The 80/20 Diet Rule Explained (And Why You Should Try It)


There are as many opinions about diets out there as there are people who eat food. Despite what you may hear on your Instagram feed, there is no one-size-fits-all way to approach nutrition. Still, there are some guidelines that may help you cultivate a stronger relationship with nutrition and food choices.

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The 80/20 diet rule lets you place an emphasis on your fruits and veggies, but it doesn’t deem any food off-limits. Roughly 80 percent of the time, you’ll focus on incorporating fruits, veggies, whole grains, protein, and fats into your diet. The other 20 percent is for that slice of cake or cup of soda you’ve been yearning for.

Here, you’ll find everything you want to know about the 80/20 diet rule.

What the 80/20 Diet Rule Is

The 80/20 diet rule is simple: about 80 percent of your food will focus on eating foods rich in nutrients like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, proteins, and fats. The other 20 percent of the time, you’ll indulge in your favorite sweets or savory treats that might be on the more processed, sugary side.

This approach to nutrition isn’t a rule in the strictest sense of the word. It’s meant as a guideline to help keep your relationship with food in perspective. 

That ice cream cone isn’t bad — it’s part of a holistic approach to your overall nutrition plan.

When you’re using the 80/20 diet rule to guide your eating habits, no foods are off-limits. Instead, you’ll be prioritizing foods without all the processed sugar and additives for the vast majority of your time.

What the 80/20 Diet Rule Isn’t

The 80/20 diet rule is not a blanket condemnation of some foods, and it’s not a ban on eating certain foods. Really want a slice of that pecan pie? Have at it! The 80/20 diet rule won’t tell you to avoid the foods you want to eat. 

A shirtless person eats a slice of pizza while holding a dumbbell.
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Instead, it’s about stacking the deck in your favor 80 percent of the time. You’ll do this by focusing on fruits, veggies, whole grains, protein, and some fats from sources like olive oil and avocados.

The 80/20 diet rule is also not focused on weight loss. You can certainly use this method as a guideline for more holistic eating habits if you’re looking to lose weight. However, the goal of 80/20 is to help you keep your food intake in perspective rather than producing a particular caloric outcome.

However, you certainly can use the 80/20 diet rule to assist you in your weight loss goals if you have them. Research suggests that flexible approaches like this one are more likely to support long-term health practices, including sustainable body fat loss. 

How to Use the 80/20 Diet Rule

For many athletes, the 80/20 rule “resets” daily. So, it might guide you to have that slice of cake today for the day’s 20 percent. Then, look forward to downing that cinnamon bun tomorrow for the next day’s 20 percent.

You can also use 80/20 logic to portion your plate during meals. Try covering 50 percent of your plate with veggies and fruits before loading on additional goodies. Make sure a significant portion of the rest of your plate consists of whole grains and lean protein like chicken or tofu. Toss in a sprinkling of different kinds of fats or another small treat for your 20 percent.

While it might be tempting to apply the 80/20 rule to splitting your weekdays and weekends, this may lead you to overeat during the weekend, since you’ve been restricting all week. Research has shown that restricting your food intake can actually leave you more likely to binge eat. (1)(2)(3)

If you’re trying to lose weight, it might be helpful to use the 80/20 diet rule to think about your caloric intake. Since you need to be in a caloric deficit to lose body fat, you may opt to get more specific with your numbers. For example, if you’re aiming for 1900 calories per day, take 20 percent of that — 380 — and have 380 extra calories a day twice a week.

While many athletes have histories of disordered eating habits that might prohibit them from “counting” calories, you might use the above method if it feels safe for you.

Benefits of the 80/20 Diet Rule

The 80/20 diet rule may not be for everyone — competitive bodybuilders, for example, may want something more specifically catered to their needs. But that doesn’t mean its logic doesn’t have benefits for all strength athletes.

It’s Flexible

When you think of percentages, you may not immediately think of flexibility. But flexibility is the name of the 80/20 game. Avoiding black-and-white thinking about food is no small potatoes when it comes to sustainable nutrition habits.

Research shows that when people feel like they have autonomy over what they eat — as opposed to following a strict, prescribed diet — helps create sustainable, long-lasting behavioral changes. (4) Using 80/20 logic to guide this flexible approach can help people achieve long-term fitness goals — including weight loss — likely because of that increased autonomy. (4)

It’s Sustainable

As opposed to rigid thinking and rules about food, flexible approaches to nutrition have been shown time and again to create sustainable, long-lasting fitness and food habits. (5)(6)(7) Black-and-white thinking where some food is labeled good while others are labeled bad and off-limits can fuel rapid (and often dangerous) fluctuations in weight. (7)(5)(6)

Three people share pizza after a group fitness class.
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By taking an 80/20 approach to food, you’re not deeming any food to be automatically off-limits. This makes you a lot less likely to throw your whole nutritional plan out the window when you have an unplanned slice of cake. Rigidity and moralizing food can make you more likely to binge eat, which can have long-term health repercussions. (7)

Eating foods you enjoy rather than casting a blanket restriction on them sets you up for long-term success, even if weight loss is your goal. (5) Because it’s not banning any faves off your plate, the 80/20 diet rule might be a much more accessible and sustainable option.

It’s Customizable

You can easily modify the 80/20 diet rule to suit a variety of styles and needs. 

Maybe you like conceptualizing each plate of food you eat. In that case, you can use the 80/20 guidelines to craft your meals. On the other hand, you might prefer to take a day-to-day approach, whether you look at your meals and snacks for the entire day and apply the 80/20 lens. You can also combine both of these approaches.

A person sits on a bench and drinks during a workout.
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You may also be more inclined toward the counting calories camp. In that case, you can get a little more math-heavy and opt to split up your calories by percentage. Figure out how many calories you need per day, calculate 20 percent of that number, and twice a week add that 20 percent to your daily total. This will give you 20 percent more calories, 20 percent of the time.

Who Should Use the 80/20 Diet Rule

While the 80/20 diet rule is less of a rule and more of a guideline, you might want to avoid using it if numbers trigger a response to experiences with disordered eating habits. That said, if 80/20 feels like a path to a ballpark estimate rather than a hard and fast percentage for you, you might want to give it a try.

Here are some types of athletes that might particularly benefit from this approach to eating.

Beginners

If you’re new to the gym, it can be tough to figure out how to match your nutritional habits to your fitness goals. You want to be eating enough to fuel your body and spirit in a sustainable way. Committing to a new training regimen is mentally taxing, after all, so you’ll need to enjoy yourself along the way.

For many people, the 80/20 diet rule is a more sustainable way to approach their relationship with food than many other methods or guidelines. No food is labeled as off-limits, but moderation is encouraged when it comes to foods that aren’t your classic fruits, veggies, proteins, fats, or grains.

This can be a much more sustainable and less intimidating approach for newbies to the gym who might need to be welcomed by flexibility rather than cowed by rigid rules.

Recreational Gymgoers

Beginners aren’t the only ones who might welcome a break from the rigidity often encouraged in various facets of diet culture. Even if you’re not competing, your consistent gym routines and fitness goals might be very important to you. In that case, you’ll want to fuel your efforts as effectively as you can.

But if you’re looking to avoid restriction and the idea that you’re not “allowed” to have certain foods because of your training, the 80/20 rule might give you the wiggle room you need. That 80 percent will help you stay on task and fuel your workouts, while the other 20 percent will help you enjoy yourself such that everything feels that much more sustainable.

Powerlifters

All strength athletes require a lot of energy to fuel their intense training sessions. You can’t be running on empty if you’re going to pull truly heavy deadlifts, for example. So when you’re ready to squat, bench, and pull from the ground, you’ll need enough calories to help you out.

Although powerlifters aren’t physique athletes — they compete based on what they lift rather than on the quality of their hypertrophy game — high-quality fuel helps go a long way.

If you’re looking to give yourself a competitive edge on the powerlifting platform, eating in a health-conscious way will help. The 80/20 diet rule can help you do just that while not being overly prescriptive.

Weightlifters

Similar to powerlifters, weightlifters compete on what they lift rather than how their muscles look. However, the lean, muscular look of many weightlifters speaks to the need to maintain a consistent, high-powered training regimen. Nutrition plays a big role there.

If you’re a weightlifter looking to increase your focus on foods that will fuel high-level performance, the 80/20 diet rule can help. This way, you can commit most of your mental energy to your training while resting assured that the vast majority of your food is coming from sustainable, workout-fueling sources.

CrossFitters

If you’re a highly competitive CrossFitter, you may be likely to monitor what you eat very carefully. But from your average box all the way to the Games, WODs (workouts of the day) are intense. They require a lot of energy to push through. Enter the 80/20 diet rule.

CrossFit is a very mentally taxing sport. To settle down after a WOD, many non-competitive but dedicated CrossFitters go out socially with fellow gym members. For some, this may involve beer. For others, non-alcoholic options — pizza, anyone? — is the way to go. Either way, this would be where your 20 percent comes in to save the social day.

Have Your Cake (And Eat It, Too)

Using the 80/20 diet rule as a guideline for meeting your nutritional needs is a fabulous tool for introducing both discipline and flexibility into your diet. You don’t need to go for broke every time you pass the dessert table — but with an 80/20 approach, you likely won’t feel the need to. 

Since nothing is off-limits, you can have a little bit of anything you want. Just spread out that 20 percent amidst all that 80 percent goodness. You’ll be well on your way to a more sustainable and enjoyable relationship with food.

References

  1. Hill JO, Wyatt HR, Peters JC. Energy balance and obesity. Circulation. 2012 Jul 3;126(1):126-32.
  2. Helms ER, Prnjak K, Linardon J. Towards a Sustainable Nutrition Paradigm in Physique Sport: A Narrative Review. Sports (Basel). 2019 Jul 16;7(7):172.
  3. Akkermann K, Hiio K, Villa I, Harro J. Food restriction leads to binge eating dependent upon the effect of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor Val66Met polymorphism. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30;185(1-2):39-43.
  4. LaGreca M, Hutchinson D, Barry L. A Multi-Faceted Approach to Weight Loss: A Case Report. Integr Med (Encinitas). 2020 Feb;19(1):38-45.
  5. Ogden, J. (2011). The psychology of eating: From healthy to disordered behavior. John Wiley & Sons.
  6. Lowe MR. Dieting: proxy or cause of future weight gain? Obes Rev. 2015 Feb;16 Suppl 1:19-24.
  7. Palascha A, van Kleef E, van Trijp HC. How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain? J Health Psychol. 2015 May;20(5):638-48.

Featured Image: Vladislav Yakimenko / Shutterstock



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