One powerful rule that will allow you to eat the foods you love while reaching your health and fitness goals.
I don’t like to give people rules when it comes to their nutrition. But there’s ONE nutrition rule about nutrition that everyone should follow…
Before we get into the rule, a quick intro! If you’re new here, my name is Andres Ayesta. I’ve been a registered dietitian for over a decade and I’m also the CEO of Planos Nutrition. Planos is an online nutrition and lifestyle coaching company that helps career-driven parents lose excess weight and build a healthy lifestyle.
Now, let’s get into this one powerful rule that can help anyone improve their health and lose weight, without ever feeling restricted or cutting out the foods they love: The 80/20 Rule.
The basic idea behind this rule is that you eat nutrient-dense, whole or minimally processed foods 80% of the time. Then, for the other 20% of the time, you have the flexibility to eat more “fun foods”.
Although I call this a “rule”, it’s really more of a guideline for your food choices. You don’t need to do any calculations to make sure you’re eating healthy exactly 80% of the time. This is just an estimate, and there are various ways to use this rule to make it easier to eat healthy.
The general idea behind the 80/20 rule is that trying to be “perfect” in your nutrition is unsustainable. When you give yourself 20% flexibility, it takes away the mindset of restriction.
When you include the foods you crave in your diet regularly, you rarely get to the point where you have strong cravings for them. When you eat something that is maybe a bit less nutritious you can tell yourself “That’s okay, it’s part of my 20%” and move on. No guilt, no overeating.
Eating around 80% healthy, nutrient-dense foods consistently, over a period of time, will be enough to see results for almost everyone. You just might not realize the impact it will have because you’ve spent so much time swinging from 100% healthy for a few weeks to maybe 10% healthy for another few weeks, and wondering why you can’t stick to a diet.
A balanced nutrition strategy includes at least 80% whole and minimally processed foods and up to 20% processed foods. We have 3 categories of processing we want to consider:
Here is an example of what a day of 80/20 eating based on food processing might look like:
Omelet with veggies and a side of oatmeal with chocolate chips and berries. Most of those foods are unprocessed, with the chocolate chips falling into the 20% category because they’re a processed option.
Chicken and veggie sandwich with air fried sweet potatoes. Most of the ingredients are minimally-processed, but you might add mayo or barbecue sauce on your sandwich, which are highly processed condiments.
Apple (unprocessed) and natural peanut butter (minimally processed)
Brown rice, baked salmon, Brussels sprouts, avocado, and a cookie for dessert.
This day is roughly 80% whole foods and 20% processed, but there is also some flexibility. I could have chosen to add something processed to my snack, like a handful of granola, and that also would have been completely fine.
Even though I wish I could give you an exact formula, the truth is there is a lot of experimentation with what works for you personally and whether you feel satisfied and energized after each meal and snack.
In comparison, below is a day of eating that is almost entirely processed foods. None of the foods in this sample day are “bad”, but it will be easier to keep making progress towards your goals if you keep them to around 20% of your nutrition.
Takeout breakfast — bagel with cream cheese and hash browns with ketchup.
Hamburger and french fries. You might add a slice of tomato and lettuce, but the majority of the meal is processed.
Bag of chips
Pizza, coke, and the same cookie for dessert from the 80/20 day.
Overall, this day is over 90% processed. However, the important thing to understand is that any of the foods in this processed day of meals could also be included in an 80/20 day. For example, dinner could be a slice of pizza with salad on the side and you could sub out the coke for sparkling water.
Or, maybe you have the hash browns at breakfast but you also have some eggs and fruit. When you do this, you get to eat all the foods you enjoy and crave, but you do it in a way where you not only reach your weight loss goals, but you also feel good. Because I can guarantee your body is going to feel a lot better and more energetic at the end of the 80/20 day versus the processed food free-for-all.
When you are making the choices described above with processed versus unprocessed foods, it can be helpful to look at the 3 macronutrients, which are protein, carbs, and fat. You can use the 80/20 rule for each macronutrient.
When you’re planning your meals for the week and making your grocery list, ask yourself: is there roughly an 80/20 balance for the sources of each macronutrient I’m putting in my cart? This can be a really helpful question to guide your choices.
Aim to cook at least 80% of your meals at home, and then you have the flexibility to have 20% of your meals out. Although there are some exceptions and there’s a lot of variety in restaurant options, restaurant meals usually have higher calorie, salt, and saturated fat content, because they care more about you enjoying your meal and you coming back than they do about your health.
On the other hand, when you cook from home, you control what you are putting into the meal (oil, salt, sugar) and it’s also easier to manage portion sizes.
I know I said we weren’t going to do any math to figure out 80/20, but for this one I will because it makes it simple to understand. Say that in a week you eat 3 meals a day for 7 days, giving you a total of 21 meals. 80% of that is about 17 meals. So, you could eat 17 home-cooked meals each week and have some flexibility to eat up to 4 meals from restaurants, while still adhering to the 80/20 rule.
If you are really focusing on fat loss right now, you may want to bring this to 90/10 for restaurant meals (2 meals out per week), or stick to 80/20, but make more intentional choices about choosing healthier restaurants and menu items.
But the biggest takeaway is you can go out for pizza or enjoy restaurant meals occasionally, while still reaching your nutrition goals. I order pizza almost every Friday, and because I don’t let it spiral into a full weekend of overeating, it helps me stay on track with my nutrition. Remember, your results are determined by what you do MOST of the time. No single meal will make you gain or lose weight, and results are determined by consistency over a period of time.
The 80/20 rule is one of the most powerful concepts in nutrition. But I understand it can be hard to make those decisions, and there is no “perfect” 80/20 meal plan I can give you. The most important thing to remember is that it is okay to be imperfect with your nutrition. You don’t have to eat only whole, unprocessed, home-cooked foods to see results. And when you do have something that isn’t the healthiest choice, and that diet voice starts popping up and saying “you screwed up your diet, you might as well start over tomorrow”, you can use the 80/20 rule to shut it down, and remind yourself that you have 20% of your diet for flexibility.
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