals. Click here and message us "calculate macros" to get yours.

Throughout your weight loss journey, you'll also want to ensure you're embracing a growth mindset, paying attention to your biofeedback, managing stress, and getting enough physical activity to continue seeing progress. 

If that sounds like a lot to handle, we can help!

We specialize in helping busy, high-achieving women like you prioritize themselves and achieve their fitness goals without restriction. Our team of coaches will help you optimize your health inside and out so you can achieve and maintain your fitness goals for life. 

Click here to learn more about how we can help you reach your fitness goals!


Lowe, M. R., Doshi, S. D., Katterman, S. N., & Feig, E. H. (2013). Dieting and restrained eating as prospective predictors of weight gain. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 57480.

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Hi, I'm Kasey!

I coach, mentor, write, and teach with one main focus: Build strong bodies and healthy lifestyles, starting with your mindset.


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