What’s the deal with the military diet?
Crash diets have always been rooted in a sense of extreme discipline. These super-restrictive weight-loss plans generally require you to slash calories and follow a regimented menu to get the promised results. And one crash diet that’s been trending in recent months really leans into that spirit: the so-called military diet, which promises 10 pounds of weight loss in a week to those who play drill sergeant with their daily intake.
Does this rapid weight-loss plan work—and is it safe? Here’s everything you need to know before trying the military diet.
What is the military diet?
The military diet is a weeklong eating plan that allows a small list of “approved” foods and caps intake at 1,000 to 1,500 calories per day. The promise is that it will produce rapid weight loss. Despite its name, the diet was not developed by the U.S. military and definitely isn’t used in basic training. “There is no way that 1,000 to 1,500 calories per day would sustain you!” says Beth Kitchin, PhD, a registered dietician nutritionist and an assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Dr. Kitchin and other nutrition experts who spoke with WW aren’t sure where the military diet came from—there’s no self-proclaimed guru or institution behind the curtain. What we do know is that the plan mirrors several other fad diets that have attained viral status online in recent years, including the three-day cardiac diet (not to be confused with a heart-healthy lifestyle).
How does the military diet work?
The military diet comprises two phases. For the first three days, adherents follow a strict daily menu plan of roughly 1,000 calories. Some of the required food combos might strike you as odd—think, ribeye steak with raw banana, and hot dogs with vanilla ice cream. The pairings supposedly reflect foods that are “chemically compatible,” meaning they contain nutrients and/or compounds that benefit metabolism and blood sugar level when eaten simultaneously. Problem is, the notion of “chemical compatibility” isn’t backed by real evidence. “The term is used to make this approach appear novel, but there’s little basis in science,” says registered dietitian Amy Gannon, program manager and chief coach of eCoaching at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
The second phase of the military diet, lasting four days, drops the prescribed meal plan—you can eat any foods you like—but you must stay at or below a 1,500-calorie daily limit. The military diet allows for unlimited water and herbal tea, as well as two caffeinated beverages (without sweeteners or cream) per day.
The diet concludes after seven days, though many dieters do repeat cycles in hopes of continued weight loss.
The military diet meal plan
Like many crash diets, this plan prescribes small servings of very specific foods. The meals below aren’t merely suggestions—dieters are instructed to eat these items exactly. Here’s what’s on the menu:
- Breakfast: ½ grapefruit, 1 slice toast, 2 Tbsp peanut butter
- Lunch: ½ cup canned tuna, 1 slice toast
- Dinner: 3 ounces grilled ribeye steak, 1 cup green beans, ½ medium banana, 1 small apple, 1 cup vanilla ice cream
- Breakfast: 1 egg, 1 slice toast, ½ medium banana
- Lunch: 1 cup cottage cheese, 1 hard-boiled egg, 5 saltine crackers
- Dinner: 2 hot dogs (no bun), 1 cup broccoli, ½ cup of carrots, ½ medium banana, ½ cup vanilla ice cream
- Breakfast: 5 saltine crackers, 1 ounce cheddar cheese, 1 small apple
- Lunch: 1 fried egg, 1 slice toast
- Dinner: 1 cup canned tuna, ½ medium banana, 1 cup vanilla ice cream
Days 4 through 7
During these four days of the military diet, you can eat and drink whatever you like, as long as you consume no more than 1,500 calories each day.
Military diet substitutions
Some online postings about the plan suggest replacement foods for people who are lactose-intolerant or who are following a vegan, vegetarian, or gluten free diet. For example, people following a vegan diet are commonly advised to substitute a couple of tablespoons of hummus and half an avocado for tuna and meat.
In theory, swaps should contain roughly the same number of calories as the eliminated food, but Gannon notes that recommendations don’t always match up. (Half an avocado can have three times as many calories as a cup of canned tuna.) Even if you overlook the confusing swaps for special dietary considerations, the military diet is rigid and restrictive, which can make the plan challenging to follow, Gannon says.
Military diet benefits: Fact or fiction?
Proponents of the military diet swear by its results, but the scientific evidence doesn’t exactly stack up. Here’s a closer look.
Claim 1: Promotes rapid weight loss
Sure, lots of people might notice a difference on the scale when they complete a cycle of the military diet. That being said, “there’s no magic here,” Dr. Kitchin notes. Any extreme, restricted-calorie diet can lead to weight loss. The initial 2 to 4 pounds people shed on crash diets—this one included—often reflect the loss of water weight, Dr. Kitchin explains. When the body runs out of fuel from food, it taps into glycogen stores in the muscles and liver for energy. Since glycogen is bound with water in the body’s tissues, people lose water weight as they torch through that supply. Generally, water weight returns when normal eating patterns resume.
Claim 2: Won’t slow metabolism like other diets
Good-quality studies of the military diet don’t exist, but there’s nothing in the available evidence to suggest the plan sustains an extra-speedy calorie burn, Gannon says. Your metabolism—a collective term for the many processes that convert food and nutrients into energy and building blocks the body needs—largely contributes to basic functions like breathing and blood flow. All other things being equal, smaller bodies require less energy to operate, so a person’s daily rate of calorie burn actually tends to dip when their weight goes down. This underscores the importance of having a solid maintenance plan in place after reaching a weight loss goal, which the military diet doesn’t offer.
Claim 3: Burns fat
Chalk up another head-scratcher with zero scientific evidence. “There is nothing specifically about the military diet that would help you burn fat more than other diets,” Gannon says. After the initial loss of water weight, any diet that causes you to lose weight will inevitably burn fat—along with some muscle—for energy.
Claim 4: Controls blood sugar swings
Some fans of the military diet contend that the plan’s food pairings—like toast with peanut butter—can prevent harmful “spikes” in blood sugar. The thinking behind this claim is that when you eat carbohydrates with some mix of fats, fiber, and/or protein, the carbs are less likely to send your blood sugar through the roof (and crashing back down later on). But here’s the thing: Wild blood sugar swings aren’t a concern for most healthy adults to begin with, Gannon says. Although getting a balanced mix of macronutrients can help make meals more satisfying, there’s no research to suggest the military diet delivers special protective benefits concerning blood sugar regulation.
Claim 5: Melts 30 pounds in one month
Beware of blanket promises about the pounds you’ll shed: The amount of weight a person loses while following any given eating plan depends on personal factors such as age, activity level, and starting weight. Moreover, health experts generally agree that trying to lose a pound a day isn’t safe or sustainable. “If you make dramatic changes and then go back to your old habits, the weight will come back on,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, a registered dietician nutritionist and an outpatient clinical registered dietitian at University Hospitals. In keeping with WW’s general guidelines, the National Institutes of Health recommends setting a weight-loss goal of 1 or 2 pounds per week (not per day!).
Is the military diet safe?
Severely restricting calorie intake and shedding weight rapidly can negatively affect mood and mindset—and over time, may impact overall wellbeing. “I would be very concerned with long-term health,” Gannon says of people who follow the military diet for prolonged periods. Potential risks may include:
- Inadequate nutrient intake: The first three days of the military diet are low in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and heart-healthy fats. Repeat for multiple cycles over time, and you may end up falling short on key nutrients. “A healthy eating pattern includes all of those foods,” Jamieson-Petonic says. “Long-term restriction may lead to deficiencies in vitamins A, B, C, D, E, and K.”
- Major hunger and fatigue: Dr. Kitchin has a warning for dieters who decide to take the plunge with this plan: “Be prepared to feel starved and weak.” The military diet is very low in calories, which can leave the body low on fuel and bring on complaints such as fatigue, sweating, irritability, lightheadedness, and headaches.
- Constipation: The military diet skimps on high-fiber foods such as whole grains, fruits, and veggies, which are important for adding bulk to stool and keeping you regular. “Inadequate fiber intake can lead to constipation,” Jamieson-Petonic says.
- Weight cycling: While you may initially lose weight on the military diet, you’re likely to put it back on once you resume your normal eating regimen. Alternating between periods of weight loss and gain increases the likelihood of future weight gain and may increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and heart attack, according to multiple studies.
- Disordered eating: People with a history of disordered eating may experience harm from attempting an ultra-restrictive eating plan like the military diet, Gannon says. (If you’re in need of support for disordered eating, check out WW’s mental health resources page for more information.) And honestly? The military diet probably isn’t great for most people in this regard. “I would be concerned about the effects a diet like this may have on a person’s relationship with food,” Gannon says.
The upshot: Should you try the military diet?
Most claims behind the military diet are not supported by scientific evidence (or the U.S. military itself, we should note again). While it’s possible for a person to lose weight on this weeklong eating plan, any weight loss is likely the result of extreme calorie restriction—and not some special synergy in the diet itself, nutrition experts say. What’s more, following a restrictive eating plan for an extended period of time is not sustainable for most people and may raise the risk of certain health concerns. Lasting weight loss generally happens through developing and maintaining healthy eating habits and lifestyle choices over time. This seven-day crash diet just doesn’t deliver.
Colleen de Bellefonds has been covering health and wellness for over a decade for publications including U.S. News & World Report, Women's Health, Vice, Prevention, Healthline, and more. She lives in Paris, France, where she shares her croissants with her dog and plans her weekends around runs by the Seine.