As a society obsessed with weight loss we are constantly bombarded with the latest and greatest diet. But this one has to take the cake. The 3 Day Military Diet is yet another glittering example of how to lose weight quickly (and then gain it all right back) using horrible nutrition advice.
To be totally transparent I have not tried this particular diet. And in it’s original format I wouldn’t advocate anyone else try it either. (I am, however, in the middle of an intermittent fasting experiment)
Let’s take a look at what comprises this miracle weight loss program and definitively break down why, as a diet solution, it will cause you far more harm than good.
Does the 3 Day Military Diet Work? What to Expect.
Have you ever seen the movie Full Metal Jacket? It’s a classic. No movie has done more to educate an audience in the various colorful ways to drop an F-bomb between every word in a sentence. I highly recommend it.
One of the characters in this film about Marines in the Vietnam war is an overweight private that is considered too fat to go through basic training. So he’s sent to fat school. You can probably imagine that this is an unpleasant experience.
Now imagine what you would get to eat in the Marines if you were considered too heavy for basic training. Saltine crackers, plain canned tuna, some canned green beans, perhaps even a banana. You’re now building an accurate picture of what you’ll be eating should you decide to give this diet a try.
It’s broken down into three consecutive days with three meals per day. Here’s what they look like
1 Slice of Wholegrain Toast
1 Tablespoon of Peanut Butter
1 Cup of Tea/Coffee
|½ Cup of Tuna (or similar lean protein)|
1 Piece of Wholegrain Toast
1 Cup of Coffee/Tea (No decaf!)
|3oz of meat (any meat is fine)
1 Cup of Green Beans
1 Small Apple
1 Cup Vanilla Ice Cream
1 Slice of Wholegrain Toast
|1 Cup of Cottage Cheese|
1 Egg (hardboiled)
5 Saltine Crackers
|2 Hotdogs without buns
1 Cup of Broccoli
½ Cup of Carrot
½ Cup of Vanilla Ice Cream
|3||1 Slice of Cheddar Cheese|
5 Saltine Crackers
1 Small Apple
|1 Egg Cooked to Your Liking|
One Slice of Wholegrain Toast
|1 Cup Tuna
1 Cup of Vanilla Ice Cream
Essentially you’re getting less than 1,300 calories per day for 3 days. You get a mix of protein, carbs, and some fats. But it is this low level of calories that essentially drives the results of this diet.
A Quick Look at the Claims of the Diet
Let’s start by breaking down the claims of why this diet is so effective. Then we’ll compare them to what is actually occurring that causes people to lose weight.
The Magic Mix of Foods
One of the primary claims of the diet is that there is a synergy between the foods you’re supposed to eat that helps speed the fat burning process. Sounds logical enough, right? Eat hot dogs, ice cream, and bread and the pounds will just melt away.
Yup, hot dogs. Full of nutritious ingredients like…
While it might be helpful to not eliminate any particular macronutrient (proteins, carbs, or fats) in terms of minimizing cravings, this magic combination of foods isn’t going to help you lose unwanted fat any faster. In fact, other than the low tiny portion sizes, these foods aren’t any different than what you might get on an average trip to McDonalds.
Burger, fries, and shake = protein, carbs, and fats.
Isn’t math beautiful? Eat up, and watch your fat disappear. It obviously works. I mean, when was the last time you saw an overweight person at McDonalds?
But the reality is very different. Take a look at breakfast on day 1. It is the perfect recipe to spike both your insulin and cortisol levels. Why is this bad? Let’s take a closer look at what these two hormones do and then decide.
Insulin & Cortisol
Insulin is sometimes known as the energy “storage hormone”. It tells your body when to store fat in your fat cells, glycogen in your muscles, and sugar in your liver. So elevated levels of insulin equals elevated levels of energy storage. Insulin is triggered by carbohydrates. Typically the more simple the carb (think bread) the bigger the spike.
Because it is released by the brain during times of stress, it is known as the stress hormone. One of it’s functions is to stimulate the appetite.
Let’s look at it in terms of evolution. You’re being chased by a wild animal. This would, quite obviously, cause a spike in stress. During this stress your appetite disappears. It makes sense. You’re body doesn’t want you thinking about food when you’re about to become food.
But shortly thereafter and continuing for several hours cortisol levels are elevated. This is your body’s signal that it’s time to replenish the energy supplies you used up running for your life.
So here we have two hormones, one designed to tell you you’re hungry and one designed to shuttle all that energy to the proper place. Unfortunately, when these two hormones are elevated at the same time, it sends a very strong signal to your body to store as much fat as possible
So let’s look at the first day’s breakfast with all this in mind.
Your cortisol levels naturally spike first thing in the morning as you go from a sleeping state to an awake state. As a stressor coffee only enhances this. Meanwhile you’re supplying your body with a nice dose of sugars and carbohydrates (bread & grapefruit) to drive your insulin levels up. You are literally telling your body to go into fat storage mode, and then providing it with more fuel (peanut butter) to go full steam ahead.
Now this isn’t to say that a grapefruit and toast with peanut butter on it is a terrible breakfast. You could certainly do worse.
There’s just no way this is going to kick off some fat burning furnace inside your body.
You’re Not Just Dieting for 3 Days
One of the biggest selling points and why the military diet gets so much attention is because you’re supposedly only restricting your food intake for 3 days. In reality it requires a minimum of seven days and potentially even longer.
The first three days you’re forced to eat only the required foods in the amounts specified. Then days 4-7 are “off” days where you can eat what you like. But they recommend that you keep you total calorie intake under 1500.
This means that you’re still eating a very restrictive diet even on your off days. That’s great in terms of losing more weight, but requires a massive amount of willpower to succeed.
A more likely scenario is that on off days the vast majority would be less inclined to track calories or stick to foods that you’re supposed to eat while in the “diet” phase. This could quite quickly lead to weight gains that more than offset the losses of the first 3 days.
And what if you plan on continuing the military diet for a month? Lucky you. On day 8 you start the whole process over again.
So unless you have an iron will, can conquer regular pangs of hunger, and are willing to give up your social life for a month your odds of success are next to nil.
You’re Not Going to Lose 10 Pounds in 3 Days
Of all the claims made by those that preach the benefits of the military diet, this one is the most nefarious. The general idea behind dieting is looking more healthy. For most this translates to getting leaner. Unfortunately most diets make claims based on the amount of weight you will lose, not on the amount of fat.
Significantly cutting your calories for 3 days can cause weight loss, but the vast majority of it will NOT be fat.
Let’s do some quick math.
The average woman needs between 1700 and 2000 calories to maintain weight. Cutting your calories to 1200 gives you a deficit of at most 800 calories per day. Over the course of 3 days that gives you a 2400 calorie deficit.
One pound of body fat equates to roughly 3,500 calories. This means at most you would lose 3/4 lb of fat. The rest would be water weight and glycogen stores from your muscles.
To make matters worse, on your off days your body will use the increased calorie intake to restore most of this weight.
The end result is plan that requires a ton of willpower for minimal results.
It Won’t Speed Up Your Metabolism
Another big claim the Military Diet makes is that the specific foods and meal timing help to speed up your metabolism. The logic is that eating small meals spaced evenly throughout the day requires your body to spend time and energy on digestion. But research has shown this expenditure is the same whether you eat 3 meals per day or 1 big meal.
Essentially your body is digesting the same amount of food (calories) and therefore expends the same amount of energy doing this whether consumed all at once, or spaced over the course of the day.
And while there are foods that can make SMALL differences in your metabolism and, in certain instances fat oxidation, as in the case of capsaicin from red chile peppers, you won’t find any of them on the list of foods recommended.
So the positive effect of this diet on your metabolism would most likely be non-existent.
In fact, it could actually cause your metabolism to SLOW DOWN. A 25% reduction in calories has been shown to only net out to a 19% difference in overall energy expenditure.
Just so it’s clear, let me explain that in a bit more detail.
Basil Metabolic Rate (BMR) is the amount of calories your body will consume just to exist (find your BMR with this calculator). So if your BMR was 2200 calories and you sat your ass on the sofa all day, your body would burn 2200 calories. Cool huh?
Now, if you reduced your calorie intake by 25% (to 1650 calories) your body would adjust it’s energy usage to consume fewer calories. Even though you reduced your consumption by 550 calories, on average the actual difference would only be 418. This 132 calorie difference is actually 24% of your overall calorie reduction. This is one of the challenges in calorie restrictive dieting.
Said more simply; you’re body is going to fight this diet just like any other based on calorie restriction.
As such you’re likely gain back all of any weight lost very quickly and could even put on additional weight as your body attempts to correct a perceived deficiency.
Now why the hell would your brain do that to you?
A Quick Word on Your Brain’s Weight Set-Points
Our brains have built-in set points for what it thinks our weight should be. This isn’t a hard and fast number that stays with you from birth. Instead it’s a number that your brain and body perceive as normal. And it can literally take years to adapt your brain to a new number in either direction.
Here’s an example to illustrate my point.
Leading up to and during college a particular female might weigh 130 pounds. Regardless of how little or how much she eats or exercises her body tends to hover around that number. This requires no conscious control, the brain just manages hunger and calorie intake to keep the body around that number.
After graduation her eating and exercise habits change. She’s working longer hours, eating out more, and exercising less. Her weight then climbs to 145 pounds. After a long enough period of time, the brain assumes 145 pounds as the new set-point. And of course it does this without consulting her.
At some point she has a conscious realization that she is heavier than she used to be. Remembering those days in college when 130 was the normal, she sets that as her new goal weight.
By restricting her calorie intake (dieting) she’s able to achieve this goal over the course of 3 months. But guess what?
Her brain still thinks 145 pounds is normal. As a result it will consistently send hunger signals to her body until this perceived deficit is rectified.
Even worse, these hunger signals are strong enough to cause her to eat more calories than she needs to even maintain 145 pounds. As a result, it’s entirely likely she’ll gain even more weight on her way back up to her set-point weight.
The Military Diet Is NOT Similar to Intermittent Fasting
Fasting can be a legitimately healthy way to lose weight. It involves consuming nothing but water (or some coffee if you like) for an extended period of time. This can be anywhere from 14 to 72 hours.
The 3 day military diet, while it is lower in calories does NOT actually allow your body to go into a fasted state.
For many the idea of fasting for 3 days might sound ludicrous. But humans have been fasting by choice (and by necessity) for thousands of years. Our bodies are designed to handle going without food for extended periods of time. In fact, giving your body a break from digesting food allows it time to perform repairs that might otherwise get neglected.
But the only way to get the benefits of fasting requires you to consume nothing but water for 14-16 hours minimum. While this could certainly be incorporated, it is not stipulated anywhere in this particular diet.
It Was NOT Developed By Top Scientists in the Military
If any of the previous claims didn’t set off your BS alarm this one should. When you’re in the military and need to lose weight the prescription can be broken down into 2 simple steps.
Step 1: Eat less food.
Step 2: Run your ass into the ground.
There’s no mixing hot dogs with broccoli and half a banana with ice cream in some magical ratio that convinces your body to drop pounds. You’ll simply do so much physical exercise that you can’t help but lose weight.
Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the disciplinary environment of the military is beyond the capabilities of most casual dieters.
Perhaps it would be a more accurate claim to say that you’ll need the structure of a boot camp environment to maintain continued success with this diet.
Never mind that the various branches of the military are not known for their fresh and healthy food. It’s about quantity, not quality.
Now that we’ve debunked a few of the claims made by proponents of this weight loss plan, let’s take at the results people have achieved.
Results You Can Expect from the Military Diet
Should you decide to give it a go with this diet, you will almost undoubtedly lose weight. The problem arises in that you’re not going to see any dramatic changes in your appearance. And the weight will most likely return within a couple weeks (oftentimes even faster).
Dropping Water Weight
Even though this wouldn’t be considered a low-carb diet, you’ll most likely be getting significantly fewer carbohydrates than your body is used to. As a result your body is going to release a significant amount of water weight.
This is a result of your body transitioning from using glucose in the foods you’re eating to using glycogen stored in your muscles and liver. For every gram of glycogen your body holds it also holds 4 grams of water. As these glycogen stores get used up, the water bound up with it is released.
This is the primary reason people can see such significant weight loss in such a short amount of time on this plan.
The Yo-Yo Effect
Unfortunately as soon as the three days are up, most people go right back to eating a higher carbohydrate diet. One of the first things your body will do is restore it’s depleted glycogen reserves. As it does, 3-4 grams of water are going to return for every gram of glycogen.
All of the weight you lost will reappear like magic.
That’s not to say that you won’t have lost SOME fat during that time. But the psychological hit you take from your weight jumping back up generally overshadows any excitement you might feel from losing 1/4 pound of fat.
Is the Military Diet Safe?
Used over the course of 3 days this particular plan certainly doesn’t qualify as a healthy way to lose weight, but it isn’t necessarily unsafe. The foods your told to eat do contain some vitamins, proteins, and fiber. It also encourages drinking lots of water. The human body can certainly survive on less.
But taking it to the extremes could potentially be unhealthy. Some proponents recommend trying it off and on for a month or longer to drop 30 pounds.
At that point you will be depriving your body of nutrients it needs to operate effectively. Besides as I previously mentioned. That 30 pounds of promised weight loss will be significantly less once your body begins taking on water again.
While it still wouldn’t be the most effective way to achieve long term weight loss some slight modifications could make it considerably more healthy and perhaps even bearable from a psychological perspective.
Food Substitutions On the Diet
Let’s take a look at some calorie equivalent foods substitutions we could make to make this plan more nutritious, more filling, and possibly even more effective.
Day One 1400 Calories
The first thing you’ll notice when looking at breakfast on the first day is that it’s going to offer very little in the way of satiety. The toast and grapefruit will cause a blood sugar increase which will then be followed by a crash. This will cause an increase in hunger.
This is the last thing you want when you’re trying to stick to a low calorie diet.
Here’s an alternative:
Breakfast: 1/2 cup oats, 1/2 banana mashed, and 2 tablespoons of almond (or any nut) butter, and 1/2 tsp cinnamon. (410 calories)
While oats and the banana will cause an increases blood sugar, oats also contain a great deal of fiber. This slows digestion and keeps you feeling full longer. The almond butter is a healthier alternative to peanut butter. This could easily be replaced with a greek yogurt to get more protein.
Lunch on day 1 is just awful looking. 1/2 cup of plain tuna would be plain awful. Here’s a minor change that would be much more palatable.
Lunch: 1/2 cup tuna fish, 1 cup spinach, 1 tsp olive oil, 1 tsp balsamic vinegar.
Basically a spinach salad with balsamic and olive oil and tuna on top. Anything to help wash down that dry canned tuna.
For dinner just specifying a leaner meat allows you to get more protein and vegetables.
Dinner: 5.5 oz lean meat (chicken breast), 1 cup cauliflower, 1 cup green beans, 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 cup sweet potatoes
Even someone with a hearty appetite would be full after a dinner like that. It’s full of protein and fiber. It’s slow digesting and will keep you satisfied until the morning.
You could do something very similar on days 2 and 3 but dropping the calorie count by 100 each day.
Even with these substitutions I wouldn’t recommend this as a reliable way to lose weight and keep it off, but at least it would be better than eating hot dogs and ice cream.
You can find a more complete list of food substitutions in this Google Document.
Before and After
I’ve looked at quite a few before and after shots of those that have tried this particular weight loss plan. For the most part there is no discernible difference in appearance.
As I discussed earlier you’re basically losing water weight so unless you’re lean to begin with, it will be hard to tell a difference.
That’s not to say that perhaps your clothes won’t fit a little more loosely. After all, losing several pounds of water will cause your body to shrink. But all of this weight will come back the moment you start eating normally again.
Long Term Success on the 3 Day Military Diet
Truly making a difference in the way you look and feel requires a much more serious commitment. And unfortunately this requires discipline. This might include weighing your foods so you know within a reasonable margin of error how many calories you’re consuming each day.
Losing Weight Boils Down to Eating Fewer Calories Than Your Body Burns
The vast majority of us significantly underestimate our daily calorie intake. Writing everything you eat down in a journal is a great way to keep yourself from cheating.
Setting Realistic Goals
It doesn’t matter how heavy you are, it IS possible to get to a place where you’re happy with the way you look. But a “miracle diet” like the 3 Day Military Diet is NOT the route to success.
As much as anything, losing weight is about retraining your brain and your body’s relationship with food. It’s understanding and reinforcing that you don’t have to eat any more than you need each day. There are even some “alternative” techniques you can use to help.
One of the best things you can do to start losing weight is to avoid the inside aisles at the grocery store. Stick to the fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, and fish.
An easy rule of thumb is to avoid anything that comes in a box.
These foods are highly processed and perfectly formulated to make you crave them. On top of that, they contain ingredients that barely qualify as food and are quickly stored by your body as fat.
Eating whole, unprocessed foods will provide you with better nutrition, and keep you full longer.
Explore options like the Paleo Diet. There is a TON of information online about eating Paleo. It’s less about eating like a caveman and more about avoiding certain highly processed foods like grains, legumes, and mass produced dairy. It’s also lower-carb than the standard American diet and typically leads to lower body fat.
Along with getting leaner there dozens of healthy benefits from eliminating these types of foods. Many people report a reduction in acne and acne related scarring, improved mood, elimination of pre-diabetes and even Type II diabetes,
Fasting has seen a resurgence of popularity in recent years. And while it can sound crazy to intentionally not eat for 16 or more hours, you’re body will handle it just fine. In fact many people who start including regular fasts into their lives lose a significant amount of body fat.
The reason behind this is simple. As your body sees that no more food is coming in, it transitions to using it’s existing energy storage for energy. The most readily available and efficient energy is body fat.
You still have to maintain a calorie deficit to lose weight, but eating your meals in a smaller window of time can help fight cravings because you’ll be full. You can read about my intermittent fasting journey here.
While not as easy to maintain as the Paleo diet, ketogenic diets have also become popular in recent years. Ketosis is the state where your body uses ketones for energy rather than glucose.
A simplified explanation is that your body turns fat into ketones. It requires eating a diet that is very high in fat. Typically 85% of your calories would come from fat, 10% from protein, and 5% or less from carbohydrates.
While it is a very effective way to lose weight, it is difficult for many people to maintain because it is SO low carb. If you’re interested in learning more about it you can check out this excellent resource.
Have any questions or comments about my review of the military diet? Please post in the comments section below.
Coffee promotes cortisol production and weight gain – Natural News
How Stress Makes Us Fat: Cortisol, Diabetes, and Obesity – Shawn Talbott