With spring here and all the fun yard work and garden planning going on in my life right now, I was struggling to come up with a good idea to write about. Starting my zinnias, cosmos, bachelor buttons and nasturtium and scaring away chipmunks has overtaken my life. But then I saw a client whose goal was to lose some weight she had gained (just about 10 pounds over a few years) and I knew I had to do some investigating after she told me what she was doing. I was aware of the Military Diet after reading about it briefly in a review article on the latest fads, but I had never really encountered anyone who had tried it. Apparently, she had started this diet about 6 months ago and “it worked”….but….she has since gained the weight back and was starting it again. After making it clear that I was not going to help her “lose weight” but would help her try to figure out how to ease into a happier and healthier way to eat, she shared what she was doing. Apparently, she was restricting her calories pretty severely for a few days of the week only. She explained the diet called for following this restricted plan for part of the week and the rest of the week you could “eat whatever you wanted”.
When I pried a bit further into her diet eventually she admitted to an increased obsession with eating. She had started to binge eat on her “off” days and these were not “subjective” binges . A subjective binge is when a person may feel as if they had a binge when in reality, it was a normal amount of food, such as a large piece of cake for dessert, or 3 slices of pizza and dessert. They feel guilty and out of control after eating which is still very disturbing and upsetting for that person. But this young lady assured me it was a real binge (which can be referred to as an “objective” binge). She actually consumed an amount of food that anyone would consider much more than normal eating. On the days she was not following her diet she was consuming boxes of cookies and half gallons of ice cream. And she was not happy about this, yet, it was hard for her to make the connection to the trigger for this behavior, the diet itself. I explained in detail how our body responds to being deprived of carbohydrates and fat and how our brain then reacts to drive us to make up for the lack. Thank goodness it all made sense to her, and she did realize her entire life this binge behavior never occurred…..until she started the Military Diet.
We came up with some ideas she agreed to regarding what she needed to add to her meals to prevent these extreme cravings, and also how to fit in the foods she loved in amounts that she would feel ok with her, both physically and emotionally. But, I realized I needed more facts about this new craze of starving your body part of the week.
I found a recent scientific review that helped explain this approach and its repercussions, January 2017 Review Article on Intermittent Fasting. This type of dieting is referred to as Intermittent Energy Restriction (IER) as opposed to a typical diet referred to as Continuous Energy Restriction (CER). Much of the research on this type if energy restriction is done with mice, and there are very limited studies of the effect on humans. The bottom line from the review is that as far as weight loss, there is no difference between IER approaches and CER diets. The same failure over time happens. The review makes it pretty clear that we need many more studies that are longer term with larger sample sizes to be able to determine the negative physical, metabolic, and psychological effects of these types of diets on humans.
So, the Military Diet is no miracle diet (no diet is). And you should march in a different direction because:
- We don’t know the effects of intermittent fasting and starvation on our metabolism (which is what restricting calories this low is considered: starvation). In other words, it is possible that doing intermittent type of restricting may shift your body to burn less calories, lower your metabolism, and it might be permanent. So, if research over time discovers this to be true, a person who used to burn 2000 calories a day may only be able to consume 1500 calories after doing this diet over time. But, weight would stay the same despite eating less. We know that extreme dieting burns muscle mass and lowers metabolism, and weight regain is usually body fat, resulting in a lower overall metabolism. I have seen patients totally mess up their metabolisms for life with repetitive diets. This diet is different and we still just don’t know. The repercussions could be even worse.
- Dieting usually increases obsession with food and eating. Although everyone is different, my client who was never a binge eater, became one. According to the review article, this may not happen to everyone however we need more research with larger samples over a longer period of time. I can tell you from experience (decades of working with dieters) that nothing good comes of this type of starvation in the end. Inevitably, weight is regained and even worse, disordered eating behaviors result.
- There is no way to meet nutritional needs or to feel good on this type of diet. Even a few days of starvation wreaks havoc on our body systems. Bone loss, decrease in muscle mass, dehydration, strain on our kidneys from fluid loss and breakdown of muscle mass may affect those at risk. With such a low energy intake, performance at a job or in school certainly suffers as hunger interferes with thinking. Feeling crappy affects your daily life.
- This type of dieting promotes a truly unhealthy view of food and eating. To me, meal preparation, cooking, socializing with meals and entertaining is a part of the joy of life. Just yesterday, which happened to be a beautiful warm sunny spring day when we had a chance to do some yard work, our friends stopped in to drop off some kindling wood for our large fire pit. We ended up having our first cook-out of the season. I picked up some bratwurst (which I never had before and by the way, was really good), Swiss cheese burgers and an arugula spinach blue cheese and balsamic salad thrown together, chips on the side and a good red wine served in a glass pitcher, Italy style. I threw a colorful tablecloth on the picnic table and we had a roaring fire as the sun was setting. It was lovely. Imagine not being able to participate in the joy of a simple evening like this because you were on a restricted diet. Or, just as bad, imagine feeling like you better eat as much as you could because this was an “off” day and tomorrow (or the next day) you would not be allowed to have this food. This is just not a normal way of looking at food and it certainly can’t be enjoyable. It is a total tuning out of your natural body signals that are trying to communicate to you: “you need more”, or “you are full”.
- Every day that you try to follow a diet such as this translates into one less day of working on the solution to your eating habits. In the end, what we have learned through research is that most people fall back into old habits once they go off of their “diet” or meal plan. That is because eating is a very complex behavior for those who are struggling with weight issues. The reasons we gain weight or lose weight, or are not at our natural body weights are varied. Lifestyle changes, stress, age, genetics all affect our bodies in different ways. Some people eat more, some less with stress. Our metabolisms change with age and lifestyle changes. Our weights fluctuate. But following a diet is a temporary and not permanent solution. Instead, identifying non-hunger eating triggers (such as stress) and working on strategies to deal with stress evolves into a permanent solution. Figuring out how to incorporate healthy and fun movement promotes strength, endurance and joy into life. Learning about nutrition and healthy cooking and eating carries over into a healthier lifestyle. All of these are a movement into long-term health and a stable body weight that you don’t have to stress about on a daily basis.
The bottom line is the Military Diet is just that, another diet. It could work in the short term if the goal is temporary weight loss. Although I am adamantly against diets because of the repercussions I have seen throughout my professional life, I always like to share that I respect the decision of people who say they need the structure of a diet to help them at first. There are some individuals who actually can safely learn to eat healthier by first starting a “diet”. The problem is that you never know if you are at risk for becoming more obsessed with food and eating or more prone to binge eating or disordered eating when you start a diet. So if you are one of those people who feels immune to these disordered eating behaviors, then I suggest you just reflect on your past experiences so you can learn about yourself. Maybe you never dieted before, and you just need to be aware of the dangers. Or maybe you have, and you regained your weight, but you learned some good healthy recipes your family loves and you can keep making. Maybe your “diet” helped you learn a bit about nutrition or label reading. Just remember, anything you go “on” means eventually going “off”……and back to real life. Do you know how to deal with that? real life, real eating, reality.
The funny thing is that my client who told me about this diet said”it lets you have ice cream every day!” as if that made it better. Yes, the diet called for a half cup of ice cream with the low calorie dinner. But if that made it better for some reason, then why, I wondered, did she still feel compelled to eat a half gallon on her “off” day? In time, after much research, we may learn the answers, but in the meantime, I am going to bet we find out the same thing with IER that we know about CER…..it is not the long term answer.