The Military Diet: What You Need to Know and How It Works

Would you believe me if I said you can drop 10 pounds in just one week by following a pre-planned, three-day “crash diet”?

Well, that’s what proponents of the military diet claim. In case you’re wondering what that is, we’re talking about a weight loss plan designed to get US Army soldiers in shape in record time. But does this approach really work? And should you give it a try? I give you the science-backed truth.

What Is the Military Diet?

The military diet – also called the army or the navy diet – is a low-calorie plan that’s claimed to help you lose up to 10 pounds in a week.

The story goes that the diet was designed by nutritionists to whip overweight US soldiers into shape quickly. The US Department of Defense, however, says that the diet is in no way related with the armed forces.

How Does the Military Diet Work?

It is based on a seven-day cycle divided into two phases. The first phase lasts three days and the second four days. You need to repeat this cycle until you hit your targeted weight.

During the first three days, you follow a done-for-you meal plan under which you consume between 1,000 and 1,300 calories. Here is what you’ll eat:

Protein

Day 1:

Breakfast

  • 1/2 grapefruit
  • 1 slice of toast
  • 2 tbsp of peanut butter
  • 1 cup of coffee or tea (with caffeine)

Total energy intake: roughly 300 calories.

Lunch

  • 1/2 cup of tuna
  • 1 slice of toast
  • 1 cup of coffee or tea (with caffeine)

Total energy intake: roughly 150 calories.

Dinner

  • 3 ounces of any type of meat
  • 1 cup of green beans
  • 1/2 banana
  • 1 small apple
  • 1 cup of vanilla ice cream

Total energy intake: roughly between 600 and 900 calories.

Day 2

Breakfast

  • 1 egg
  • 1 slice of toast
  • 1/2 banana

Total energy intake: roughly 220 calories.

Lunch

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

Total energy intake: roughly 340 calories.

Dinner

  • 2 hot dogs (without buns)
  • 1 cup of broccoli
  • 1/2 cup of carrots
  • 1/2 banana
  • 1/2 cup of vanilla ice cream

Total energy intake: roughly 640 calories.

Day 3

Breakfast

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

Total energy intake: roughly 230 calories.

Lunch

  • 1 hard-boiled egg
  • 1 slice of toast

Total energy intake: roughly 170 calories.

Dinner

  • 1 cup of tuna
  • 1/2 banana
  • 1 cup of vanilla ice cream

Total energy intake: roughly 460 calories.

The Remaining Four Days

After this 3-day pre-planned nutrition phase, you’ll finish off the week by eating what you like. There are no food restrictions. The only rule is that you keep your daily energy intake below 1,500 calories, meaning that you have to track calories.

Is the Military Diet Effective For Weight Loss?

There are many testimonials from people who’ve lost weight after following the military diet, sometimes a significant amount.

But does it mean the food combinations outlined in this plan have some magical fat-burning abilities attached to them? The answer is no. The setup itself has no special weight loss abilities.

The real reason people do lose weight when they follow the plan as outlined is a simple one: they drastically slash their calorie intake. And if you consume fewer calories than you burn, you will lose weight. That’s a scientific fact [1-3].

How About 10 Pounds in One Week?

For some people, it is possible to lose 10 pounds in just a week by following the military diet. This group includes overweight and obese people. The drop in weight, however, will never be solely fat mass. Instead, most of the weight shed is water weight.

The reasons is that when you restrict your carb and calorie intake, your body’s glycogen stores decline. This causes your body to discard excess water because for every gram of glycogen stored, your body holds onto 3 to 4 milliliters of water.

What’s more, when you reduce your carb intake, as you do on the military diet, your insulin levels go down. This causes your kidneys to release excess sodium (and thereby also water) from your body [4].

But again, this is not actually fat loss and you’ll regain the fluids lost once you get back to your normal eating habits. Still, that’s not the main problem with the military diet. Here are the key reasons why you should stay away from this weight loss plan.

The Main Problem with the Military Diet

Not only does most of the weight you lose on the military diet come from water, but this is also a plan that sets you up for muscle loss and that’s a problem indeed. Muscle loss is something you must always minimize while dieting. Besides impairing your appearance, it also makes it harder to lose weight and keep it off in the long run.

The reason is that muscle tissue is a major determinant of your metabolic rate [5]. The more muscle mass you have, the higher your metabolic rate and the easier for you to drop fat and keep it off. But why does the military diet cause fat loss? It’s due to two reasons. First off, the plan has you drastically slash your calorie intake. This puts you in a “catabolic” state.

In addition, your protein intake is extremely low. You’ll get roughly 55 to 70 grams of protein per day. Such low protein intake – especially when combined with a low calorie intake – will lead to the loss of muscle tissue.

What’s the Bottom Line on the Military Diet?

This is an effective approach for losing weight. Mind you, though, most of the weight you’ll lose is water, which you’ll regain once you get off the diet plan. And along the way, you might lose a fair share of muscle mass as well. So, in short: the military diet is not your ticket to a slimmer physique.

Military Diet - Does it work?

Here’s What To Do Instead

If you want to lose weight, the first thing you have to do is create a calorie deficit, but not as extreme as on the military diet. Instead, shoot for a daily calorie deficit of 300 to 500 calories.   Then, once you’ve established your daily calorie goal, move on to setting up your macronutrient intake. This refers to your daily consumption of protein, carbs, and fat.

Aim to consume at least 0.8 grams of protein daily per pound of body weight, and get the remaining calories from fat and carbs. The optimal ratio between fat and carbs varies among individuals. Some do better on a higher-carb lower-fat approach while others thrive on the opposite ratio. So there is no one-size-fits-all answer although most people do best on a relatively ‘balanced’ macronutrient intake.

Once you’ve nailed both your calorie and macronutrient intake, you’re on track to reaching your weight loss goals. Combine this with a well-designed resistance training program and a sufficient amount of high-quality sleep and your success is guaranteed.

 

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References

  1. Golay, A., Allaz, A. F., Morel, Y., Tonnac, N. D., Tankova, S., & Reaven, G. (1996). Similar weight loss with low- or high-carbohydrate diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 63(2), 174-8.
  2. Leibel, R. L., Hirsch, J., Appel, B. E., & Checani, G. C. (1992). Energy intake required to maintain body weight is not affected by wide variation in diet composition. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 55(2), 350-5.
  3. Strasser, B., Spreitzer, A., & Haber, P. (2007). Fat loss depends on energy deficit only, independently of the method for weight loss. Annals of Nutritional Metabolism, 51(5), 428-32.
  4. Tiwari, S., Riazi, S., & Ecelbarger, C. A. (2007). Insulin’s impact on renal sodium transport and blood pressure in health, obesity, and diabetes. The American Journal of Physiology – Renal Physiology, 293(4), 974-84.
  5. Zurlo, F., Larson, K., Bogardus, C., & Ravussin, E. (1990). Skeletal muscle metabolism is a major determinant of resting energy expenditure. The Journal of Clinical Investigation, 86(5), 1423-1427. doi:10.1172/JCI114857