What Is the Military Diet, and Can It Help You Lose Weight?
A nutritionist explains everything you need to know about this popular plan.
One of the top searched diets on Google today, The military diet has actually been around for years. The plan is designed to promote quick weight loss, with the website stating that followers can expect to lose up to 10 pounds in one week without strenuous exercise or prescriptions. The entire three-day plan is available online for free, no subscription or login needed, and there is no book or product to buy.
Sound too good to be true? Here’s what you should know before you decide whether or not to give it a go: exactly how to start it, what you can and can't eat, and if it can lead to long-term weight loss.
It’s a 3-day-on, 4-day-off strategy
On the military diet, you follow a strict meal plan for three days in a row. Day one of the plan provides 1,400 calories, day two 1,200 calories, and day three 1,100 calories. For the following four days, you can eat anything you’d like. However, the plan’s proponents advise sticking to 1,500 calories or less for the best weight loss results. You continue to follow the three-day-on and four-day-off cycle for as long as it takes to hit your goal weight.
The food is pretty “diety”
Exactly what to eat on each of the three days is laid out in detail on the website. The plan is very basic and includes many foods eaten by themselves. For example, on day one, dinner is two hot dogs (no buns), 1 cup of broccoli, ½ cup of baby carrots, half of a banana, and a half cup of vanilla ice cream. Day three’s dinner includes one cup of tuna, half of a banana, and a cup of vanilla ice cream.
The website lists substitutions for a vegetarian and vegan version of the plan, with swaps like tofu instead of hot dogs, and vegan ice cream. If other substitutions need to be made, the site emphasizes replacing foods based on the same number of calories, not the same portion size. For example, if you’re gluten-free, the crackers you eat in place of the five saltines included on days two and three should provide the exact number of calories as the saltines, regardless of the new portion.
Black coffee with or without stevia is also allowed, and drinking water throughout the day is encouraged. Seasonings aren’t allowed, other than salt, pepper, lemon juice, Mrs. Dash, and very small amounts of low-calorie condiments, like mustard and Frank’s hot sauce. Alcohol is nixed during the three-day phases, but can be consumed on the four off days of the week.
Exercise is encouraged
Despite the low calorie level, the plan’s supporters recommend walking 30 minutes per day five days a week. If you’re already following a cardio/weight lifting/circuit program before you start the diet, they advise continuing. They do state though that if your workout makes you feel dizzy or weak, you should slow your exercise during the three-day phases.
The military diet hasn't been studied
The plan’s website states that the diet is safe and effective, but there are no published studies to provide information about the average weight loss, potential health outcomes, or the rate of weight loss maintenance versus regain. The plan’s website also states that the diet combines calorie restriction with what they refer to as “chemically compatible foods” designed to work together and jump-start weight loss, but this hasn’t been researched. They also claim that unlike other diets, this plan doesn’t slow down your metabolism—again, this hasn’t been backed up by studies.
The diet wasn’t created by the military
The plan’s website states that the diet was not developed by a team of military scientists. It is called the military diet because of the discipline and stamina required to achieve results. (For these reasons, it is also known as the navy or army diet.) The site also states that the diet has evolved over time, but does not directly answer who created the plan in the FAQ section, and there are no health experts listed on the site.
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Will the military diet help you lose weight long-term?
The military diet is primarily a quick fix. In fact, the website even states that it works well for weight-loss emergencies—like needing to fit into a wedding dress, or getting ready to see an ex who’s coming to town, so you can “make them drool.” Sigh.
Bottom line: the plan is about as outdated as those references. The military diet is a strict, regimented, calorie-controlled diet, with no research on its short- or long-term outcomes. In addition, the original version contains too few serving of produce, and too many processed foods, including hot dogs, white crackers, and ice cream. And rather than teaching about nourishment and lifestyle changes to foster weight maintenance, it relies on an antiquated calories in verses calories out tactic.
The truth is that shedding pounds may require curbing surplus calorie consumption. But the quality of those calories is key, not only for weight loss, but also to optimize mental and physical energy, enhance mood, reduce chronic disease risk, as well as support immunity, sleep, and digestion. A long-term weight-loss strategy should also allow you to enjoy what you eat, support a healthy social life, and enhance overall mental and physical wellness.
I don’t recommend the military diet, but if you’re thinking of trying it, consider upgrading the quality of the foods you eat, and listen to your body. Increase the portions if needed, especially if you’re active, in order to feel full for at least three to four hours after meals and simultaneously feel satisfied and energized. Finally, think long-term. Weight-loss approaches that result in sustainable results are the ones that become a new normal way of eating. If you can’t see yourself really sticking with this plan six months or a year down the road, it’s probably not the right one for you.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.
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