Does The Military Diet Work? It’s A Fast-Track To Weight Loss — Until It Isn’t

Proponents claim you can lose 10 pounds in a week. But you probably won’t keep off the weight.

by Tess Joosse
Originally Published: 
A man preparing breakfast in his kitchen.
Oscar Wong/Getty

If you’ve gained weight over the last several months, we don’t blame you. But for the purposes of your health — heart disease is the leading killer of men in the U.S. — you probably want to drop those added pounds. For men who hate diets and just want to get it over and done with, the military diet promises to deliver. Proponents claim you can lose up to 10 pounds in one week. But like all types of yo-yo dieting, the military diet could be even worse on your health than being overweight.

What Is the Military Diet?

The military diet prescribes a week-long cycle of three days “on” and four days “off,” repeated as many times as you need to reach your goal weight. Days one through three require a very restrictive intake of 1,100-1,400 calories, followed by four days of eating up to 1,500 calories — still “pretty low,” says dietician Liz Weinandy of Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. For comparison, health experts typically recommend that adults eat between 2,000 and 2,500 calories a day.

Despite its name, the military diet is not affiliated with the United States military or any known armed force. In fact, it has no discernable connection to what service members actually eat: high amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrates for intense days of training and combat.

Instead, the diet gets its name from the “discipline and willpower it takes to stay on the diet and follow it, just like the willpower and discipline it takes to stay in the military,” according to Willpower is needed, it seems, since you’ll be feeling the hunger from such a prohibitive nutrition plan.

Military Diet Menu

Though the calorie count is low, the military diet allows for a fairly even spread of carbohydrates, fats, and protein — and it even includes ice cream. Technically, you can eat whatever you want on the diet as long as it stays within your calorie quota, but the example meal plans on the diet’s website are fairly well-balanced.

This is what a sample day on the diet looks like:

  • Breakfast: an egg, a slice of toast, and half a banana
  • Lunch: One cup of cottage cheese, another egg, and five saltine crackers
  • Dinner: Two hot dogs (no buns), one cup of broccoli, half a cup of carrots, half a banana, and half a cup of vanilla ice cream

Alcohol and sodas are no-nos, but coffee is allowed — provided you subtract five calories from your food intake elsewhere for each cup you consume. You can make substitutions for certain foods in the military diet meal plans if you just can’t stomach them or if you need to make the plan vegetarian or vegan. For example, you can swap half an avocado and two tablespoons of hummus for a can of tuna.

Does the Military Diet Work?

No scientific research has looked into the military diet’s weight loss claims. But the raw arithmetic does speak for itself, Weinandy says. Consuming fewer calories than your body needs will inevitably lead to a short-term drop on the scale, though probably not as much as ten pounds in one week.

If there’s one good thing about the military diet, it’s that all the recommended foods are things you might already be buying at the grocery store, like canned tuna, apples, and peanut butter. “It’s nothing extravagant,” she says. In fact, if you double some of the portion sizes and add in more servings of fruits and vegetables, the plan has a lot of the building blocks of a healthy, whole food-focused diet.

Avoid Yo-Yo Dieting

Although the military diet’s website couches its claims by saying it works best for “weight-loss emergencies,” Weinandy says the boom-and-bust cycles of short-term dieting aren’t sustainable and can be unhealthy. Once you abandon the military diet plan “you’re going to gain the weight back,” she says, full stop. “It’s not going to work long-term.” Repeated crash dieting can even slow metabolic rate in the long run.

Fad diets can also exacerbate or even be the root cause of disordered eating, which Weinandy has seen in people of all genders. She would “never” recommend that teenagers, people who are pregnant, or people who are breastfeeding go on the military diet or any similar plan. And exercising on this low-calorie regimen isn’t a good idea, either, because you could easily get dehydrated.

“On so few calories, your body is really just trying to keep up with your regular bodily processes,” Weinandy says. Military-style conditioning drills are off the table.

There are some instances when a plan like the military diet could be recommended by dieticians, but they’re rare, according to Weinandy. Patients preparing for gastric bypass or other weight-loss surgeries are sometimes put on very low-calorie diets to reduce abdominal fat and help the procedure go smoothly, she says. “But they’re really isolated cases.”

Though the immediate results can be gratifying, Weinandy has seen countless patients gain it all back — and more — after they come off a short-term solution like the military diet. Your best alternative is to fill your plate with whole foods, exercise regularly, and cut out processed snacks if you’re trying to lose weight. You’ve probably heard it before, but these small steps will lead to healthy, lasting results — whereas fads like the military diet only bounce you between weight loss and weight gain, Weinandy says. “I just hate to see people on this merry-go-round.”

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