Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC is a clinician, Naturopathic Practitioner, clinical researcher, author, and adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport. His work has been published in peer-reviewed medical journals and he speaks at conferences around the globe.
Extreme Calorie Restriction With Processed Foods Isn’t Healthy or Sustainable
The military diet consists of “extreme” calorie-cutting and food restriction that has a primary goal of rapid weight loss.
Subtracting calories while neglecting the nutritional value of your diet doesn’t add up for sustainable long-term health and weight-loss goals.
Truly severe calorie cutting can lead to poor health outcomes and even weight rebound in the long run.
For better overall health, our focus when it comes to diet should be on the nutritional value of what we eat, prioritizing whole foods including animal and plant protein sources, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, starches, and whole grains.
Intermittent fasting, especially the 5:2 method, is a great substitute for the military diet and has plenty of research-backed benefits for weight loss and overall health.
I’m back with another popular diet to evaluate in our “diets debunked” series. Today’s contestant: the military diet. Despite its name, this diet has nothing to do with any military-approved dietary plan. The word “military” in this case simply refers to the discipline needed to complete the diet, due to it being highly restrictive in both calories and allowed foods.
If you have any familiarity with my perspective on diet and nutrition, you probably already know what I think about this diet based on that statement alone. In general, humans need a diet with a wide variety of foods to ensure nutritional needs are met as well as enough calories to sustain good energy throughout the day.
But that aside, the military diet’s “extreme” calorie-cutting plan for rapid weight loss doesn’t quite add up. Restricting your caloric intake to 1500 calories or less (which is recommended on the military diet, down to as low as 1100 calories depending on the day) may not actually achieve this benefit for many.
However, cases of truly extreme calorie cutting show that it is certainly not sustainable for long-term health. If weight loss is your goal, there are better ways to shed extra pounds than extreme restriction.
Let’s debunk the military diet and take a look at some alternative methods for healthy, sustainable weight loss.
Principles and Goals of the 3-Day Military Diet
The Military Diet is a self-identified fad diet that has nothing to do with the military or nutritional plans the military follows (1). The military diet website states, “The name comes 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” .
The creator of the diet (its site has no named author) claims that it is “a rapid weight loss plan, enabling you to lose up to 10 pounds in one week, without strenuous exercise or prescriptions” or supplements . It claims to be for anyone with a “weight loss emergency” .
The short-term, low-calorie diet consists of three days of “severe” calorie restriction (1,400, 1,200, and 1,100 calories for days 1, 2, and 3, respectively) followed by four days of moderate calorie intake (1,500 calories at most; add an extra 100 per day for men). You repeat this pattern every week that you want to lose weight, and if you do it for a month, “you can lose up to 30 pounds” .
A sample meal plan for one of the three diet days is given as follows :
1 slice of whole-wheat toast or 5 saltine crackers
2 tbsp of peanut butter or 1 hard-boiled egg or 1 slice of cheddar cheese
½ grapefruit, ½ banana, or 1 small apple
1 cup of caffeinated black coffee or green tea without creamers
1 slice of whole-wheat toast or 5 saltine crackers
½ cup of canned tuna or 1 hard-boiled egg (other low-calorie ways of cooking are ok)
1 cup of caffeinated black coffee or green tea without creamers
½ banana with or without 1 small apple
1 cup of green beans or ½ cup of carrots
3 oz of any meat or 2 hot dogs (no bun) or 1 cup of canned tuna
1 cup of vanilla ice cream
Substitutions are allowed, but only for certain foods. For example, instructions on the military diet website say to substitute 3 oz of any meat with the same calorie count of lentils, beans, tofu, or portobello mushrooms. Substitute bananas with the same calorie count of kiwi, papaya, apricots, plums, grapes, or apple sauce. And so on. The most important thing seems to be sticking to the same calorie count as the replaced food, disregarding nutritional content.
In contrast to an evidence-based safe, healthy, sustainable diet, the Military diet can be lower in daily calories, is less varied, contains highly processed foods and added sugars, and is reportedly not very enjoyable to eat.
Why the Proposed Benefits of the Military Diet Plan Don’t Add Up
The military diet claims to help individuals lose weight rapidly and safely on a short-term basis of one week; however, they state that it is possible to follow the diet for a period of four weeks (four rounds of the 3 days on 4 days off method) for further weight loss. Weight loss is the only intended benefit.
Let’s break down this claim. Is it possible to lose weight on the military diet? Certainly. However, this diet has NO proven nutritional or health benefits, and there is no guarantee you will lose weight as rapidly as the diet claims. The military diet has not been studied scientifically, and it goes against many evidence-based strategies for weight loss.
Calorie goals for weight loss are highly variable, depending on weight, height, age, gender, exercise levels, and health conditions. These restrictions are likely not enough to cause “emergency weight loss” for many.
For example, if a 5’2”, 110 lb female who is mostly sedentary eats 1,100-1,500 calories per day she is likely to maintain (or even gain) weight on this plan. Though many people looking for rapid weight loss may not fit this profile, it goes to show that making blanket statements for weight loss can be misleading.
While lowering calorie intake has some research backing it for weight loss, any low-calorie diet could pose health risks, depending on the dieter’s health status, lifestyle, and genetic predispositions. Conventional low-fat, low-calorie diets that aim for 30% fat, 50% carbs, and 20% protein in 1,200–1,500 daily calories for women and 1,500–1,800 calories for men can lead to modest weight loss of about 1 lb per week , far from the military diet’s claims of 10 pounds in one week.
What Are the Risks of the Military Diet?
1. Dangerous Weight Loss
If the Military diet promotes rapid weight loss of up to 10 lbs per week — which is questionable, given that research shows that diets of 1,200–1,500 daily calories for women and 1,500–1,800 calories for men typically lead only to modest weight loss of about 1 lb per week  — it may be detrimental in some people who are consuming far too few calories for their energy needs. Regardless of the diet’s validity, extreme weight loss can wreak havoc on your metabolic health.
2. Lowered Metabolism
A study comparing rapid vs. slow weight loss found that the slow weight loss group had greater reductions in waist and hip circumference, fat mass, and body fat percentage. The rapid weight loss group had greater losses of water weight, lean body mass, fat-free mass, and resting metabolic rate than the slow weight loss group .
The greater loss of water weight and muscle mass could explain a significant portion of the weight lost on the military diet. Furthermore, with rapid weight loss reducing the metabolic rate, it’s possible that it’s harder to avoid future weight gain after rapid weight loss.
Gradual weight loss leads to more body fat loss and greater reductions in body fat percentage. Furthermore, gradual weight loss maintains the resting metabolic rate . That means lean muscle mass and metabolism stay higher in gradual weight losers than those who lose weight rapidly, both of which are good news when you want to burn more calories now and in the future.
3. Nutrient Deficiencies
The military diet promotes a lower calorie intake that makes it difficult to fulfill your macro and micronutrient needs each day. You may not feel the effects of this over a few days, but after multiple weeks you may notice more fatigue, brain fog, mood instability, and other side effects. Diets that cut calories, in general, are liable to create these unpleasant side effects, but the military diet’s specific lack of focus on nutrition can also lead to these issues.
What Does the Military Diet Get Right?
Losing weight and improving your health does require intention and conscious choice of the foods you are consuming on a daily basis. It may even require significant discipline in some cases, if you are unused to consuming a diet of primarily whole foods and thinking about the composition of your meals. These are not easy changes to make for everyone.
However, excessive restriction is not necessary or recommended, especially for longer than a few days. You can lose weight in a healthy way while still consuming an adequate number of calories for your daily energy needs. In fact, you need more energy to burn fat and build muscle!
Alternatives to the Military Diet?
If you are starting from a place of overconsuming calories, especially empty calories from sweets and junk food, a decrease in your daily calories may be necessary. But most people are actually undereating the amount of calories they need per day, and they aren’t getting enough of those calories from nutrient-dense foods.
Regardless of your current weight, you can begin to look at your calorie needs by calculating your TDEE, total daily energy expenditure. From there you can build a healthy diet that includes appropriate amounts of protein, fat, and carbs for your energy needs. You also want to make sure to consider proper refueling for any exercise you may be doing. A healthy diet that accounts for your energy and nutritional needs alongside consistent exercise often results in weight loss as a side effect.
Intermittent Fasting: A Research-Backed Diet for Weight Loss
One sustainable diet option may be intermittent fasting, alongside a whole foods-based diet. Intermittent fasting doesn’t necessarily focus on the number of calories you consume in a day but has the potential to cut calorie intake through targeted fasting. Depending on the type of intermittent fasting you do, the focus is often more on when and how you are eating.
Daily versions of intermittent fasting might include the 16:8 or 14:10 method, where you fast for 14 or 16 hours and only eat your meals during an 8 or 10-hour window. There is also 5:2 intermittent fasting, where you eat a normal healthy diet for five days of the week and limit your calories to 500 a day (600 for men) for two non-consecutive days of the week.
5:2 intermittent fasting is one of the IF types that restrict calories on these two non-consecutive days, but unlike the military diet, it balances these two days with five normal days of eating the calories you need.
The five regular days of the week ensure that you aren’t operating at too much of a deficit, making it a great strategy for slow, consistent, and sustainable weight loss. You can also gradually lower your calories on your fasting days until you reach 500-600 to avoid extreme calorie cutting.
While you can tailor your calorie intake on fasting days to help meet your weight loss goals, it isn’t intended to severely restrict your calorie intake over the long term. This ensures that you don’t fall into patterns of nutrient deficiencies, fatigue, and other side effects of undernourishment.
Each of these methods of intermittent fasting is backed by research for weight loss, especially the 5:2 method. Other benefits may include better gut health and hormone balance, which the military diet does not address [8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13].
The Final Verdict on the Military Diet
The military diet has no basis in scientific research or human nutritional needs, and I would not recommend it for short-term weight loss or any other purpose. Cases where low-calorie diets are recommended should be closely monitored by a practitioner to make sure the individual is meeting their nutritional needs at that low-calorie count.
Otherwise, it’s simply not necessary to deprive yourself of enough food to sustain your body, even if your goal is to lose weight. Consider intermittent fasting for a healthier diet that can lead to sustainable weight loss.
If you’re looking for guidance on a healthy diet plan to lose weight, promote wellness, or manage a health condition, we’d be happy to advise you at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Health. Reach out to us to schedule a free consultation call.
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