Military diet alternative

The military diet requires people to follow a low-calorie diet for 3 days and then return to regular eating for 4 days. Across the first 3 days, the diet restricts daily calorie intake to 1,400, 1,200, and 1,100 calories.

The diet is high in protein and low in fat, carbohydrate, and calories. It also includes specific food combinations to try to boost metabolism and burn fat. Despite its name, this diet does not relate to how people in the military eat.

Information about the military diet suggests that people could lose up to 10 pounds (lb) in 1 week and as many as 30 lbs in 1 month if they continue to follow the diet.

In this article, we take a look at whether this diet works, its potential problems and benefits, and what to eat to follow the plan.

Is the military diet effective?

Woman with a shopping list for the military diet
The military diet is high in protein and low in fat.

A review article in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examines very-low-calorie diets (VLCDs) and suggests that they can be effective in helping people lose weight in the short term.

A VLCD allows a maximum of 800 calories per day. People with obesity may need to adopt a VLCD to achieve rapid weight loss before bariatric surgery.

Low-calorie diets are those that allow fewer than 1,000 calories per day.

It is impossible to predict how much weight an individual will lose on a restrictive 1-week diet as everyone is different.

However, people often experience rapid weight gain after stopping one of these short-term diets unless they have put a plan in place to maintain the weight loss.

Meal plan and shopping list

Below is a 3-day meal plan that features on a website supporting the military diet. There is also a comprehensive shopping list for people looking to follow this diet.

People can drink water throughout the day, as well as 1–2 cups of black coffee or tea.

Day 1

Breakfast

  • half a grapefruit
  • one slice of toast
  • 2 tablespoons (tbsp) of peanut butter, ideally a salt-free and sugar-free brand
  • 1 cup of caffeinated coffee or tea

Lunch

  • half a cup of tuna
  • one slice of toast
  • 1 cup of caffeinated coffee or tea

Dinner

  • 3 ounces of any meat
  • 1 cup of green beans
  • half a banana
  • one small apple
  • 1 cup of vanilla ice cream

Day 2

Breakfast

  • one egg
  • one slice of toast
  • half a banana

Lunch

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

Dinner

  • two hot dogs without the buns
  • 1 cup of broccoli
  • half a cup of carrots
  • half a banana
  • half a cup of vanilla ice cream

Day 3

Breakfast

  • five saltine crackers
  • one slice of cheddar cheese
  • one small apple

Lunch

  • one hard-boiled egg
  • one slice of toast

Dinner

  • 1 cup of tuna
  • half a banana
  • 1 cup of vanilla ice cream

Vegetarian meal plan

A vegetarian and vegan meal plan is also available:

Day 1

Breakfast

  • half a grapefruit
  • one slice of toast
  • 2 tbsp peanut butter
  • 1 cup of caffeinated coffee or tea

Lunch

  • half an avocado
  • 2 tbsp hummus
  • one slice of whole-wheat toast
  • 1 cup of caffeinated coffee or tea

Dinner

  • tofu (up to 300 calories)
  • 1 cup of green beans
  • half a banana
  • one small apple
  • 1 cup of vanilla ice cream (vegans can use dairy-free ice cream)

Day 2

Breakfast

  • half a cup of baked beans
  • one slice of whole-wheat toast
  • half a banana

Lunch

  • 1 cup of unsweetened soy, hemp, or almond milk
  • half an avocado
  • 2 tbsp hummus
  • five saltine crackers

Dinner

  • two veggie hot dogs without the buns
  • 1 cup of broccoli
  • half a cup of carrots
  • half a banana
  • half a cup of vanilla ice cream (can be dairy-free)

Day 3

Breakfast

  • one slice of cheddar cheese (for vegans, about 15–20 almonds)
  • five saltine crackers or half a cup of couscous or quinoa
  • one small apple

Lunch

  • half an avocado
  • 1 tbsp hummus
  • one slice of whole-wheat bread

Dinner

  • half a cup of canned chickpeas
  • half a banana
  • 1 cup of vanilla ice cream (or dairy-free ice cream)

Shopping list

Peanut butter in a jar and whole wheat bread
The military diet shopping list should include peanut butter and whole-wheat bread.

The following list contains the items of food that people will need to buy for the first 3 days of a week on the military diet:

  • caffeinated coffee or tea
  • one grapefruit
  • two bananas
  • two apples
  • whole-wheat bread
  • peanut butter
  • eggs
  • three cans of tuna
  • hot dogs
  • a small piece of meat
  • green beans (fresh, frozen, or canned)
  • small head of broccoli
  • carrots
  • saltine crackers
  • cottage cheese
  • a small amount of cheddar cheese
  • vanilla ice cream

Disadvantages

Following a 3-day military diet plan can cause several potential problems.

Some of the issues below relate specifically to the suggested meal plans.

Limited nutrient intake

The poor variety on the diet days means that people will struggle to eat enough fiber, vitamins, and minerals. These nutrients are essential for good health, energy production, detoxification, and efficient metabolism.

High in added salt, sugar, and saturated fat

Between the saltine crackers, peanut butter, bread, hot dogs, and cheese, the diet is quite high in processed foods that contain salt.

People should check nutrition labels to make sure that they are not eating more sodium than the recommended 2,300 milligrams a day limit. Where possible, it is best to buy food brands that are low in sodium or contain no added salt.

The hot dogs that the diet recommends eating consist of processed meat. They contain high levels of saturated fat and sodium.

Each day’s meal plan also includes vanilla ice cream, which can be high in added sugar. People could substitute the ice cream for 300 calories of healthful fruit, vegetables, or whole grains, which the plan currently lacks.

A diet that emphasizes high-calorie, dense foods may not feel very satisfying because portion sizes must remain small to keep meals within the daily calorie budget. This approach may not be sustainable.

Calories too low to exercise?

Senior man tired from running
Some people may find exercise challenging on diet days.

Eating fewer than 1,400 calories on diet days may make it challenging to do exercise, especially any high-intensity activities.

Eating enough calories on the 4 days off will allow people to exercise more easily. However, proponents of the diet recommend sticking to fewer than 1,500 calories on these days too.

One small study looking at alternate day calorie restriction (ADCR), also called intermittent fasting, found that combining ADCR with exercise led to greater weight changes than either dieting or exercise alone.

Following a VLCD can prevent people from exercising at all.

Confusing science

The military diet suggests that people who dislike or cannot eat grapefruit swap it for a glass of water with baking soda in it to continue to promote an alkaline environment.

It is true that foods can change pH from acid to alkaline. However, this primarily affects the acidity or alkalinity of a person’s urine. The pH of foods in the diet does not affect a person’s blood or metabolism enough to significantly influence weight gain or loss, although it may affect other aspects of health.

All fruit produces alkaline byproducts in the body. As a result, swapping one fruit with another fruit should be fine.

The high-protein aspect of the diet will make urine more acidic. As a result, it is not suitable for someone experiencing kidney problems or gout.

Advantages

In the short term, the military diet could be beneficial for weight loss.

It is easy to follow because it includes limited foods with simple measurements and cooking methods.

The recommended meal plan for the 4 days off allows for a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, and it also includes whole grains, legumes, and different meal choices.

The plan provides the calorie targets for each food and suggests substitutions for people with food intolerance and other dietary considerations.

The diet focuses on protein, which increases the feeling of fullness, maintains muscle mass, and provides energy for day-to-day activities. It is important to maintain muscle tissue as it contributes directly to a person’s metabolism.

A small 2018 study looked at the effects of following a diet with calorie restrictions on alternate days. The researchers compared the results of the diet with those of exercise in obese and overweight people.

In the participants who were both following the diet and exercising, body weight, waist circumference, and body fat percentage all decreased.

A 2016 review compared a VLCD with an alternate-day-fasting (ADF) diet. The researchers found that ADF was more effective for fat loss and preserving fat-free mass, including muscle.

Due to the military diet’s recommended daily calorie intake of 1,000 to 1,400 calories on the first 3 days, it is not possible to classify it as either a VLCD or an ADF program. Research on VLCD and ADF regimens only looks at diets providing fewer than 800 calories per day.

Although calorie intake on the military diet is too high to count as fasting, the approach of eating normally on the 4 days off mimics the practice of intermittent fasting. Therefore, people may achieve better long-term results by following this diet rather than a low-calorie diet.

Further research is necessary to confirm any specific benefits of the military diet.

Conclusion

The military diet involves restricting calorie consumption on 3 days and then eating a regular diet for the next 4 days. To optimize their weight loss, people may wish to try reducing calories on the 4 rest days too.

Following the military diet may be effective and harmless in the short term, but long-term adherence has associated risks. These include regaining the lost weight afterward, especially if people are reducing their calorie intake on all days of the week.

The diet is very limited in choice and includes some foods that are high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar. It also promotes eating unhealthful processed meats and under emphasizes vegetable consumption.

Adopting healthy eating habits every day is a more sustainable approach to losing weight and maintaining weight loss.

Q:

What is the safest way to lose weight quickly?

A:

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss. However, overconsuming carbohydrates in the form of sugar is one of the main culprits of weight gain, particularly if a person’s exercise regimen does not match their carbohydrate intake. One cup of sugar provides 774 calories. A person could eat 12 cups of grapes for the same calories, and these have a lot more nutrients and provide more satiety.

To lose weight safely, remove all added sugars from your diet. Scan the pantry, refrigerator, and freezer and remove or avoid products containing any form of added sugar on the ingredient list. These products will include sodas, sweet beverages, cereals, most yogurts, baked goods, and more.

Although it may significantly narrow down a person’s food choices, removing added sugar (and most packaged and processed items in the process) will lower their calorie intake and give them a better understanding of what constitutes real, nourishing food.

Low-carb diet and permanent weight loss

Low-carb diet can help you lose weight and keep it off permanently.
“The largest and longest feeding study to test the ‘carbohydrate-insulin model'” concludes that a lower carb intake burns more calories, which may help people maintain weight loss over a longer period of time.
person eating a steak with low carb diet
Eating a high-quality, low-carb diet may help us stave off weight gain for longer.

Cara Ebbeling, Ph.D., together with Dr. David Ludwig — both at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts — led the new study, which now appears in the BMJ.

As they explain, when we lose weight, the body adapts by lowering its energy expenditure. In other words, it burns fewer calories.

This way, the metabolism protects itself against long-term weight changes.    Low-carb diet can help lose weight permanently

However, when the weight loss is intentional, this adaptive response can be frustrating for dieters, as it leads to weight regain.

Although weight gain after dieting is a well-known phenomenon, researchers do not know much about how different diets affect the way the metabolism responds to them.

The so-called carbohydrate-insulin model, however, suggests one such mechanism. It posits that highly processed foods high in sugar drive hormonal changes that increase the appetite and lead to weight gain.

“According to this model,” explains Dr. Ludwig, “the processed carbohydrates that flooded our diets during the low-fat era have raised insulin levels, driving fat cells to store excessive calories. With fewer calories available to the rest of the body, hunger increases and metabolism slows — a recipe for weight gain.”

In this context, Ebbeling, Dr. Ludwig, and their colleagues decided to investigate the effects that different diets had on the metabolism. Specifically, they looked at the carb-to-fat ratio in varying diets over a 20-week period.

Studying carb intake, weight, and calories in low-carb diet

The researchers examined the effect of different diets on 234 adults aged 18–65 whose body mass index (BMI) was at least 25. As part of the study, the participants had also adhered to a weight loss plan for 10 weeks.

By the end of the trial, 164 participants had achieved their weight loss goal of around 12 percent of their total weight. Then, they adhered to either a high-, moderate-, or low-carb diet for 20 weeks, allowing the researchers to examine if they managed to maintain the weight loss.

The high-carb diet was composed of 60 percent high-quality carbs, the moderate-carb one had 40 percent carbs, and the low-carb diet had 20 percent carbs. The diets also minimized sugar intake and used whole grains.

During this time, the scientists measured the participants’ weight and tracked the number of calories they burned. They also examined the participants’ insulin secretion and metabolic hormones.

‘A 20-pound weight loss after 3 years’

At the end of the study period, people in the low-carb group burned significantly more calories than those who had been on a high-carb diet.

Specifically, participants who were on a low-carb diet burned around 250 kilocalories more per day than those who were on a high-carb diet.

Ebbeling explains, “If this difference persists — and we saw no drop-off during the 20 weeks of our study — the effect would translate into about a 20-pound weight loss after 3 years, with no change in calorie intake.”

The results also indicated that for participants who had the highest insulin secretion, the impact of a low-carb diet was even more significant: low-carb dieters burned 400 calories more per day than high-carb dieters.

“A low glycemic load, high-fat diet,” explain the authors, “might facilitate weight loss maintenance beyond the conventional focus on restricting energy intake and encouraging physical activity.”

Ebbeling says, “Our observations challenge the belief that all calories are the same to the body.”

This is the largest and longest feeding study to test the ‘carbohydrate-insulin model,’ which provides a new way to think about and treat obesity.”

Dr. David Ludwig