If you hear the words “military diet” and assume it’s the diet those buff, tough soldiers are following, then you’re not alone. The name conjures up images of boot camp-style fitness that has a certain cache.
But in reality, the military diet isn’t in any way associated with GI Joes or Janes. It’s a calorie-restricting crash diet that promises you’ll shed 10 pounds in a week. And like other fad diets, it takes more than a few liberties in making big health claims that don’t stack up.
So, what is the military diet, and why should you be skeptical? We talked with registered dietitian Devon Peart, RD, MHSc, for a look behind the camouflage.
The military diet is a diet plan that promises quick weight loss by following a highly regimented diet over the course of three days. After those initial three days, participants are encouraged to continue to restrict their calorie intake for an additional four days. By the end of the week, proponents claim that you’ll lose 10 pounds.
The military diet is easy to follow in that there are very specific guidelines for what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day for the first three days. For example:
You get the point.
It’s quite prescriptive (though the diet’s website does offer substitutions if you can’t eat or don’t like certain foods). It’s not a lot of food. And snacking between small meals isn’t allowed.
In those three days of dieting, the military diet packs just 1,100 to 1,400 calories per day. For the next four days — what military diet proponents call “off days” — you’re still encouraged to keep your calories low — about 1,500 per day. There are recommended menus for those days, too.
For comparison, the average recommended calorie count for adults ranges between 1,600 to 3,000 per day.
Peart agrees that a low-calorie “military” diet probably will lead to some short-term weight loss. But it comes with some big caveats.
“Pretty much any restrictive diet will work in the short term. If you severely cut calories like the military diet promotes, you probably will lose weight,” she concedes. “The bigger question though is, is it a good idea? And to that I’d say no, it’s not a good idea.”
Why not? Let’s take a look at the red flags.
The military diet claims you’ll lose 10 pounds if you follow the diet for one week. But Peart says any diet that guarantees you’ll lose a specific amount of weight in a predetermined timeframe should be a sign that something’s not quite right.
“No two bodies are the same. So, there’s no way you can say with certainty you will lose X pounds in Y number of days. Body weight doesn’t work like that,” she stresses. “When a dietitian is working with someone and helping them to achieve a healthy weight, we teach skills to help people learn better habits. But there are no guarantees as to how much weight you’ll lose in a set timeframe because we can’t fully know how your body will respond.”
Our bodies react differently to changes in our habits. Take any two people following the exact same diet. One may lose weight quickly. The other may not. That’s normal and should be expected.
Healthy eating advice tends to revolve around things like eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. Those are the standards we hear all the time.
So, when the military diet includes things like a cup of ice cream or eating two (bun-free) hot dogs for dinner, that should give you pause.
“With fad diets, we typically see that there’s some sort of ‘hook’ to attract people,” Peart notes. “So, when things like ice cream are included as a prescribed part of the diet, that’s not an accident. That’s a way to make people feel more excited about what is otherwise a very sparse diet.”
To be clear, Peart explains that there’s nothing wrong with an occasional ice cream or other foods you enjoy as part of a healthy diet. But when feel-good foods are baked in as part of an otherwise highly restricted menu, it’s reasonable to stop and question why they’re included.
The military diet suggests very specific foods in predetermined amounts for each day of the first three days.
It doesn’t leave much wiggle room to account for personal choice or health conditions that affect what you should be eating. And it doesn’t encourage building a healthy relationship with food.
“We all want to make good choices, and it’s easier to have someone else tell you what to eat,” Peart says. “But where’s the learning in that? What happens when you don’t have someone else telling you what to eat?”
As for serving sizes, sure, we all know that portion sizes matter. But the military diet sets a hard limit on how much tuna or how many crackers make up a meal for everybody. Maybe for some people, one hard-boiled egg is enough to sustain them for the morning. But that’s not true across the board. And the military diet doesn’t allow for flexibility.
Not all weight loss is the same. When you lose weight, it’s coming from either water, muscle or fat. And losing fat is what should be the goal for healthy weight loss. Because it’s the accumulation of fat cells that are associated with chronic conditions, like heart disease, high blood pressure and more.
But fat loss doesn’t come fast. So, when you shed pounds on the military diet, you’re mostly losing water weight.
Here’s why: When you eat food, your body first uses glucose (sugars) for energy to get you through your day. If there’s extra glucose around, it gets stored in your liver and your muscles until you need it. Stored glucose is called glycogen.
When you cut calories, your body dips into those reserves. And as it pulls the glucose out from storage, it also draws out water. Your body rids that water from your system (aka, you pee it out) and, voila, you’ve lost weight. But it’s mostly water, not fat.
“Even on a healthy eating plan, you want to encourage fat loss, not water or muscle,” Peart advises. “And that happens with modest weight loss over time, supported by weight-bearing exercise to keep up your muscle tone, and eating enough protein.”
The premise behind the military diet is that it’s a three-day diet. But when you see the menus and recommendations for four 1,500-calorie “off days” it starts to sound more like a seven-day diet. And taken a step farther, military diet promoters suggest continuing the diet until you reach your weight goals. And then, keep it up or risk gaining back the weight you lost.
So, what began as a three-day crash diet has essentially morphed into a long-term relationship with a rigid, low-calorie eating plan.
“In all honesty, it’s not a three-day diet. What they’re actually suggesting is a forever diet,” Peart explains. “But you can’t live forever on that extreme calorie restriction. Eventually, you have to go back to eating normally.”
The military diet won’t lead to long-term weight loss unless you stay on it for the long haul. And it’s not a lifestyle that’s going to be likely — or healthy.
“Nobody should continue in a calorie deficit from here to eternity. It’s just not a way to live and it isn’t realistic,” Peart says. “At some point, you’ll have to normalize your eating because you can’t continue to eat in that highly restrictive way.”
And when you do eventually increase your calorie count back to something like normal, you’ll gain back any weight you’ve lost, and maybe even more.
“Our bodies don’t care what we want to weigh or how we want to look. Your body wants to maintain homeostasis — keep things the same,” Peart explains. “So, if you lose weight quickly, your body will make little tweaks in how it metabolizes food. It’ll become more efficient at storing fat because it thinks food is scarce and it needs to conserve energy. When you start to normalize your eating, your body will be primed to store fat more readily, which leads to weight gain.”
A few days of a highly restricted diet is probably not a real risk in terms of nutritional deficiency for most people. But keeping up a diet that only allows a handful of foods can mean losing out in the long run.
“If you’re always having the same foods, there are certain nutrients that you’re getting a lot of, and other nutrients that you’re missing out on,” Peart states. “Micronutrients are widely distributed in foods. So, when you have a variety, then you’re more likely to get a broader range of nutrients.”
Here’s a common scenario that happens when people attempt highly restrictive diets like the military diet.
It’s called yo-yo dieting or weight cycling. You start. You stop. You start again. You gain and lose weight over and over and over.
The problem isn’t you. It’s the diet. The strict rules are nearly impossible to keep up. And all that weight change doesn’t do your physical or mental health any favors.
“Your weight isn’t meant to stay exactly static forever. It’s normal to gain and lose a few pounds here and there,” Peart shares. “But big fluctuations in weight, where you’re cycling up and down, up and down, isn’t good in the long run. It affects your insulin sensitivity and it’s not good for your metabolism. And psychologically, it’s a rollercoaster ride of success and perceived failure.”
The best plans for successful weight loss include a combination of healthy eating and exercise — strengthening exercises in particular. That’s because without exercise, you risk losing muscle mass instead of fat cells.
The military diet seemingly encourages moderate exercise, suggesting walking or circuit training. But they also advise cutting back on your activity “if your workout makes you feel dizzy or weak because of the low calorie count on the diet.”
Healthier advice, Peart recommends, is to eat enough to sustain you through at least moderate amounts of exercise.
Long-term, healthy weight loss doesn’t have to be something you do alone. In fact, people often benefit from working with a healthcare provider, like a registered dietitian, to create a plan that works for their goals without upending their life.
Your strategy for weight loss or any other health goal should be tailored to you. And it should be part of a lifestyle you can life with long term.
“Food is one of the great pleasures of life. We should enjoy it,” Peart emphasizes. “I always tell people, you’re at a healthy weight if you’re reasonably active, if you’re including foods that are nutritious, if your bloodwork (cholesterol, blood sugar, etc.) is going in the right direction and if you have a diet that you enjoy. Don’t leave that last part out.”