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Dieting may be taking a turn for the better—the biggest “diet” trends of 2018 are more about adopting healthy eating habits than losing weight—but that doesn’t mean strict dieting is totally a thing of the past.
Take, for example, the insane popularity of the ketogenic diet. Or, the resurgence of a strange 2015 diet fad called the military diet, a three-day diet that promises dieters a 10-pound weight loss thanks to a random array of foods including ice cream, toast, and hot dogs.
Is this three-day military diet the secret to quick weight loss, or is it all hoax? Here, dietitians and nutrition experts share what you need to know about the military diet and whether it’s actually healthy for you.
Why Is It Called The Military Diet?
Let’s get one thing straight: Despite its namesake, the military diet doesn’t actually have any legit military origins, according to registered dietitian Tara Allen, R.D., who says the diet started off as a rumor that the eating plan was implemented to help soldiers get fit quickly.
The military diet is similar to other three-day diet plans (think: the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic three-day diet plans) as it claims to promote weight loss in a short period of time by restricting calories. The diet also bears a striking resemblance to the retro Drinking Man’s Diet (or the Air Force Diet) of the ’60s, according to Adrienne Rose Johnson Bitar, Ph.D., postdoctoral associate at Cornell University who specializes in the history and culture of American food, pop culture, and health. Much like the military diet, the Drinking Man’s Diet incorporated martinis and steak in the diet but kept carbohydrate and calorie counts fairly low, she explains. “Both of these diets were low-calorie or low-carb plans that promised impressive short-term results, but included unhealthy or indulgent foods,” says Bitar. (Another unhealthy diet trend that includes lots of red meat: The Vertical Diet. Safe to say, you can skip that diet plan, too.)
What Exactly Is The Military Diet?
Overall, the military diet is a pretty low-calorie plan, considering dieters are encouraged to consume approximately 1,400 calories on day one, 1,200 calories on day two, and roughly 1,100 calories on day three, explains JJ Virgin, a board-certified nutrition specialist. (Here’s what you need really to know about counting calories.) The foods on the plan are supposedly “chemically compatible,” she says, and are said to work together in order to promote fast weight loss. When you are on the diet you are supposed to follow it for three days in one week, she adds.
Military diet-approved foods aren’t what you’d typically think of as “diet” fare, including hot dogs, toast, ice cream, and canned tuna, says registered dietitian Brooke Alpert. See the full breakdown of the diet meals below. These same meals are prescribed for everyone observing the diet and are carefully planned out so you don’t overindulge or stray off the diet (since you can only eat the foods recommended below), says Alpert.
Breakfast: 1/2 Grapefruit, one slice of bread/toast with two tablespoons of peanut or almond butter, and one cup of coffee
Lunch: one slice of bread or toast, 1/2 can of tuna, and one cup of coffee
Dinner: 3 oz. of any meat (the size of a deck of cards), one cup of green beans, one small apple, 1/2 banana, and one cup of ice cream
Breakfast: one egg cooked (however you like), one slice of bread or toast, 1/2 banana
Lunch: one cup of cottage cheese, one hardboiled egg, five saltine crackers
Dinner: two hot dogs (no bun), one cup of broccoli, 1/2 cup of carrots, 1/2 banana, one cup of ice cream
Breakfast: one slice of cheddar cheese, one small apple, five saltine crackers
Lunch: one egg (cooked however you like), one slice of bread or toast
Dinner: one cup of tuna, 1/2 banana, one cup of ice cream
It’s important to note that liquids are also restricted on the diet, and water and herbal teas are the only approved beverages, explains registered dietician Beth Warren. It’s okay to drink coffee on the first day—but sugar, creamers, and artificial sweeteners are off limits, meaning you’ll only be able to use stevia in your coffee (if needed). Alcohol, however, is definitely off limits, especially since wine and beer tend to contain a lot of calories, says Virgin.
Is The Military Diet Actually Healthy?
First off, the inconsistency of the military diet is a red flag, according to Warren, who says the diet isn’t consistent with its structure of meals and says the lack of guidance can make it confusing and difficult for a dieter to understand how to follow and what to eat.
Even though the diet does provide foods from serval food groups, registered dietitian Toby Amidor R.D. says it’s not enough for complete daily nutrition—especially since high-calorie, low-nutrient foods like hot dogs and vanilla ice cream are part of the limited menu. “Due to the lack of adequate amounts of whole grains, vegetables, dairy, and protein, you won’t be able to meet your complete nutrient needs over these three days,” she explains.
Limiting your daily intake of fruits and vegetables, means you’re likely not getting the amount of fiber, antioxidant vitamins A and C, potassium, and phytonutrients you need on a daily basis, she says. Since the diet also includes limited dairy, you’ll likely be low on vitamin D, calcium, and potassium too—nutrients that most Americans are already lacking, says Amidor. Since the diet is super low-carb, you’re not getting enough whole grains, either—which are a great source of B vitamins and fiber, she says. (See: Why Healthy Carbs Belong In Your Diet.)
Overall, the diet is too low in carbs and calories to provide your body with enough food and nutrients it needs to stay healthy, adds Amidor. It’s enough to physically survive, but you might be a bit ‘hangry’ and could potentially have extremely low energy levels, says Warren. (See: Why Counting Calories Isn’t the Key to Weight Loss.)
If you’re wondering about weight loss? Yes, you will lose some weight on the military diet if you’re used to eating a couple thousand calories per day (just like any diet that restricts your calorie intake), according to Amidor. However, it’s likely you’ll go back to your old eating habits and gain the weight right back once you’re off the diet, which can create a vicious cycle, she says.
Before you try it…
“The pros of the military diet are that it’s easily accessible and free to follow,” suggests Allen. However, the cons—including the minimal selection of foods, reliance on processed meats (which are not the healthiest), and low amount of fruits and vegetables allowed—tend to outweigh the pros, says Virgin.
And, of course, the low-cal nature of the military diet can dangerous, says Amidor. This is especially true if you plan to exercise: Attempting to do high-intensity workouts on such a low-calorie diet could potentially cause you to become weak, light-headed, and fatigued—so low-intensity cardio or walking is your safest option during this diet, says Allen.
It’s safe to say that the military diet is yet another short-term crash diet, says Alpert. Any weight lost will be water weight, she says, and you may even see a loss of muscle mass due to the fact that it’s a low-calorie plan.
And like all crash-diets known to man, Alpert says the military diet is meant to make only a short-term impact instead of teaching positive eating habits that can be sustained for a long, healthy life. As a result, she says it’s very likely participants will gain back any weight lost shortly after concluding the diet. (Really. You should stop restrictive dieting.)