The 3-Day Military Diet: Does It Actually Work?

Our health experts reveal whether the three-day military diet actually works, and how it can affect your health.

Most diet plans will tout major results, from rapid weight loss to serious fat burn. With food or calorie restrictions, they promise to help you drop a size or boost your metabolism. Well, the 3-day military diet is no different. By offering a slimmed-down list of foods to keep your daily calorie count low, this eating plan focuses on helping you drop the number on the scale. But is it safe and does it actually work? We asked experts to answer all your questions.

What exactly is the military diet?

The main focus of the military diet is weight loss, serving up a smaller size by getting you to cut down on calories. It provides a list of foods for you to eat for three days, keeping your calorie count at about 1,400 the first day, 1,200 the second, and 1,100 the third. On the other four days of the week, you can eat whatever you want, but the plan suggests you still keep your daily calories to under 1,500. You cycle through these three days on and four days off for as many weeks as you need to reach your goal weight, according to the military diet’s official website.

“I would say the military diet is basically a calorie-deprivation diet. Like others, there can be weight loss in the short-term, because you’re not taking in enough calories to sustain yourself,” says Jennifer Bruning, RDN, a Chicago-based nutrition strategist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s three days of restrictions and four days of lesser restrictions, but still restrictions. So, for those seven days, the average healthy person might lose a couple of pounds, but the majority of it will be water weight.” (Instead of overhauling your eating, try these smaller diet changes that help you lose weight.)

What do you eat on the military diet?

The plan has a strict list of foods for the three days you follow it, featuring items like fruit, meat, cheese, and even ice cream, hot dogs, and saltines. On the other four days, you’re free to pick your own meals. Vegan or vegetarian? The site also offers a plan for those who avoid animal products, and you can also find substitution suggestions if you’re not a fan of what’s on the menu or you’re allergic to something listed. (Thinking of going vegan? Here are the health benefits of a vegan diet.)

While the people behind the military diet mention that the selected foods help rev up your metabolism and burn fat, Bruning says she’s skeptical. “The website claims it’s the combination of certain types of food that will catalyst weight loss or specifically fat loss, but there’s nothing in hot dogs and ice cream that will help you lose fat,” she says. “It all comes down to the total amount of calories you’re eating.”

So, does the diet work?

While following this type of diet for a few days probably won’t cause any negative side effects, it probably won’t serve you well in the long-term either. “The weight loss that occurs on this type of diet is likely to be very temporary,” says Nate Favini, MD, Los Angeles-based physician and chief medical officer of Forward. “As soon as you go back to your regular diet, you’ll gain the weight back again.”

You’ve probably heard of the idea of losing “water weight” before. In short, it means you might drop weight when you start a diet, but you quickly put the pounds back on when you eat more regularly. Bruning explains that during a state of calorie deprivation, your body turns to stored glycogen for energy. To use those glycogen stores, your body needs a lot of water—and because it’s using so much water, you experience an initial dip in weight. When you go back to your typical eating patterns and consume more calories in your day, you’ll see that weight come back because you don’t need as much water to maintain your energy levels. (Read about 15 surprising things that drain your energy.)

Is the military diet safe?

Both experts say there are likely no harmful effects of following the eating plan for a few days. But besides being difficult to maintain for weeks, the military diet has another setback: You’re not getting all the nutrients you need. “The idea is to repeat this diet every seven days until you reach your goal weight. One go-round won’t harm you, but if you go for weeks, you could end up with nutrient deficiencies,” says Bruning. She points out that the diet skimps on servings of fruits and vegetables, as well as calcium-containing foods (ice cream won’t cut it).

Are there any other concerns?

While you might see success in the first few days on the diet, don’t get discouraged if you’re not seeing the same weight-loss results stick around. “When you embark on a calorie-restrictive diet, if you’re able to follow it for three days, you think the diet is working. But then when you stop and no longer see that weight loss or you can’t sustain the calorie cuts, many people feel they have failed,” says Brunning. “But really, it’s the diet that has failed you. It’s just something that won’t work in the long-term, and that’s not your fault. Healthy eating over time is something that works for us, not severe calorie-restriction.”

In other words, don’t get down on yourself if weight-loss maintenance seems tough—that’s the problem with major calorie cutting. Check out these other reasons you’re not losing weight.

woman running during sunsetMarija Jovovic/Getty ImagesCan you exercise while following the military diet?

You can, but it’s possible you could feel weak or low energy because you’re not getting your typical pick-me-up from calories. Listen to your body and if you feel dizzy, take a break. Dr. Favini also says plenty of water and electrolytes are super important for low-cal days. (These are the workouts that burn the most calories.)

Does the military diet count as intermittent fasting?

The military diet website says because of the calorie restrictions, this eating plan counts as a form of intermittent fasting (or IF)—a type of eating that requires periods of fasting (or no food), whether that’s for a certain number of hours each day or a full day each week or month.

However, the difference between IF in general and the military diet more specifically lies in the food choices. You can still get in plenty of fruits, veggies, and various proteins and whole grains while following other forms of IF—many of which you won’t eat while following the military diet. So, while Dr. Favini says IF might work for some people looking to lose weight, that doesn’t mean the military diet is a good way to go.

Do experts recommend the military diet?

The short answer: No. Both Bruning and Dr. Favini say they’d stay away. “I think the foods recommended in this diet are poor choices for anyone, whether you’re trying to lose weight or not,” Dr. Favini says.

Bruning also points out that diabetics or those who need to eat regular meals when on medications, along with those who are immuno-compromised (like older individuals or those on chemotherapy) should definitely skip the plan.

“There are many better options for weight loss out there,” says Dr. Favini, who points to the Mediterranean diet, and DASH as better options. “Don’t waste your time on the military diet, get yourself on something that actually works to improve your weight and your health.” (For tips, check out this Mediterranean diet infographic cheat sheet.)

Is there anything else to note?

Bruning points out that although this is called the military diet, it doesn’t have a tie to the actual military. “If someone is thinking that they should do this because the people in the military do it and so it must work, they might want to know that there’s no reference or evidence to tie it to the military,” she says.

Next, find out what’s the perfect diet for your body type.

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Medically reviewed by Cynthia Sass, MPH, RDN, CSSD, on February 24, 2020