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Diets

What You Should Know About the Military Diet: Experts Weigh In

The military diet is known for its extreme restrictions and weight loss, but we don't recommend enlisting in this one.

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As its name suggests, the military diet is an intensive and strict one (although it bears no ties to the actual military). It is essentially a three-day, low-calorie diet plan that promises rapid weight loss — 10 pounds in one week, allegedly.

People may be drawn to it as a “quick fix” to their weight loss goals, but the controversial diet is generally disapproved of within the health community for its restrictive practices. Ginger Hutlin MS, RDN, CSO tells Women’s World: “This is a weight-loss focused, restrictive diet plan. [It] outlines specifics about what you can eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on certain days.” After these first three days, you keep limiting calorie intake for the remaining four days of the week. This cycle is to be followed until your weight loss goal is reached.

eggs on plate next to black coffee
The military diet food plan consists of low-calorie, low-fat foods.Tetra Images / Getty

The Military Diet Limits Your Calorie Intake

The first three days of this diet regimen require you to restrict your caloric intake significantly — between 1,100 and 1,400 calories daily. This is quite a low number, especially if you lead a more active lifestyle, which burns more energy and therefore requires a higher caloric intake.

Hutlin explains, “Calorie targets should be deeply personalized and based on your age, biological sex, stature and physical activity.” For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture outlines these caloric guidelines for women between the ages of 51-60: 2,200 calories if active, 1,800 if moderately active and 1,600 if sedentary. Again, there is nuance to these requirements, as there are a range of factors that determine your personalized nutritional needs, so we recommend advising a healthcare professional before making such drastic reductions.

There Is a Specific Meal Plan To Stick To

For three days, you must follow a set menu of foods, as outlined on the military diet’s website. These “approved” foods include caffeinated coffee or tea, grapefruit, bananas, apples, whole-wheat bread, peanut butter, eggs, tuna, hot dogs, meat (any type), green beans (fresh, frozen, or canned), broccoli, carrots, saltine crackers, cottage cheese, cheddar cheese and vanilla ice cream.

Of course, these foods are limited to small portions in order to fit the diet’s low-calorie requirements. Below is a sample of one of the day’s menu plans:

Day 2 (1,200 calories):

  • Breakfast
    • 1 egg
    • 1 slice of toast
    • 1/2 banana
  • Lunch
    • 1 cup of cottage cheese
    • 1 hard boiled egg
    • 5 saltine crackers
  • Dinner
    • 2 hot dogs (without bun)
    • 1 cup of broccoli
    • 1/2 cup of carrots
    • 1/2 banana
    • 1/2 cup of vanilla ice cream

The plan offers food swaps if you are vegetarian, vegan, or have food allergies. Otherwise, there is not much room for flexibility within this three-day regimen. You are not permitted snacks in between these small-portioned meals. And as you’d expect, no alcohol either.

There is nothing special about the foods recommended in the diet, it just leads to a caloric deficit by limiting you to a strict menu.

– Vicky Pavlou, MS, RDN

You Have Four Days “Off” From the Diet (Kind Of)

As the diet’s site instructs, you are to follow the low-calorie structure for three days, then you can take off the remaining four days of the diet cycle. However, it still advises keeping your calorie intake under 1,500 for these four days. Again, there is a particular menu plan outlined in order to adhere to this diet, consisting of many of the same foods specified above. Snacks — in moderation — are allowed during these four days. 

Related: This ‘Ancient’ Twist on Intermittent Fasting Lets You Eat All Day and Still Lose Weight

You May Lose the Pounds, but It Probably Won’t Last

One of the biggest questions surrounding an intense diet like this may be: Is it effective? Simply put, because your body is experiencing a caloric deficit, yes, you will shed some pounds. Hutlin confirms: “This diet may produce short-term weight loss because it restricts calories to such a low level.”

However, these seemingly triumphant first pounds lost are likely to come right back. According to Dietitian Caroline Susie, RDN, LD,

The initial weight loss is water weight due to depletion of glycogen stores. Glycogen is stored glucose (sugar) — a main source of energy for your body… Since carbohydrates from our diet are stored in the body as glycogen along with water, if you significantly decrease carbohydrates and calories, you deplete glycogen stores and the water stored along with it — hence losing water weight.

Caroline Susie
feet standing on electric scale
The weight you lose is very likely to return after the week of extreme dieting.Kseniya Ovchinnikova / Getty Images

Losing so much weight in such a brief period of time is just not sustainable in the long run. The weight is bound to come back on after you finish this short-term diet.  In fact, extreme calorie restriction can have the opposite intended effect — according to the National Library of Medicine, it may actually “reduce metabolic rate and stimulate appetite, resulting in a weight loss plateau.”

Rapid weight loss often equals water loss but it can also come from both fat or muscle/lean body mass loss. Maintaining your muscle mass is a very important strategy if weight loss is a goal and so doing restrictive low-calorie diets for short-term losses can work against you if you’re burning muscle for fuel.

Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO

There Are Risks With the Military Diet

Beyond this diet being ineffective for long-term weight loss goals, it has some more considerable risks too. Caroline Susie warns that rapid weight loss can increase risk of “gallstones, risk of constipation, fatigue, headaches and more.”

Studies have also proven that restricting calories to drastic degrees can raise cortisol levels. Hutlin explains that this stress to your body indicates “a state of not enough food or risk of starvation in which case your metabolism might try to slow itself to preserve fat and energy as much as possible,” making rebound weight gain all the more likely.

Related: How to Fight Stress Belly — The Tricks That Tame Tension and Speed Weight Loss

The Military Diet is Not Very Nutritious

Vicky Pavlou, MS, RDN of University of Illinois at Chicago, finds issue with the fact that “it’s low in fiber and lacks a lot of nutrients due to its limited food options.” Fiber plays a key role in long-term weight loss as it helps to keep you full for longer (via National Library of Medicine).

  • It includes processed foods like crackers, hot dogs, and ice cream (high in saturated fats, sodium, added sugars)
  • Foods are low in fiber
  • There are not enough servings of vegetables and no leafy greens
vanilla ice cream in white bowl
This “diet” includes high amounts of artificial sugars, sodium, and saturated fats from processed foods.Feng Zhao / Getty Images

Health Experts Do Not Recommend The Military Diet

Unsurprisingly, the military diet does not have the support of dietitians or nutritionists. “Anytime a diet promises extreme weight loss in a short time is viewed as a red flag,” Caroline Susie, RD, LD asserts. Although this strict regimen yields swift results, health experts firmly dissuade its benefits or efficacy. As Vicky Pavlou explains to Women’s World, “Losing weight fast is not necessarily a good thing. Our body can only lose so much body fat in one week. When you eat a very limited amount of calories and lose weight very quickly you risk losing a lot of muscle mass as well.” 

Slow, Steady Weight Loss Is Most Effective for Permanent Change

In general, losing weight in a slow and steady manner is best for long-lasting results. In fact, the CDC states that people who lose weight in steady intervals — one or two pounds a week — are more likely to keep the weight off than people who lose weight quickly

“Research shows a long term calorie deficit yields the same weight loss results at the 12 month mark, so there is no need to severely restrict for three days versus being in a smaller deficit most days.”

Caroline Susie, RD, LD

So yes, while calorie deficits are effective for weight loss, this can be achieved in much healthier and sustainable ways than the strenuous military diet requires. “Quick-fix” fad diets such as these only lead to something called yo-yo dieting, in which the weight comes back just as fast as it leaves. Avoid this exhausting cycle by focusing on a well-rounded and long-term approach to losing weight, while supporting your health.

FAQs

How long do people usually do the military diet?

The website instructs the military diet to be completed as three days on and four days off. You are instructed to repeat this routine until your desired weight loss results are achieved. 

So then what is a better, healthier method for weight loss?

Approaching weight loss with patience is key — you want to build eating habits that integrate into lifestyle changes for lasting results. Dieting shouldn’t be too stringent or stressful. Flexitarian diets, for example, can be part of a sustainable path to keeping weight off.

Caroline Susie, RDN, LD emphasizes balance and simplicity: “Consume a variety of fruits and vegetables.  Consume whole fruits.  Consume lean protein in conjunction with plant-based proteins.  Consume seafood twice a week.  Opt for whole grains.  Avoid hydrogenated oils and sugar-sweetened beverages.  Personalization is key!  Focus on healthy choices, mindful eating, regular movement, and set realistic expectations.”

What is the actual diet they follow in the military?

Let’s clarify: the armed forces are not restricting their calories to such low amounts, especially with the high rate of physical energy they are expending. Rather, the priority is plenty of high-calorie, high protein foods to fuel their intense training and activity.

MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) are sealed rations for on-the-go consumption, and typically contain an entree, side, dessert, powdered beverage mix and condiments. Each of these meals come out to about 1250 calories and are designated to provide enough macronutrients, carbohydrates, and protein to sustain their energy and performance.

Is there a difference between the military diet and the warrior diet?

The warrior diet is another structured regimen that has sparked discussion and drawn comparisons to the military diet plan. It is a variation of intermittent fasting — you “undereat” for a period of 20 hours, then “overeat” for four. During these “undereating” hours, you are instructed to have simple, low-calorie foods (similar to the military diet’s guidelines). But unlike the military diet, once you reach your allotted “overeating” time, there are no strict calorie restrictions. Unprocessed, nutritionally balanced foods are encouraged, of course, with an emphasis on high protein and whole grains.

This intermittent-style eating routine goes on for three weeks. There are different phases: In the second week you follow a high fat diet, then the next week alternate between high carb and high protein intake. So while the warrior diet is close to the military diet in its theme of eating smaller amounts of food, its approach is less restrictive and practiced over a longer stretch of time, perhaps making it more manageable.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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