What is the military diet?
Anyone can stick to a diet for three days – and that’s the basic idea behind the military diet. This eating plan is also known as the navy diet, the army diet, and the ice cream diet.
Although this eating plan isn’t technically associated with any branch of the military or armed forces, it is a useful way to quickly and effectively cut weight. The plan claims that you can easily lose up to ten pounds per week while you follow the diet.
With this plan, you don’t need to attend regular meetings or purchase pre-packaged or difficult to locate foods. In fact, all of the ingredients you need to follow the military diet can be found at any grocery store. You also don’t need to be a great chef to prepare these meals. What you do need, though, is willpower.
Since you only need to follow the diet for three days at a time, it’s a bit easier for people to stick to this diet – especially those who struggle with maintaining long-term healthy eating plans. While you will need to continue making healthy choices even during your days off from the diet, your brain will be “tricked” into thinking that you are indulging thanks to the increase in calories and variety of foods.
While the military diet doesn’t require you to stay away from carbs, dairy, or other specific types of food, it is a very strict diet. Some of the foods included in the plan seem healthy, while others are somewhat unexpected. You can make some substitutions to accommodate specific dietary needs, but there is very little wiggle room with the military diet – you can’t even have snacks.
This diet is perfect for almost anyone. If you’re hoping to slim down quickly for your wedding, for a beach holiday, or just to look your best for a night out, the military diet can get you camera-ready in only 72 hours. It’s simple, straight-forward, and promises impressively quick results.
Where did it come from?
The origin of this diet is relatively unknown. Some sources claim it started in the 1980s, when it was known as the “fax diet” because it was passed from person to person via fax machine. However, the more commonly accepted origin generates from the US military.
According to the diet, secret nutritionists for the US military developed the plan to help soldiers lose weight and get in shape. Many military personnel are required to pass biannual fitness tests to ensure they fall within the accepted weight range – and failing the physical examination three times over a four-year period may result in a discharge.
Often, those who need a quick weight loss trick to push them into the required window will use this diet to drop some extra pounds before weighing in. Still, the diet isn’t officially affiliated with any government or military institution – just a “trick of the trade,” one might say.
A form of intermittent fasting, the military diet keeps your metabolism from slowing down by combining a few days of very low calorie intake with a period of more “normal” eating. The plan is similar to intermittent fasting diets that follow a 5:2 or 4:3 routine, but instead of actually fasting for a specific amount of time, the military diet simply reduces caloric intake to below 1,000 calories – which is considered a fast.
What foods can I eat on this diet?
This is a very specific diet, and each food has been carefully selected for optimum results. If you choose to deviate from the prescribed meal plans, you likely won’t see the weight loss you are hoping for. If you have allergies or other specific dietary needs, you can swap out some foods to include others – but it’s important to ensure that you’re eating the right amount of calories and an appropriate balance of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
This diet includes many normal, inexpensive foods that can be found at any grocery store. This makes it a great plan to follow for people who live outside of urban areas and don’t have access to a wide variety of superfoods and other ingredients, or for people who are on a budget and can’t afford a lot of the foods recommended by other diet plans.
The design of the military diet combines low calorie, chemically compatible foods that work together to jump start weight loss. Caffeine, which is encouraged by this diet, boosts metabolism for up to two hours after it is consumed. Grapefruit helps push your liver into fat burning mode, and apples contain plenty of pectin – a starch that prevents your cells from absorbing high amounts of fat.
Research has demonstrated that cells with more stores of calcium burn more fat, so the diet recommends cottage cheese and ice cream. And high protein foods like eggs, peanut butter, and tuna burn more energy – and fat – during digestion.
While you are following the diet, you are welcome to drink plenty of water, black coffee, or tea – either with your meals or in between meals, to curb cravings and feel full. During your four days off the diet, focus on fueling your body with nutritious meals. Try to keep your calorie count between 1,500 to 2,000 each day, and aim for balanced meals with plenty of vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains.
What foods should I avoid?
Obviously, you will need to avoid eating anything that isn’t on the military diet plan during the three days that you are following the diet. You also should ensure that you’re not drinking any soda, juice, milk, or alcohol during this time.
It is recommended that you continue avoiding these beverages even during the four days off the diet, to achieve better results. You should also aim to eat healthy meals throughout the week – instead of binging on processed foods, fried foods, or sweets. It’s normal to experience cravings when you are cutting calories so drastically, but if you find yourself indulging those cravings during your off days, you will be sabotaging your weight loss efforts.
Also, steer clear of diet sodas or anything with artificial sweeteners. While these zero calorie items won’t add to your calorie count, they don’t have any nutritional value – and, in fact, have proven to impede healthy weight loss. Instead of drinking a diet soda, have a cup of green tea or drink some more water. It might take some getting used to, but it will certainly improve your health in the long run.
What are the health benefits of the military diet?
There are a number of benefits that can be gained by following this diet – primarily driven by significant weight loss. This diet shares many of the same benefits that can be achieved through intermittent fasting, while still allowing followers to eat small amounts of certain foods.
One: You’ll lose weight.
Obviously, the main benefit of following the military diet is for quick, effective weight loss. The diet claims to help followers lose up to 10 pounds in just one week, and 30 pounds in one month – and since the diet’s cycle can be repeated over weeks and months, there’s no limit to how much weight you can drop.
This will depend on how you eat during your off days, as well. Even if you follow the military diet to the letter during your three days on, if you binge on pizza and cookies for the next four days, you likely won’t experience the results you were hoping for. Still, the structure of the military diet does kick start your body’s fat-burning processes, so you can expect to see rapid changes.
Two: You’ll reduce cravings.
Initially, cravings will probably be an issue – especially if you’re adjusting from an unhealthy diet full of sugar and simple carbs. People who enjoy having a drink or two with dinner will also struggle a bit during the first few days on the military diet. There are some techniques you can use to overcome these cravings, though, so you can stick with the diet rather than give in.
However, once you’ve made it through the first cycle, you’ll quickly notice that your desire to eat unhealthy foods is fading away. Thanks to the intermittent fasting-like cycle of the military diet, you will be able to detox a bit from your previous eating habits while building new, better ones. And you’ll be more used to eating smaller portions, so you won’t feel the need to overeat at every meal.
Three: You’ll speed up your metabolism.
By including a number of high protein foods, high fiber foods, and foods that contain plenty of calcium, the military diet is designed to boost your metabolic rate – the number of calories your body burns through the day. This is how your body burns fat, and by stimulating this process, you’ll help turn your body into a fat-burning machine.
There is a myth that fasting, even intermittent fasting like you would do on the military diet, causes your metabolism to actually slow down – entering what is called “starvation mode.” However, there is no research to support this. In fact, studies show that you won’t enter “starvation mode” until your body hits a rate of approximately 5 per cent body fat. As long as you have fat left to burn, your body will continue to metabolize it and use it as fuel.
Four: You’ll experience increased motivation.
It’s hard to push your body through a strict, challenging diet like this one – and once you’ve made it through those first three days, you’ll feel ready to take on anything. Sticking to the military diet is a great way to build up your willpower and learn what it takes to stay motivated even in the face of temptation.
You’ll also be more likely to stick to it because you’ll see results so quickly. Many other diet plans involve slow weight loss over long periods of time, which can be discouraging for people who are looking for more of a quick fix. The military diet gives you exactly that, and watching that number on the scale creep down is the perfect motivation to continue losing until you reach your goal weight.
Five: You’ll lower your risk of developing diabetes.
While this diet isn’t recommended for diabetics because of the dramatically reduced calorie count, it can help ward off the development of the disease. Thanks to the diet’s high fiber, high protein approach, your body will be able to effectively process the sugars you get from the fruit and ice cream. This will keep your body from producing excessive amounts of insulin that will build up in your blood.
If you are at risk for insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome, following this diet could help get your body back on track. Not only does it help your body function effectively, it also encourages quick, healthy weight loss – a key element of preventing diabetes and other metabolic conditions.
Six: You’ll improve your tolerance of glucose.
Similar to other kinds of intermittent fasting, the military diet improves insulin sensitivity. As mentioned in the above point, the macronutrients included in the diet plan provide your body with everything it needs to correctly respond to the presence of glucose in your blood. During fasting days, or periods of time with low calorie intake, your body uses stored fat and sugar for energy – improving both your cholesterol and your blood glucose levels.
As with other intermittent fasting diets, this has only proven to be effective in the short-term – which makes the military diet, with three days on and four days off, an ideal way to implement it. Many alternative fasting options involve longer stretches without food, and for those with insulin sensitivity issues, this could be challenging.
Seven: You’ll boost your immune system.
Research shows that cyclic fasting, like the kind recommended by the military diet, can actually induce the process of “immune system regeneration” – where stem cells shift from a dormant state to one of self-renewal. Just a few days of fasting, which includes any day where you eat fewer than 1,000 calories, can trigger this process. When you continue these cycles over a six month period, your body begins to kill off older and damaged immune cells, and starts to replace them with new ones.
According to scientists, when your body is forced to use stored fat, glucose, and ketones for energy, it breaks down a “significant portion” of white blood cells. This has shown to be true even with heavily damaged immune systems, like those of elderly patients or people undergoing chemotherapy.
Eight: You’ll develop a better understanding of hunger.
One of the biggest benefits to following the military diet is that you’ll learn a lot more about your own eating habits. Often, we’re not eating because we’re actually hungry – we’re just bored, feeling emotional, or experiencing a craving. These aren’t good reasons to eat, since food is just supposed to be what fuels our bodies.
By limiting the food you eat and sticking to a very strict low-calorie diet like the military diet, you’ll be able to see what some of your bad eating habits are – and figure out what it actually feels like when you’re truly hungry. It’s a great lesson to carry with you even on your off days, to keep from overeating a result of triggers like boredom or stress.
Nine: You’ll stimulate your brain function.
Intermittent crash diets, or cycles of fasting, “prime your brain for protection,” according to neurologists. The shock of a reduced calorie intake puts more stress on your cells – forcing your brain to adopt a stronger adaptive stress response. New cells are created, and neurons are stimulated to grow.
This can actually help your brain resist the negative effects of built up protein plaques, which are one of the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s. It also makes your brain more resistant to the damaging impacts of Parkinson’s, and can even reduce the occurrence of epileptic seizures.
In fact, overeating has proven to have a detrimental impact on the brain, impairing its function and stimulated “uncontrolled excitation,” scientists say. This is likely due to how humans evolved, and undoubtedly experienced long stretches of time where food was scarce.
Ten: You’ll improve your spiritual well-being.
Fasting is practiced by religions all around the world – and has been for centuries. The idea of fasting as a spiritual practice centers around the theory that going without food clears your mind and fine-tunes your ability to pick up on the signals your body gives you. This opens you up to enhanced self-awareness and understanding, increasing your ability to heal yourself on an emotional level.
Taking a step back from your habits, like eating unhealthy foods and drinking alcohol, can help you see which may have become addictions – and freeing the body and the mind of addictions can bring tons of positive benefits.
Eleven: You’ll reduce your oxidative stress.
Numerous studies have shown that intermittent fasting, like you would do during your three days on the military diet, can provide impressive anti-aging benefits. According to scientists, this could be because the diet helps make cells stronger – bolstering them with more effective defenses to take on free radicals.
These are unstable molecules produced by our bodies when our cells are functioning incorrectly or inefficiently. Free radicals float around in your body, breaking apart connections between atoms and other important components of the cell – including essential proteins and even DNA.
Since fasting forces your body to eliminate unhealthy cells to make room for new healthy ones, these malfunctioning cells are replaced – keeping your body strong by reducing the number of free radicals. Scientists claim that exposing our bodies to “low levels of environmental stress,” like that of fasting, improves the cellular repair process.
Twelve: You’ll improve your heart function.
Alongside the weight loss and diabetes prevention, there is evidence to prove that the military diet and intermittent fasting can provide cardiovascular benefits, as well. According to some research, fasting protects the heart by raising levels adiponectin, which is a protein that is used by the body in the metabolism of carbohydrates and lipids.
Studies on animals have revealed that these benefits are not unlike those achieved through exercise, including improving blood pressure and heart rate, and lowering cholesterol. In fact, the author of one study even stated that the results seen in patients who practiced intermittent fasting achieved benefits similar to those they would have seen from bariatric surgery – but without the costs and risks associated with the procedure.
Thirteen: You’ll help prevent certain cancers.
Animal studies have also revealed that the type of fasting or calorie restriction practiced during the military diet can lower your risk of developing some types of cancer. Decreases in incidences of lymphoma, longer survival after treatment of tumors, and lower rates of cancer-forming cells have been measured in several animal studies.
Future studies are needed to determine how these findings would apply to humans, but according to researchers, this evidence suggests that both intermittent fasting and calorie restriction are effective at modulating a number of different risk factors that can contribute to the development of chronic diseases – making this type of eating a healthy option for anyone.
Fourteen: You’ll experience faster healing and recovery.
Caloric restriction and intermittent fasting have shown to improve endurance and performance among athletes – meaning that while it can be difficult to keep your energy up while you’re getting through those three days of the military diet, you’ll be rewarded with better performance in the end.
Studies have been done on cyclists and weight trainers to reveal that intermittent fasting can actually boost post-workout muscle growth, maintain lean mass, lower fat mass, and improve post-workout recovery.
Part of the theory on why this might be is that training after a fast forces your body to adapt to exercise, since you’ll be training in a less than optimal state. This means that not only will you see immediate post-workout benefits, you’ll also see improved performance down the line – and the more regularly you can incorporate cycles of fasting and calorie restriction into your schedule, the more benefits you can gain.
However, it’s also important to ensure you are getting adequate nutrition. Supplement your reduced-calorie days with healthy, nutrient-rich meals during your four days off.
Fifteen: You’ll enjoy increased longevity.
Studies have repeatedly shown that one of the best methods to extend the lifespan of an animal is by restricting its caloric intake. This isn’t really something a human can easily maintain, though – but by practicing intermittent fasting as prescribed by the military diet, you can see a longer life without spending it obsessively counting calories and macronutrients.
Long term calorie restriction can even be detrimental. Humans will suffer a loss of lean muscle mass and strength, as well as a loss of bone mineral density. It’s also kind of miserable – who wants to eat the same tiny meals every single day without ever truly feeling satisfied?
While there hasn’t really been much research on fasting and longevity in humans, it will dramatically reduce your risks of developing obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer – and if you’re less likely to die from those diseases, you’ll probably have a better chance of living a longer life.
What should I keep in mind when starting this diet?
The military diet is a very simple eating plan to follow – but there are some things to consider before you get started. You’ll be better able to stick to your diet if you do some research ahead of time and learn what you can expect.
This is a low-calorie plan.
While following the military diet, you might notice that you start feeling tired, weak, and grumpy. That’s because the plan limits your calorie intake to under 1,500 each day – below what is generally recommended for an adult. Some sluggishness and fatigue is to be expected, but you should perk up again once you’re eating more normally during the four off days.
Exercise is encouraged to enhance weight loss efforts, but the plan does advise against strenuous exercise during the three days that you are following the low-calorie diet. Instead, do some lighter activities like walking, yoga, or swimming. Do your running and weight training on your days off.
Also, note that you shouldn’t follow this diet long-term. While it is possible to repeat the cycle over several weeks to continue losing weight, eating this way for months at a time could put followers at risk for nutrient deficiencies – especially if you’re not eating healthy foods during your off days.
Drink lots of water.
Supplement the low-calorie diet recommended by this eating plan by drinking as much water as you can. Water can help keep you feeling full, and it can also help boost your metabolism and energy levels – which is important while you’re on this diet!
The diet also encourages you to drink hot lemon water, if possible, especially first thing in the morning. This is a great way to detoxify your body while you’re following the military diet, and because lemon juice helps balance your hormones, you’ll experience greater weight loss results, as well.
You might experience cravings.
This is a pretty obvious point, since it’s normal to deal with cravings when you’ve dramatically reduced your caloric intake – but because it can be a difficult issue to overcome, it’s important to consider this ahead of time.
A great way to deal with cravings is to include small indulgences during your off days – things like dark chocolate, nuts, and avocados are great fat-burning foods that you can look forward to during your three days of calorie restriction. You can also spread out your meals throughout the day and eat them like small snacks, so you don’t have to go too long without eating something.
You can also learn other techniques to address cravings – acupuncture, meditation, and even just temporary distractions like turning off the TV and thinking about something else can help you get your temptations under control.
It will be difficult to go out to eat.
Especially during your three days of restricted eating, you won’t be able to eat at a restaurant or at a dinner party during this diet. You may be able to schedule date nights during your off days, but even then it’s important to ensure that you are making healthy choices. Eat foods that are grilled or steamed, without any sugary sauces or simple carbs. And stay away from alcohol, which can derail almost any diet plan.
This isn’t a diet for everyone.
Primarily focused on achieving significant weight loss over a short period of time, the military diet isn’t recommended for people who suffer from certain health conditions. Since it isn’t low-fat, low cholesterol, or low-sodium, people who have high cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension, or heart disease would be better off looking at alternative options.
If you have concerns, talk to your doctor about this meal plan and get some professional advice on how you can best address your weight loss goals. While most healthy individuals can follow the military diet with no issues, it certainly isn’t appropriate for everyone. A doctor can help guide you to a meal plan that will satisfy your specific health condition and provide long-lasting weight loss results.
The results depend on you.
While this diet certainly promises an impressive result, this ultimately comes back to you and your level of commitment. Even if you manage to drop six, seven, or ten pounds while following the military diet, you’ll gain it right back if you revert back to your regular unhealthy eating habits the very next week.
You can continue to practice the diet for as long as you like until you reach your target weight, by repeating the cycle of three days on, four days off. However, you will need to learn what 1,500 calories means on your off days. Excess calories stay in your body as stored fat, so unless you are creating a calorie deficit by eating fewer than 2,000 calories each day, you will start putting the pounds back on.
Luckily, 2,000 calories is actually quite a bit – especially if you’re feeding yourself healthy well-balanced meals and choosing intelligent snacks. A good way to maintain weight loss without risking falling off the wagon is to follow the 80/20 rule. Stick to a strict diet 80 per cent of the time, and allow yourself a few treats 20 per cent of the time. That way, you’ll be able to eat plenty of nutritious foods without feeling like you’re depriving yourself of some of the things you love.
How can I get started?
The military diet has a very specific schedule: three days on, four days off. During your three days on the diet, you will be required to adhere to a strict meal plan, and during the four days off, you should try to continue making healthy choices. This section will go over the meals required by the diet, and will offer some suggested recipes to keep you on track during your off days.
- Breakfast: Half of one grapefruit, one slice of toast, two tablespoons of peanut butter, and one cup of caffeinated tea or coffee.
- Lunch: Half a cup of tuna, one slice of toast, and one cup of caffeinated coffee or tea.
- Dinner: Three ounces of any type of meat, one cup of green beans, half of a banana, one small apple, and one cup of vanilla ice cream.
- Breakfast: one egg (prepared however you like), one slice of toast, and half of a banana.
- Lunch: one hardboiled egg, one cup of cottage cheese, and five saltine crackers.
- Dinner: two hot dogs (without buns), one cup of broccoli, half a cup of carrots, half of a banana, and half a cup of vanilla ice cream.
- Breakfast: five saltine crackers, one slice of cheddar cheese, and one small apple.
- Lunch: one egg (prepared however you like), and one slice of toast.
- Dinner: one cup of tuna, half of a banana, and one cup of vanilla ice cream.
If you can, choose whole grain options wherever possible. You should also aim to eliminate diet sodas or artificially sweetened beverages from your diet. While these won’t add any calories, they also don’t provide you with any nutritional benefit – and have actually proven to impede weight loss efforts. Instead, drink as much water as you can.
There are variations of the diet, including one that allows followers to supplement the prescribed meals by drinking only water on the first day, adding fruits and fruit juices on the second day, and consuming vegetables and vegetable juices on the third day.
Also, you can easily swap some of the plan foods for other ingredients, if you have specific dietary restrictions or preferences that don’t allow you to eat certain items – but you can’t add any snacks or additional foods.
Still, with just a few minor tweaks, this is a diet that can be followed by almost anyone.
Vegetarian or vegan options: Rather than the eggs, tuna, hot dogs, and meat included in the diet, eat lentils, nuts, tofu, or soy products instead. You can also buy vegan cheddar or cottage cheese and non-dairy ice cream.
Gluten-free options: You can easily swap regular toast or crackers for gluten-free choices.
Low-sodium options: Look for foods with “no added salt,” like unsalted crackers or rice cakes instead of saltines. You can replace any of the foods in this meal plan with a lower sodium option.
Other substitutions: For those with specific allergies, there are some suggested substitutes for certain ingredients.
- Grapefruit: This can interfere with some medications, so it is fairly common for people to switch this out. However, simply replacing it with another piece of citrus fruit is not a good idea – instead, mix ½ tablespoon of baking powder in water and drink it.
- Banana: Some people have a banana intolerance – eat either two kiwis, one cup of papaya, or two apricots. Or, you can eat grapes, plums, or applesauce, as long as you keep to the same number of calories.
- Green beans: This can be substituted with any leafy green vegetable, like spinach.
- Broccoli: Instead of broccoli, try another cruciferous vegetable like cauliflower or brussels sprouts.
- Cottage cheese: Try having plain Greek yogurt, eggs, or ham.
- Ice cream: Eat fruit yogurt or apple juice if you are lactose intolerant.
Suggested off-day meals
There are no limits to what you are permitted to eat during your off days, but it’s a good idea to choose healthy foods and stick to fewer than 2,000 calories per day. These are some great options if you need a bit of inspiration to stick to a nutritious diet while following the military diet. Pick one each of the following per day.
- Breakfast: yogurt with berries and granola; whole grain cereal with milk and banana slices; scrambled egg on toast with avocado and tomato slices; whole wheat bagel with cream cheese, smoked salmon, tomato slices, and cucumber; two egg omelet with cheddar cheese and spinach.
- Lunch: Salad with lettuce, chopped veggies, hard-boiled egg, raisins, and almonds tossed with balsamic dressing; lentil soup with whole wheat toast topped with pesto, shredded mozzarella cheese, and sun-dried tomatoes; whole wheat pita stuffed with feta cheese, hummus, tomatoes, olives, and spinach, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice; two slices of whole grain bread with Dijon mustard, turkey slices, pear slices, and Swiss cheese; whole wheat tortilla with black beans, avocado, romaine lettuce, and salsa.
- Dinner: miso soup, tuna sushi roll, seaweed salad; whole wheat tortilla wrap with sliced chicken, peanuts, scallions, hot sauce, and coleslaw mix; whole wheat pasta noodles with shrimp, garlic, zucchini, basil, and olive oil; cup of chili topped with scallions and cheddar cheese; whole wheat pasta served with Italian sausage, garlic, chopped mushrooms, chopped onions, and zucchini with spaghetti sauce and parmesan cheese.
- Snacks: snap peas or carrots with hummus; cantaloupe with cottage cheese; apple and a handful of almonds or pistachios; banana with peanut butter; string cheese and a few crackers; air-popped popcorn; dark chocolate covered almonds; plain yogurt with berries; rye crackers with cream cheese.
Jen Miller is a former electrical engineer and product specialist with more than 20 years of product design and testing experience. She has designed more than 200 products for Fortune 500 companies, in fields ranging from home appliances to sports gear and outdoor equipment. She founded Jen Reviews to share her knowledge and critical eye for what makes consumers tick, and adopts a strict no-BS approach to help the reader filter through the maze of products and marketing hype out there. She writes regularly and has been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, The Muse, The Huffington Post, Tiny Buddha and MindBodyGreen.