80 20 rules

When it comes to weight loss and nutrition, there is one four-letter-word that everyone thinks about but no one wants to hear:


Sticking to a diet is hard and picking one is even harder. Every year new diets come out promising easier, better, and faster results contributing to over complication and the confusion suffered by most dieters. There are so many diets, in fact, that the U.S. News publishes a list ranking the 29 most popular diets to help cut through the clutter. 

After you pick a diet, it’s time to overhaul your usual routine, plan and prepare your food, avoid all forbidden indulgences and stick with it long enough to see results. But many diets require restrictions that aren’t sustainable and the results won’t come or they won’t last. Sound fun?

That’s where the 80/20 rule diet comes in, which is more of an approach to healthy eating than a diet. Put simply, the rule is that 80% of the time you choose to eat healthy foods and 20% of the time you indulge in your favorite treats. What’s great about this approach is the flexibility and ease it promotes, making it much easier to stick to the plan, see results and develop healthier habits long term. It doesn’t require cutting out entire food groups, counting calories or ignoring cravings.

What It Looks Like

The main goal in this approach is to find the right balance. The flexibility in the 80/20 rule is the main benefit, but it can also be a downfall if you don’t apply it in a way that makes you happy and helps you reach your goals. Since you won’t be counting calories, macronutrients or following a prescribed diet, let’s take a look at how the “80% healthy” and “20% treat” breaks down on a typical day or week:

Breaking it down by meal:

3 meals per day: 21 meals per week. 80/20 = 17 Healthy & 3 Treat meals for the week.

5 small meals per day: 35 small meals per week. 80/20 = 28 Healthy & 7 Treat small meals for the week.

Breaking it down by calories:

1500 calories average per day: 1500 calories. 80/20 = 1200 Healthy & 300 Treat cals/day.

Since most people find it easier to eat healthy during the week, when our days are more structured, a popular way to incorporate this lifestyle is to use the 20% time on the weekend. Using the guideline above, if you normally eat 3 meals per day and wanted to have flexible weekends, your week might look like this:

Monday-Friday all meals consist of healthy choices (the 80%), and on Saturday you have a healthy breakfast, then enjoy a treat lunch with friends and a dinner date night out. On Sunday you have a treat brunch or tailgating lunch, while the other two meals are healthy choices.

Whether you choose to indulge on the weekends only or enjoy a small treat every day is up to you and your lifestyle, but just remember it’s what you do most of the time that is important: the 80%. Making healthy choices means eating a variety of fresh seasonal produce, lean proteins, unprocessed whole grains, healthy fats and limiting processed foods, sugar and junk.

Why It Works

You don’t have to be perfect: Yo-yo dieting happens when people go all out on a restrictive plan in the short term, only to relapse to old habits and “fail” to follow the plan. Since nothing is off limits and there is no expiration date (unlike most diets) there is no pressure for perfection, which means you don’t feel deprived or guilty. Eating 80% healthy for a year is better than lasting only 30 days following a diet 100%- the math works out to a happier and healthier you.

Promotes a lifestyle change: When you focus on making healthier food choices instead of focusing on what isn’t allowed on a diet, you end up improving nutrition habits over the long term. A healthier relationship with food is another side effect of this approach as you aren’t obsessing over what you can and can’t eat or if you cheated on the plan.

Tips For Best Results

No guilt or hard feelings allowed: Eating cake at a wedding or enjoying a piece of chocolate after dinner is part of being flexible and practicing moderation on the 80/20 rule. So, if you catch yourself feeling guilty or beating yourself up, stop and remind yourself that it’s ok to enjoy those treats because you make healthy choices most of the time and there are no “bad foods” in the 80/20 philosophy.

Focus on balance: Just because you are eating healthy 80% of the time doesn’t mean you should go crazy 20% of the time. You should watch the portion sizes of your treats and indulgences, and it is not an invitation to go all out on an unhealthy binge. Also, if you don’t have any cravings, don’t splurge. You will notice eating healthier foods will make you crave healthy foods; so if you don’t feel like a sugary dessert, don’t force it.

Be flexible within the framework: 80/20 is a guideline, not a scientifically proven method. Sometimes it may look like 90/10 and other times (vacation anyone?) it may look like 60/40. Remember to be flexible, focus on achieving balance, and adjust the guidelines as your lifestyle or weight loss goals require. 

(PS- This is a blog I wrote that was originally published on Livestrong.com)