Why the 80/20 Rule Is the Gold Standard of Dietary Balance
Atkins. Paleo. Vegan. Keto. Gluten-free. IIFYM. These days, there are more diets than there are food groups—and most of them do come with weight loss and healthy eating benefits. But how many of these would you want to maintain for your entire life? (Just think about how many years that is of counting macros, avoiding bacon, and steering clear of doughnuts.)
In the all-or-nothing health world where kale is king, HIIT is queen, and you’ve either drank the Kool-Aid or spit it out, developing lifelong habits seems like an afterthought. It’s all about going to the extreme to get better-body results ASAP.
But obviously, you’re not trying to lose the weight and gain it back. You’re not trying to get in shape, then get out of shape. You’re not trying to feel great, then go back to feeling shitty. So why do you subscribe to a harsh diet that you know is going to fail you eventually?
Enter: the 80/20 rule for healthy eating. It’s not so much a diet as it is a way of eating for life—one you can maintain happily until you’re 105.
What Is the 80/20 Rule for Eating?
The gist: you eat clean, whole foods for about 80 percent of your calories of the day, and you #treatyoself for about 20 percent of the calories for the day. (ICYMI it’s recommended by health pros like Jillian Michaelsand many dietitians as a way to teach moderation.) “The 80/20 rule can be a fantastic way to enjoy the foods you love and keep your weight in check,” says Sarah Berndt, RD for Complete Nutrition and owner of Fit Fresh Cuisine.
The Good & Bad of the 80/20 Rule
It’s something you can do forever. “It’s a more livable diet style, which allows you to enjoy a few special treats without feeling guilt,” says Sharon Palmer, R.D. and author of The Plant-Powered Life. When you feel guilty about eating something that doesn’t fit into the “healthy” category, it can lead to binging and disordered attitudes about eating and body image. (After all, it helps you avoid the worst weight loss mistake there is.)
It’s not great for weight loss. If you are eating large portions of even healthful foods, like whole grains, fruits, nuts, healthy fats, lean proteins, you can exceed your body’s energy needs (read: calories) and gain weight. Calories still count, even healthful sources of them. “The 80/20 rule is very loose guidance and could be applied to a diet lifestyle that’s already in balance when it comes to calorie needs,” says Palmer, meaning it may be best for weight maintenance rather than dropping lbs.
“It’s still important to practice moderation and portion control with the 80/20 rule,” says Berndt. “Your indulgences need to be a reasonable portion rather than a free-for-all to gorge.”
Just because that 20 percent is for “treats” doesn’t mean you can go ham with the Oreos or a bag of chips. “Try to consider this more as a general rule of thumb,” says Palmer, rather than specific numbers to meet every day.
For example, if you’re aiming for 2,000 calories a day (here’s how to figure out how many calories you need), then the rule indicates you’d have about 400 to “play” with. But just because there’s wiggle room for some indulgences (a glass of wine with dinner, a slice of a coworker’s birthday cake), doesn’t mean those are “throw-away calories” to be wasted on food with zero nutritional value—and you certainly don’t need to use all 20 percent. In fact, it’s probably best to shoot lower than 20 percent, since “people are really bad at estimating how much food they eat and consistently underestimate calories and portions,” say Palmer.
Keep in mind:
“Every meal is an opportunity to nourish your body,” says Palmer. “For many of us, every bite should count in order to reward us with fiber, protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (plant compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound).”
If you learn to love the 80 percent—to crave peanut butter instead of cake, and roasted Brussels sprouts instead of chips—then you won’t be dying for the 20 percent. Instead of thinking of it as a reward, think of it as some wiggle room to just live your life.