What if I said you could indulge in ice cream and hot dogs for three days, eat pretty much whatever you want for four more days, all while losing 10 pounds your first week?
Better yet, you repeat that weekly pattern – three days eating according to the Military Diet plan followed by four days eating whatever you want – until your always-too-tight skinny jeans fit perfectly.
The Military Diet, alternately called “the 3 Day Diet,” promises you can “lose up to 10 pounds a week.” No supplements, prepackaged powders, frozen meal plans, cutting foods like gluten or sugar, group memberships, or exercise. Just stick with the Military Diet three-day plan and eat within your caloric allowance those other four days every week until you hit your goal weight.
While officially called the Military Diet, it goes by other names. “It’s also known as the Navy diet, the Army diet and sometimes the ice cream diet, because in addition to hot dogs and tuna fish, you get to eat ice cream on all three days of the program,” writes Sandee LaMotte on CNN. (1)
Losing weight eating hot dogs, tuna fish, and ice cream followed by whatever you want for four days? That might sound like your dream diet, but as with everything that sounds too good to be true, the Military Diet plan carries some major caveats.
Counting the Military Diet Calories
Numbers matter on the Military Diet. Day one contains about 1,400 calories, day two about 1,200, and day three about 1,100. (Guys get a little more leeway on the Military Diet: “Just add 100 extra calories per day, preferably in the form of protein, not carbs.”)
CNN reported on the Military Diet and yielded even lower numbers: They estimated on day three, you’re only eating 762 calories. If CNN’s math is correct, the Military Diet veers into very-low calorie diet territory, which researchers classify as anything under 800 calories a day. (2)
What is the Military Diet?
The Military Diet’s website takes all the guesswork out of what your meals will entail. Besides the aforementioned hot dogs, ice cream, and tuna fish, you’ll eat a strict three-meals-daily regimen.
On day one breakfast, you’ll have half a grapefruit, one slice of toast, two tablespoons of peanut butter, and – good news for caffeine drinkers – one cup of coffee or tea.
That might sound like a low-maintenance, reasonable breakfast, but lunch and dinner aren’t much more extravagant. Even dinner allows just three ounces of any type of meat, one cup of green beans, half a banana, one small apple, and a cup of vanilla ice cream.
Day two includes cottage cheese, one hard-boiled egg, and two hot dogs (sans the buns). Day three includes one cup of canned tuna and more vanilla ice cream. You can get the full menu here. (3)
If those pairings don’t sound appealing or come across as downright bizarre, there’s supposed logic behind the madness: The Military Diet argues certain food combinations boost metabolism. I couldn’t find any reasonable proof why the plan believes this, and most food-combination diets aren’t science based.
Regardless, if you’re not a fan of, say, grapefruit, you can make substitutions, but only when you match similar foods. Fortunately, the Military Diet provides a handy swap-out sheet here. (4)
The good news is even if eating hot dogs and tuna sounds unappealing and you can’t find any palatable alternatives, you’ve got four days off the plan every week on the Military Diet.
Well, sort of.
“Don’t go crazy on your four days off if you want to see maximum results on the Military Diet,” their website says. “Eat like you normally would, or better, but don’t overcompensate for the 3 days of dieting by bingeing on everything in sight. On the four days off, we recommend a diet of about 1300 – 1500 calories per day, made of up lean protein, veggies and easy on the carbs. That’s the very least you can do to make the Military diet work for you.” (5)
Fortunately, the four days off provide a little leeway – you can have alcohol, for instance – as long as you stick to your caloric allotment. Still, you’re not going to be diving into a basket of chips and salsa with margaritas on your “off days.”
If you’re confused about what to follow the other four days when you’re not doing The Military Diet, their website provides a convenient 1,500-calorie daily diet to eliminate that guesswork. (6)
Is the Military Diet an Impostor?
No healthcare colleague had heard of the Military Diet, Military Diet reviews are mostly negative, and several mainstream organizations including the American Heart Association, the Cleveland Clinic, and the Mayo Clinic distanced themselves from the plan.
If you’ve been in the military and don’t remember eating like this, chances are you didn’t. The US Department of Defense argues this plan is a fraud and has nothing to do with the three meals real military folks eat every day. (1)
In all fairness, The Military Diet’s website says as much: “The Military Diet wasn’t named after the actual military, it was named after the kind of discipline you’ll need to get through it… Think of it as a boot camp for your body.” (5)
All that doesn’t necessarily make it bad, and the Military Diet has a few respectable qualities.
What’s Commendable about the Military Diet Plan?
Simplicity underlies the Military Diet plan, which provides some solid strategies that mostly resemble nutrition 101: Stay hydrated with lots of water, create accountability with a friend or family member, take before-and-after pictures, measure yourself, and read food ingredients closely. All good stuff.
Some people do very well with explicit, no-guesswork instructions about what to eat and avoid, and here the Military Diet excels.
Among the strict no-no’s during your three days on the Military Diet include alcohol, snacking, and artificial sweeteners (though they do allow stevia, which they mistakenly call an artificial sweetener).
At the same time, the Military Diet is surprisingly open-minded about dietary fat.
“Fat revs up your metabolic rate,” they write. “We recommend eating good fats at every meal. In other words, even when you’re on the Military Diet, you don’t need to eat ‘fat free’ versions of anything… Eliminating fat from your diet is a bad weight loss strategy. Eating fat makes you feel fuller, longer. Eating fat shuts down hunger hormones. Fat also boosts antioxidant absorption which promotes leanness. Fat dials up your metabolic rate which means you burn more calories.”
Among supplements, the Military Diet strangely only recommends vitamin C, calling it a fat burner (possibly because it helps make L-carnitine, which shuttles fat into your cells for energy). One blog also suggests a multivitamin, (7) but overall supplement recommendations are sparse on the Military Diet plan.
Besides water, the Military Diet encourages drinking green tea, and even offer a blog singing this healthy beverage’s praises. (8) And while they don’t require it, the Military Diet encourages exercise (including resistance training) for long-term weight loss. (9)
Finally, whoever designed the Military Diet keeps up with scientific research to some degree by incorporating intermittent fasting. To make the Military Diet plan more effective, they recommend eating your meals within an eight-hour window. (10) This could be smart for plateaus or extreme weight loss resistance, but you don’t have to do intermittent fasting to get the plan’s results.
What’s Not Commendable about the Military Diet Plan?
Believe it or not, that scoop of vanilla ice cream you enjoy at dinner every night on the Military Diet might be the least of your problems. A scoop of vanilla ice cream contains about 20 grams of sugar, but if you did everything else correctly that day including eating lots of leafy and cruciferous vegetables, you might be OK unless you’re lactose or otherwise-dairy intolerant.
Overall, the Military Diet contains a good bit of sugar, including fructose in fruit and saltine crackers that break down to sugar.
Scroll through the three-day sample menu. How many green vegetables do you see? (I’ll save you the trouble: Two over the three-day plan: One cup each of green beans and broccoli.) Not only is the Military Diet plan short on leafy and cruciferous vegetables; it contains paltry amounts of dietary fiber to stabilize blood sugar and keep you satiated.
Besides tuna fish, you aren’t getting any anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids during these three days (although arguably you could add fish on your four-days-off plan). Equally problematic, the three-day menu includes several food sensitivities including peanuts, gluten, dairy, and eggs.
“Eggs are a key ingredient in the Military Diet,” says the article entitled (surprise!) “Eggs and the Military Diet.” “That’s good news because eggs are easily the cheapest source of protein available on the planet and they are so easy to prepare,” claims their website. (11)
Well, maybe, but for many people eggs can also create problems including an abundance of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, especially the cheap-o variety most supermarkets carry.
I said the Military Diet plan somewhat keeps up with scientific research. Not always. They didn’t get the memo researchers found: Going gluten-free can help you lose weight, reduce insulin resistance, and lower inflammation. (12)
“[W]hole grain bread is best on the Military Diet, in order to keep energy levels higher without the crash and burn,” they claim. (13)
Yet according to Harvard Health Publications, wheat bread has about the same glycemic index – a measure of how quickly carbohydrate raises your blood sugar – as Wonder® bread. (14) That spike and crash means, well, a pretty lousy crash and burn.
I’ve talked elsewhere about nuts and why I’m not a fan of peanuts (a legume, not a nut) or peanut butter. Even if you don’t have a true peanut allergy, many people have sensitivities to this legume.
In all fairness, the Military Diet allows you to substitute almond butter or other nut butters for peanut butter. (15)
Finally, let’s talk about bizarrely adding hot dogs to the plan. You probably wouldn’t think of processed meat as a weight loss food, but its problems go far beyond that.
“There is stronger data on processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs, bologna, and luncheon meats, showing them to be harmful,” writes Dr. Mark Hyman in Eat Fat, Get Thin. “The EPIC study of nearly 500,000 people found no association between unprocessed fresh meat and heart disease or cancer, but it did show a link between processed meat and cancer and heart disease.”
Likewise, the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies processed meats like hot dogs as potentially carcinogenic. (16) The Military Diet doesn’t claim eating them is healthy; only that it can help you lose up to 10 pounds in a week.
Military Diet Substitutions – Upgrading the Military Diet Menu
Beyond its potentially dangerously low caloric intake, the Military Diet’s problems include poor food quality and potential food sensitivities. Despite these limitations, if you’re adamant about trying the Military Diet, I strongly recommending modifying the plan. Here are some tweaks that will improve your success:
- Buy organic produce whenever possible. That shouldn’t be hard considering the Military Diet plan doesn’t contain many fruits or vegetables.
- Skip the cheap mystery-meat hot dogs and choose Applegate Farms or other uncured, nitrate-free hot dogs from beef that comes from organic grass-fed cows.
- Look for gluten-free bread and dairy-free alternatives like no-sugar-added coconut milk ice cream.
- Go for grass-fed beef, wild-caught tuna, and pasture-raised eggs.
- Choose organic, mycotoxin-free coffee beans if you partake.
- Go for quality foods during your four days off the plan. If you partake in alcohol on those days, choose organic red wine.
- Incorporate lifestyle factors like optimal sleep and stress control that complement the Military Diet.
- At the very least, take a high-quality multivitamin-mineral and fish oil. I also recommend extra vitamin D and magnesium as well as a probiotic supplement.
- Fiber is in short supply on the Military Diet. Look for a professional-quality fiber supplement powder that contains several different types of dietary fiber.
The Military Diet is Ultimately Another Low-Calorie Diet
Things like food sensitivities, excess sugar, quality, or nutrient density don’t really matter for diets like the Military Diet. Their sole goal seems to be losing weight fast, while things like health risks, food intolerances, and keeping that weight off take a hard sideline.
In the end, the Military Diet is a gussied-up, serious-sounding low-calorie diet that allows ice cream and hot dogs. They’re not alone with that eat-comfort-food-and-lose-weight approach.
Take Nutrisystem, which sells portion-controlled meals that total around 1,000 calories every day. On Nutrisystem, you can have a waffle for breakfast, chicken mozzarella melt for lunch, and lasagna with meat sauce for dinner and still lose weight. (17)
Almost every dieter’s dream, right? But in the end, everything comes down to portion size. Despite what the pretty pictures show, you’ll be eating about a thousand calories of warmed-over, microscopic-portioned foods.
Other plans approach calorie counting similarly to a checking account. Jenny Craig has a built-in “splurge strategy.” You can eat up to 250 extra calories during special occasions, and even more when you do a “spurt” of physical activity. Among their splurge-and-spurt strategies include 50 minutes of dancing to “earn” a four-inch square of unfrosted brownie. (18)
Manufacturers love low-calorie diets because they sell you smaller, inexpensive-to-produce portions of your favorite foods. While it sounds like a win – who doesn’t want to eat pizza and lose weight? – in the end these diets set you up for failure.
Why? Because you’re almost constantly hungry eating low-quality foods that create or exacerbate food sensitivities and spike your blood sugar, leading to insulin imbalances that subsequently impact other fat-regulating hormones.
Unlike many popular programs like NutriSystem and Jenny Craig, the Military Diet isn’t trying to sell you supplements, packaged foods, or really anything other than the program itself. But visit their website and you’ll quickly see how they make money: Ad sales. Every time I visited, I found a different company advertising.
Why Low-Calorie Diets like the Military Diet DO Work (Initially)
In the beginning, low-calorie diets usually get decent results. One meta-analysis examined 39 randomized controlled trials about low-calorie diets like Jenny Craig and found at 12 months, they created at least 2.6 percent and up to almost five percent greater weight loss than diet control and education alone. (19)
Let’s face it: You could subsist on a diet of Snickers bars and lose weight… For a short while.
“[F]or short periods of time, every diet will work if it recommends some form of caloric restriction. And if you follow a calorie-restricted diet you will lose weight, guaranteed,” writes Brad Pilon in Eat Stop Eat, his popular e-book about intermittent fasting. “The problem is, you simply cannot follow a super-restrictive diet for a long period of time.”
When you eat less, your body’s metabolic machinery eventually slows down and compensates for those fewer calories. You stop losing weight, which understandably stresses you out. One study found low-calorie diets could increase your stress hormone cortisol and make you weight gain. After all, counting calories and feeling hungry can be stressful. (20)
What the Military Diet (+ Other Low-Calorie Plans) Get Dead Wrong
“Food, it turns out, is not just calories, but information that radically influences our genes, hormones, immune system, brain chemistry, and even gut flora with every single bite,” writes Hyman.
While calories matter – they do, they do – hormones matter more. And a massive player here is insulin.
Most popular low-calorie diet plans including the Military Diet are by default high in carbohydrates. Think about it: Protein contains the same calories per gram as carbohydrate but keeps you satiated longer, so they aren’t going to eliminate that. Dietary fat, on the other hand, has over double the calories per gram as protein or carbohydrate (nine per gram versus four).
Do the math: To cut calories, many of these plans are high in carbohydrate, moderate in protein, and lower in fat (despite whatever lip service the Military Diet gives to dietary fat).
For most people, eating that scoop of vanilla ice cream at dinner, innocuous and tempting though it sounds, will raise their blood sugar. Insulin dives in and pulls that blood sugar down, but this master hormone often overcompensates and pulls it down too low.
That crash makes you hungry. A few hours later, watching Seinfeld reruns, you suddenly want more vanilla ice cream. Resisting more ice cream isn’t mustering willpower. That’s insulin and about six counter-regulatory hormones at work.
Even so, you’re determined to stick it out. After all, you lost a few pounds those first few weeks on the Military Diet. “I get to eat ice cream and lose weight,” you boast to a few friends.
That’s when the real frustration begins. You stick militantly to the plan but after a few weeks, you stop losing weight. The thought of eating another hot dog makes you wince. That scoop of vanilla ice cream for dessert doesn’t sound enticing. You’re almost constantly hungry, cranky, and craving your co-worker’s brownies.
Low-calorie diets like the Military Diet prove what works for the short term isn’t always sustainable in the bigger picture, and on many of these plans, people regain their weight plus more. They suffer for a few weeks feeling hungry only to rebound.
Finding a Middle Ground – Lose Weight & Keep it off
Low-calorie diets aren’t optimal for long-term weight loss, but neither are high-calorie diets.
On the opposite spectrum are low-carbohydrate and ketogenic diets, which can easily rack up thousands of calories daily.
Calories matter, but most commercial low-calorie diets get that approach wrong by focusing on the wrong foods, restricting portion sizes so you think feeling constantly hungry is somehow normal to lose weight, neglecting food intolerances, and not understanding food’s hormonal impact.
Diets like the Military Diet pitch poor-quality but tasty foods like hot dogs and ice cream in a health-halo cloak that sure, can help you lose weight in the short term, but ultimately set you up for failure.
There’s an easier way to lose weight and keep it off without counting calories.
When you focus on quality foods – stuff your great-grandmother would recognize – you needn’t worry about calories. I’ve never met anyone who ate too many calories from steamed broccoli or grilled chicken breast.
Eating this way won’t create rapid weight loss like the Military Diet promises (although some people lose weight rather quickly), but you’ll get something way better: A leaner physique while providing the nutrients your needs to sustain fat loss, lower inflammation, and reduce disease risk.
A few years from now you probably won’t hear anything about the Military Diet (though something else will likely take its place). But eating nutrient-dense, whole, unprocessed foods? That’s here to stay, because it works.