The 80/20 Rule—Eat Healthy and Have Your Cake, Too!
By April Schetler, MS, RD, FAND, Registered Dietitian and Director
Virtua Health and Wellness
Going "on" a diet usually means going "off" the diet when a craving hits for Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey. That’s because most people can’t follow a strict diet 100 percent of the time—and then they feel guilty when they indulge in dessert, chips or a cocktail.
But following the 80/20 rule is a healthy, less-restrictive eating option that doesn't feel like a diet. Eating 80/20 is more "real-life" and easier to follow than other diet plans because it allows you to enjoy your favorite foods in moderation while eating healthy at the same time.
What is the 80/20 rule for eating?
The 80/20 rule is a guide for your everyday diet—eat nutritious foods 80 percent of the time and have a serving of your favorite treat with the other 20 percent.
For the “80 percent” part of the plan, focus on drinking lots of water and eating nutritious foods that include:
- Whole grains
- Fruits and vegetables
- Lean protein, including plant-based proteins such as beans, soy and edamame
- Limited amounts of healthy fats from avocados or olive oil
For your treats, or the “20 percent” part, eat your favorite foods in moderation. For example, you might have a small piece of chocolate cake today and a drink a glass of red wine tomorrow—just not both at the same time. This way of eating is easier to maintain than stricter diets like ketogenic or paleo diets, which limit carbs and processed foods.
The best thing about the 80/20 rule is that you're never saying, "I can't eat that." Instead, you're saying, "I can eat this today and have that tomorrow."
What’s the best way to use 80/20 rule?
To succeed with the 80/20 rule, you have to follow it on a daily basis. That means 80 percent of your daily calories should come from healthy, unprocessed whole foods and 20 percent should come from treats. For someone targeting 1500 calories a day that means you’d use about 1200 calories for healthy, nutritious meals and 300 calories for your treat.
Some people try to apply the 80 percent rule to weekdays and the 20 percent rule to weekends, but this can lead to overeating since you've denied yourself treats all week.
Following the 80/20 rule daily means you have wiggle room to splurge every day. As a result, you never deny yourself the pleasure of eating a small portion of something you love.
Can you lose weight following the 80/20 rule?
Following the 80/20 rule could help you lose weight. But, how much weight you lose depends on how healthy or unhealthy your eating habits were before you started 80/20.
Portion control and moderation are the keys to success when eating 80/20. Therefore, it’s still possible to exceed your body's energy needs and gain weight even though you’re eating healthy foods. Calories always count, even if they're healthy ones.
In addition to weight loss, following the 80/20 rule can help you keep a balanced mindset about eating. It removes the guilt, emotion and stress associated with dieting and allows you to enjoy your favorite foods in moderation. In addition, it can be adjusted to work for people with diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic conditions.
How do I get started with the 80/20 rule?
If you need help getting started with the 80/20 rule, make an appointment with a Virtua registered dietitian. Your dietitian will review your normal diet with you and help you identify areas where you can make more nutritious food choices so you can achieve your fitness and nutrition goals. Most importantly, he or she will help you develop simple, healthy eating habits through small changes you can make over time.
Updated December 15, 2020