Another year, another trending weight loss diet promising super quick and fast results.
This time, it’s the military diet popping up on your Instagram feed, advertising as much as 4.5kg of weight loss in as little as a week. Current Google stats show search for the diet up 130%, and there are 54.7 thousand posts under the #militarydiet Instagram hashtag.
Before diving in and explaining what the military diet actually is, let’s get a few things straight: losing that much weight in a week is neither sensible nor safe. The NHS weight loss plan states that women who do choose to lose weight in a healthy way should aim for between 0.5kg to 1kg a week, sticking to a daily allowance of between 1,400 to 1,500 calories to do so.
It’s also worth flagging that nutrition isn’t the only pillar underpinning weight loss, which is why so often, fad and extremely low-calorie diets don’t reap the results you expect. A huge range of other factors, from sleep, to stress, to hormones, to medications, to genetics, to existing health conditions, affect how you lose weight, meaning there’s a whole plethora of variables at play.
During a season flooded with messaging about food plans, remember, there is a lot of health hearsay circulating on social media and it’s always best to talk to the qualified experts on health matters.
So, that’s exactly what WH has done, enlisting three nutrition pros to explain what the military diet is, when it began, who’s tried it, and, ultimately, share their opinions on whether it’s a diet that’s safe to try, should you want to lose weight.
Keep reading for the expert’s verdict.
What is the military diet?
Also known as the navy diet, army diet or ice cream diet, it’s a low-calorie diet plan designed to help you lose weight in a short space of time, similar to the 5:2, Very Fast 800 Diet and SlimFast plans before it. It’s USP? According to registered nutritionist Clarissa Lenherr, ‘if followed, it claims you can lose 4.5kg in one week, as the diet is based around a food plan set to calorific intake and what it claims are “chemically compatible foods” (aka, they work together to promote weight loss)’.
It works on a cycle basis: in other words, you reduce your calorie intake for three days of the week, then have four days off (although you’re still encouraged to consume low-calorie foods on these days). The meal plans for the lower calorie days range from 1,000 to 1,400 calories per day.
This means your body is forced into a calorie deficit. ‘Calorie deficits cause the body to generate energy from stored fat and although it’s a survival mechanism humans evolved, it can lead to nutrient deficiencies if continued for too long’, explains nutritional therapist Marilia Chamon (@gutfulnessnutrition).
Where did the military diet come from?
It’s unconfirmed as to where exactly the diet originated from. Rumour dictates that it includes ‘military’ in its title as nutritional experts designed and implemented it to help US military soldiers stay in shape.
But that might not be likely. Registered nutritionist Lauren Windas points out that a much higher number of calories would be required to enable a soldier to push through the hours of physical training they endure. ‘No affiliation between the diet and the military has been found. In fact, the military diet conflicts with a lot of the principles used in the military. A review published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society journal says that a lack of a balanced diet will lead to poor military performance’.
On the diet’s official website, they put the rumours to rest: ‘The military diet was not developed in some secret underground army base by a team of scientists. It is called the military diet because it takes discipline and stamina to achieve results, just like in the military.’
What does a day eating on the military diet look like?
As above, the main aim of the military diet is to eat around 1,000 calories for three days a week – which is significantly lower than the NHS recommended 2,000 a day for women. According to their website, your daily food intake may look something like the following:
Military diet breakfast
Military diet lunch
Military diet dinner
The above day in food totals 1,400 calories. Other foods that you’re encouraged to eat on the plan if you don’t like any of the above include eggs, cheddar cheese, crackers and hot dogs. As you can see, it is lacking in an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Three-day military diet cycle structure
Then you eat ‘normally’ (capping your daily intake at no more than 1,500 calories) on the other four remaining days of the week. Again, this is lower than NHS guidelines for women.
Can I try the military diet plan if I’m vegetarian or vegan?
Yes—the plan is clear that you can substitute anything out you don’t like or would prefer not to eat, as long as you stick to your daily calorie limit. There’s a substitutions list and guide for any vegetarians or vegans trying the plan on the website, which gives detailed examples of what your low-calorie days should (roughly) look like.
You’re encouraged to focus on the calories in the food you’re substituting, not portion size. Their website states: ‘Make sure whatever you substitute has the same amount of calories as what you’re eliminating. For instance, 110g of cottage cheese has 100 calories. Substitute 30g of cheddar cheese to get the same 100 calories. If you’re substituting almonds for tuna, you don’t use the same measurement for almonds as tuna. Almonds have way more calories for their size than tuna. One can of tuna is equal to about 20 almonds, just under 200 calories.’
Which expert or nutrition board this advice has come from is unclear on the website.
Are there any pros to trying the military diet?
This way of eating appears faddish and restrictive. WH asked the experts if there are any pros.
‘For some, it may be easy to follow, as you’re given set meal plans providing structure’, shares Lenherr. Windas agrees, adding ‘it’s relatively straight-forward to implement’.
However, it’s worth noting here that other, not quite as drastic weight loss plans, such as Weight Watchers, Slimming World and even the Joe Wicks weight loss plan, which offer far more extensive and nutrient-rich, meal plans and structures.
While some diet plans require 101 trips to Wholefoods, endless spending on chia and flax seeds, the military diet plan does not. It focuses more on the number of calories you’re consuming than what you’re eating. Windas shares: ‘The meals are affordable, require minimal preparation time and can be easily sourced, making it a meal plan that requires very little planning’. However, there are plenty of other more sustainable plans that make use of accessible foods.
There are vegetarian and vegan versions
Meaning, if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet for ethical reasons, there are versions of the plan available for you. However, as above, it’s worth pointing out that the website only offers three sample days of meal plan ideas, with no indication as to whether they’ve been created by a nutrition expert or dietician, so it’s far from extensive or qualified advice. And, like we said, plenty of other diet plans offer the same ability to switch ingredients out for an animal product-free way of eating.
What are the cons of trying the military diet?
There are several worrying red flags.
It encourages sticking to low (potentially dangerous) calorie counts
As Windas puts it, ‘the diet suggests following the meal plan as closely as possible and on the days off you can eat what you want, but the diet plan suggests sticking to low calorie. The idea is to stick to eating around 1,000 calories for three days a week, which is remarkably less than the recommended 2,000 daily calories for women’.
It oversimplifies nutrition
Its focus seems to be calories in vs calories out, without much regard for your body’s need for micronutrients, vitamins and minerals. ‘The main concern I have with this diet is that it promotes that all calories are created equal. By suggesting people stick to a certain calorie number and not focusing on nutrient content, you are missing out on many components of a well-balanced diet’, shares Lenherr.
It contains nutrient-poor foods
While life is all about striking a balance of nourishing foods and, say, Dairy Milk bars that aren’t super nutrient-rich but have their place, most of the suggestions on the military diet’s meal plans are nutrient-poor food choices, according to Lenherr. ‘Hot-dogs, ice cream and saltine crackers are all day-to-day suggestions. Several studies have found that hot dogs are a highly processed meat and diets high in processed meats have been linked to chronic disease, especially cardiovascular disease.’
Plus, on its website it claims to include ‘chemically compatible foods’, although no further evidence or explanation is provided.
As with most restrictive, fad diets, you’ll likely ping back to your start weight as soon as you eat normally again. ‘Even if you lose a few kgs at first, you may end up gaining it back as soon as you finish the diet, because the diet is restrictive and an unrealistic way of eating in the long-term’, shares Lenherr.
Windas agrees, and adds that such restriction can lead to mood issues and disordered eating on ‘normal’ eating days: ‘Because the military diet is so restrictive it’s likely to leave you feeling grumpy, hungry and tired, which means it is not sustainable in the long term’.
Plus, research on crash dieters indicate that you could end up spiralling into unhealthy overindulging and bingeing habits on your ‘off’ days. ‘Dieters tend to overindulge and binge to compensate for the deprivation over the previous three days (which again may hinder any weight loss efforts)’, she shares.
The weight loss is likely water weight
‘The majority of the quick weight loss at the beginning is likely down to water weight’, shares Lenherr, and Windas agrees: ‘Water weight drops rapidly as the body’s glycogen stores decline, which happens when you restrict carbohydrates and calories’. As soon as you start ramping up calories to a normal level again, most of this water weight will be regained.
It’s not been invented, verified or backed by qualified experts
At current, the military website is a WordPress site, with no indication whether or not the recommendations come from individuals with nutrition qualifications or certificates.
So, what is the healthiest way to lose weight?
As above, you shouldn’t aim to lose any more than 0.5 to 1kg per week or 3 to 4kg per month. ‘It’s advised to consume approximately 500 calories less than the maintenance daily calorie recommendations (that’s 2000 calories for women), which would work out as 1500 calories a day’, says Windas.
All three nutritionist pros agreed that eating a well-balanced diet instead of calorie counting is the best way to achieve long and consistent weight loss. Focus on lean protein, some good quality fats and a small amount of complex carbohydrates, then, for the rest, veggies and fruit.
Plus, Lenherr adds that being mindful or your alcohol and sugar can always help. ‘Reduction in sugar consumption and alcohol can often help if people were eating diets high in these foods before embarking on a weight loss regime.
Remember, as Windas puts it, ‘the more gradual this process is, the more sustainable weight loss will be in the long term’.
What works for you may not work for the next person, so figure out what works for you without going to extremes or putting your health at risk.
This article originally appeared on Women’s Health UK.
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