A fad diet or a long-term solution for weight loss? With the claim of “losing 10 pounds in a week,” the military diet has taken the weight loss community by storm. But is it worth all the hype? Keep reading below and find out.

What is the Military Diet?

The Military Diet consists of a very low-calorie diet plan for 3 days, followed by your normal diet for the next 4 days of the week. Supposedly, this weekly cycle can be repeated as many times as needed to get to your desired weight.

Despite its name, the military diet has nothing to do with the military, although you may need strict discipline to follow this plan. During the 3-day diet, the average daily calorie intake is only a little over 1,200.

The very premise of this diet is problematic. It takes absolutely nothing but calories into account, which is even more superficial than the calories-in-calories-out (CICO) dietary approach.

There is no mention of nutrient requirements, the effect of different foods on metabolism and fat burning, the impact of antioxidants, the benefits of anti-inflammatory foods, the complementary role of exercise… the list goes on.

The military diet is as simplistic as it gets – and not in a good way.

Even if we were to disregard this glaring issue, the military diet is hard to sustain on a day-to-day basis. Simply staying under the calorie requirements can be difficult, especially if you don’t pay attention to the macronutrient content and source of your calories (i.e. proteins vs. carbs, plant-based food vs. animal sources). You need palatable foods that give you a sense of satiety, such as red meat or fish, to maintain a lower calorie count on a daily basis [1, 2, 3].

The average adult needs 2,000 calories per day, which can widely vary from one person to the next (depending on age, gender, physical activity, etc.). One estimate suggests 15- to 18-year-old men need about 3,000 calories a day [4].

Those who naturally require more calories may need to adjust the military diet accordingly. And if you want to avoid nutrient deficiencies and health problems in the long run, you need to be even more careful.

Snapshot

PROs

  • A quick way to lose weight
  • Simple meal plan
  • Flexible (vegetarian and vegan options)

CONs

  • Hard to sustain over the long run
  • Lacks scientific support
  • High risk of nutrient deficiencies
  • High in junk food
  • The lost weight can quickly come back
  • May leave you unsatisfied and hungry

Military Diet Plan

Overall, the meal plan is simple and contains the main food groups.

You may need to go grocery shopping to stock up on all the ingredients, but everything is easy to find and prepare.

The meal plan doesn’t seem to have a ton of variety. There are many substitutions you can make (see below), although most of them lack common sense.

This diet also allows for foods like ice cream and hot dogs. The only difference from a typical, unhealthy, Western diet is smaller portion sizes.

Let’s first outline the sample plan, taken from the military diet website.

Then we’ll look into what the advocates of this diet are saying and compare it to nutritional and science-based insights (see “Does the Military Diet Really Work?”).

Day 1

Breakfast:

  • Half of a grapefruit
  • 1 slice of toast
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter
  • 1 cup of coffee or tea with caffeine

Lunch:

  • Half cup of tuna
  • 1 slice of toast
  • 1 cup of coffee or tea with caffeine

Dinner:

  • 3 ounces of any type of meat
  • 1 cup of green beans
  • Half a banana
  • 1 small apple
  • 1 cup of vanilla ice cream

Day 2

Breakfast:

  • 1 egg
  • 1 slice of toast
  • Half a banana

Lunch:

  • 1 cup of cottage cheese
  • 1 hard boiled egg
  • 5 saltine crackers

Dinner:

  • 2 hot dogs without the buns
  • 1 cup of broccoli
  • Half cup of carrots
  • Half a banana
  • Half cup of vanilla ice cream

Day 3

Breakfast:

  • 5 saltine crackers
  • 1 slice of cheddar cheese
  • 1 small apple

Lunch:

  • 1 egg in any style
  • 1 slice of toast

Dinner:

  • 1 cup of tuna
  • Half a banana
  • 1 cup of vanilla ice cream

4 Days Off

During the 4 days off you can resume normal eating, although it is recommended to stay at or under 1,500 calories per day for maximal weight loss.

Sample meal plans for the 4 days off can be found on the military diet website. They’re pretty much the same as the ones above, with slight modifications to fit the calorie count.

For example, lunch options range from “Tuna Pita” to “Veggie Lunch” and “Pepper Cilantro Fajitas” to “Shrimp Fried Brown Rice” for dinner.

Calories

Calorie intake gradually decreases over the first three days of the diet. You start off with about 1,400 calories on Day 1, aim for 1,200 calories on Day 2, down to about 1,100 calories on Day 3, and back up to around (or under) 1,500 calories per day during the off period.

Vegans & Vegetarians

According to the military diet website, meal plans can be adapted to fit the needs of vegetarians and vegans. They suggest you should replace:

  • 1/2 cup of tuna with 1/2 an avocado and 2 tablespoons of hummus, OR 1/4 cup canned chickpeas
  • Meat with tofu
  • Vanilla ice cream with dairy-free vanilla ice cream
  • 1 egg with 1/2 cup baked beans
  • 1 cup of cottage cheese with 1 cup unsweetened soy, hemp, or almond milk
  • 1 hard-boiled egg with 1/2 avocado and 2 tablespoons hummus
  • 2 hot dogs with 2 veggie hot dogs
  • 1 slice cheddar cheese with 15-20 almonds for vegans

Substitutes

Due to dietary requirements or personal preference, the military diet website suggests you can substitute:

  • Half grapefruit with a ½ teaspoon of baking soda mixed with water
  • 1 slice of toast with 1/8 cup of sunflower seeds, half cup of whole grain cereal, half a protein bar, 1/4 cup of yogurt, and flaxseed
  • Peanut butter with almond butter, cashew butter, soy butter, sunflower seed butter, pumpkin butter, bean dip, or hummus
  • Coffee (or tea with caffeine) with green tea, regular tea, sugar-free hot chocolate, or sugar-free Red Bull
  • Half cup of tuna with lean meat, cottage cheese, tofu, chickpeas or almonds
  • Meat with beans, tofu, portobello mushrooms, or lentils
  • 1 cup of green beans with other green vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, etc.
  • Half a banana with other fruits such as kiwis, papayas, apricots, plums, grapes, etc.
  • 1 small apple with plums, grapes, zucchini, pears, dried apricots, or peaches
  • 1 cup of vanilla ice cream with yogurt
  • 1 egg with 1 cup of milk, half an avocado, one chicken wing, 2 slices of bacon, half cup of baked beans, or a ¼ cup of nuts
  • Cottage cheese with plain yogurt, cheddar cheese, ricotta cheese, eggs, ham, tofu, or hummus
  • Hot dogs with tofu dogs, soy dogs, turkey dogs, bratwurst, deli meat, beans, lentils, or portobello mushrooms
  • Broccoli with green vegetables such as cauliflower, spinach, Brussels sprouts, or asparagus
  • Carrots with bell pepper, celery, parsnip, beets, or squash
  • Saltine crackers with rice cakes or other types of crackers
  • Cheddar cheese with ham, egg, cottage cheese, or tofu

But wait… Do any of these substitutions make sense?

The only substitution with any rationale behind it is replacing grapefruit with baking soda and water. The reasoning is that they both are alkaline (opposite of acidic) and thus can burn fat, since a couple of studies with rodents show that alkaline water can help lower body weight and reduce fat. Even this theory is highly questionable [5, 6].

The other substitutions appear to be only based on matching calories, and as a result, can completely differ in all other aspects – from their nutrient content to their health and metabolic effects. For example, replacing toast with a high protein bar will give you a lot more protein and fewer carbs, making it an odd replacement choice.

The wide variety of replacements support the idea that the military diet is primarily based on the caloric deficit principle, without taking into account any other dietary and nutritional factors. This is why unhealthy foods such as ice cream and hot dogs are allowed. Even though they may be high in sugar or highly processed, they “fit” under the total calorie limits.

Does the Military Diet Really Work?

Claims from Supporters

There are a few reasons why supporters say the military diet works.

First, the military diet keeps you at a caloric deficit – taking in less energy (calories) than you burn – and that’s the simplest basis of weight loss [7].

Another reason is that a couple of foods in the military diet boost metabolism and help burn fat. For example, caffeine and grapefruit can help with weight loss [8, 9, 10].

But these two foods alone are unlikely to have a meaningful effect on fat-burning. What’s more, more numerous foods that slow down your metabolism – such as hot dogs, toast, crackers, and ice cream – are going to override any positive effect.

Supporters also say that the high-protein food found in the diet boost weight loss. While high-protein diets do help curb appetite and promote weight loss, it is unlikely that the military diet has enough protein to achieve these results [11, 12].

Lastly, supporters claim the diet gives the benefits of intermittent fasting. This is doubtful, however, as the diet doesn’t specify a fasting window during the day. Fasting also generally requires consuming fewer calories (400 – 500 calories/day) than what is typical in the military diet [13].

Reviews

Reviews on the web range from downright negative to moderately positive.

In one negative review, the dieter complained of headaches, fatigue, and irritability on Day 1. It got better on Day 2, but on Day 3 the symptoms returned again and she also experienced lightheadedness. At the end of the 3 days, she was very happy for the diet to be over. She felt the diet was nutritionally unbalanced and the food insufficient. She also slept poorly on the diet and didn’t want to exercise. Although she lost a couple of pounds, she regained the weight quickly and does not recommend the diet.

In one positive review, the dieter admitted to feeling “starved” at Day 1 but was excited by her weight loss by Day 2. She said that the meals were satisfying after eating but got hungry as time passed. Overall, she lost 7 pounds after the 3 days and says it works if you stick with it. However, the review was only for the first 3 days and it is unclear if she maintained the weight loss.

What the Science Says

If you need to lose weight quickly in the short-term, the 3-day military diet can “work” – that is, you might lose some weight if you can sustain caloric deficit and avoid health problems [14, 15].

However, the claim of “losing 10 pounds in a week” is an exaggeration, unless you are very overweight, to begin with, as you need to burn about 3,500 calories to lose 1 pound of fat [16].

Moreover, there is a good chance of quickly putting back the weight you lost when you go back to regular eating.

During a low-calorie diet, your body uses a form of stored sugar (glycogen) for energy, pulling with large amounts of water. When you lose weight very quickly, much of the weight loss is just water weight, which can be regained quickly with normal eating [17, 18, 19, 20].

The low-calorie, low-quality, unpalatable foods in this diet also increase the chance of binge eating, canceling out any progress you made. Calorie-dense foods like ice cream may temporarily soothe your hunger and cravings but can only disrupt your energy-burning capacity.

Safety & Critique from a Health Perspective

Whatever diet you’re starting, your health should be more important than short-term weight loss. In general, very low-calorie diets are mostly “safe” over a week or two. Most analyses, however, do not take any health effects longer than that into account. To make matters worse, no studies using the military diet have been carried out to date [21, 22, 23, 24].

In truth, this diet carries several health risks – as you would expect from a diet that boils down to being in a calorie deficit for 3 days and in semi-caloric deficit for 4 days. It’s a Western-type diet with fewer calories and slightly more broccoli and apples.

The literature abounds with studies that point to nutrient deficiencies and health complications that result from a Western diet [25, 26, 26, 27, 28].

Nutrient deficiencies wreak havoc in the body in the long term. Low levels of folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, niacin, vitamin E, iron, zinc can damage your DNA, disrupt the function of your immune and nerve cells, and lower your antioxidant defense. Low vitamin D, calcium, magnesium weaken your bones and heart and can trigger mood imbalances [29, 30, 31].

A Western-style diet can impair your gut microbiome, your immune system, and your digestion. It can increase inflammation, autoimmunity, and your risk of cancer. It strains your heart and blood vessels while depriving you of vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. Combine it with stress and a lack of exercise, and you’re bound for serious problems.

Some foods in this diet – hot dogs, crackers, and cheese – are high in salt and various additives such as MSG, nitrates and nitrites, and benzoates. Not to mention the sugar content of ice cream [32, 33, 34, 35].

Lastly, the diet may worsen your health and wellbeing in other ways. Being hungry all the time will take a toll on your mood and energy levels. In turn, you might be too tired and frustrated to exercise.

All this is a greater concern if you are choosing or substituting foods without looking at their nutrient profile.

Healthy Modifications

You can still modify the military diet in a healthy way. To start with, exclude junk food: ice cream, crackers, canned tuna, and hot dogs; limit peanut butter.

The right diet for you may not work for someone else. Exclude all the foods that you are sensitive to. Cutting out flour and bread is also a good idea, including toast.

Include as many nutrient-dense foods as you can handle. Up your intake of healthy fats, such as olive oil, MCT oil, and fatty fish. Consider adding some black cumin oil as well.

Increase your intake of protein-rich foods that will keep you sated. Go for seafood, organic meat, and fish. Get more fiber-rich vegetables that will increase butyrate in your gut.

Remember to drink enough water!

Many people are sensitive to dairy; limiting or cutting dairy is another option.

Be wary of lectins (high in nightshades) – they can reduce satiety in some people [36].

Once you get these down, you should have enough energy and shouldn’t feel the desire to binge. Then don’t forget the basics: get enough exercise!

Also, have in mind that diet and exercise are just a part of the equation when you’re trying to lose weight. Stick to a healthy circadian rhythm, get more sun and sleep, and reduce stress.

Create a healthy diet and lifestyle for yourself that you won’t want to run away from at the first chance you get.

Limitations and Caveats

Unlike other diets or weight-loss approaches, no studies on the military diet exist. Although we can infer some findings from the scientific studies done on similar diets, the lack of research is limiting.

Take-Away:

The 3-day military diet is doable if you’re healthy, need to lose weight quickly, and can stick to a low-calorie count. However, don’t expect any long-term success. The diet is hard to maintain and much of the weight loss is easily regained.

Ultimately, the cons outweigh the benefits of this diet. It lacks scientific research, runs a risk of nutrient deficiencies, and takes an overly simplistic calorie deficit approach. Better options for stable, healthy weight loss exist.

If you still want to give the military diet a try, be sure to cut out junk foods and increase your intake of palatable, nutrient-dense items with the same calorie count.

About the Author

Pranab Karki, BSc

BS (Neuroscience & Behaviour)

Received his BS in Neuroscience and Behavior from Wesleyan University and is getting his MS in Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.

He loves helping people learn how to improve their overall well being. He is most interested in fitness, how the brain works, mental health, and enjoys sharing that information with others. He believes that the more people understand science, the better the world will be.

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