If you’ve ever followed a strict diet, you know it’s not enjoyable or sustainable. But being too flexible with your diet can make you feel sluggish or lead to unwanted weight gain.
One way to stay consistent with healthy eating without being overly strict is to follow the 80/20 rule diet.
What is the 80/20 diet? The 80/20 diet means that 80% of your meals should include nutritious foods like lean proteins, healthy fats, whole grains, and vegetables, while the other 20% can include less healthy options like takeout meals or a brownie for dessert. It’s a reasonable dieting approach that doesn’t restrict any major food groups.
The 80/20 diet is a reasonable way of eating for most people. Still, knowing what foods to prioritize and how this approach can affect your body composition is essential. Following this diet properly will ensure you maintain a healthy relationship with food and don’t unintentionally overeat.
In this article, I’ll discuss:
- What the 80/20 diet is
- What foods to eat on the 80/20 diet
- The benefits and drawbacks of the 80/20 diet
- Tips for following the 80/20 diet
- Mistakes to avoid when following the 80/20 diet
- Who should and should not follow the 80/20 diet
If you’re trying to improve your diet, you may also be interested in starting a workout program. Check out Fitbod for a customizable training routine based on your goals, experience level, available equipment, and schedule. When you download the Fitbod app, you get 3 complimentary workouts.
What Is the 80/20 Rule Diet?
The 80/20 diet is a way of eating in which 80% of your weekly meals include foods like lean proteins and healthy fats and carbs, while the other 20% can include foods like a small bowl of ice cream for dessert or a cheeseburger at a sporting event.
If you eat 5 meals a day, that equals 35 meals a week. This means you should consume nutritious foods at 28 meals and allow yourself to eat less nutritious foods for the other 7 meals.
You can also calculate it so that 80% of your weekly calories come from nutritious foods, while the other 20% comes from less healthy options.
Let’s say you eat 2,000 calories a day (14,000 per week). Following an 80/20 approach would mean that 1,600 calories per day (11,200 per week) should come from more nutritious foods. The other 400 calories per day (2,800 per week) can come from less nutritious foods.
What Foods Should You Eat on the 80/20 Diet?
On the 80/20 diet, no foods are off-limits. But it’s still best to prioritize certain food groups over others.
Most of your meals should include foods like the following:
- Poultry (chicken, turkey)
- Lean ground beef
- Lean cuts of steak
- Fish and seafood (shrimp, salmon, tilapia, tuna, cod)
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy (Greek yogurt, skim milk)
- Plant-based proteins (tofu, chickpeas, lentils)
- Eggs and egg whites
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains (oats, brown rice, whole-grain bread and pasta, quinoa)
- Healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds)
The remaining 20% of your meals can include foods such as:
- Ice cream and other dessert items
- A few pieces of candy
- 1-2 slices of pizza
- Deep-fried food like chicken fingers or French fries
- A glass of wine or a pint of beer
Related Article: Top 13 High Thermic Effect Foods To Boost Your Metabolism
Benefits of the 80/20 Diet
1. It Gives You Flexibility
The 80/20 diet allows you to occasionally consume treats you enjoy while prioritizing fresh, whole food sources most of the time.
Food is a big element of celebrations, family gatherings, and holidays. Following the 80/20 diet, you can enjoy a date night with your partner or a holiday meal without guilt as long as most of your other meals throughout the week include a healthy balance of protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and high-quality fats.
Related Article: Does IIFYM Work for Weight Loss: Step-By-Step Guide
2. No Foods Are Off Limits
With the 80/20 diet, you don’t have to eliminate entire food groups or give up your favorite meals. You just have to fill most of your meals with healthy options and reduce how often you eat fatty, sugary, or sodium-rich foods.
This can help you keep food cravings to a minimum. It also prevents you from feeling like you have to create healthier versions of food like cake or pizza, which often don’t taste as good as the real thing.
Furthermore, this approach ensures you get the vitamins and minerals your body needs without making you feel deprived.
3. It Can Help You Overcome Negative Emotions Toward Food
Because you don’t have to eliminate any foods, the 80/20 diet can help you improve your relationship with food.
By allowing yourself the grace to eat dessert a couple of times a week or enjoy a glass of wine on a Saturday night, you stop thinking of eating certain foods as “cheating” on your diet. You remove the negative connotations to foods that should otherwise make you happy, and you won’t feel like a failure for eating a less nutritious meal on occasion.
4. It’s an Easy Diet Approach for Beginners or Those Who Don’t Work Out
For someone who’s never counted calories or tracked macros (eating a specific breakdown of protein, carbs, and fats), drastically overhauling their diet can be a huge undertaking. But the 80/20 diet allows them to build healthier habits without getting overwhelmed.
Similarly, following the 80/20 approach is easy for people who don’t work out and don’t need to follow specific nutrition guidelines to support their training.
5. It Can Help You Maintain Consistency During High-Stress Periods
Trying to be 100% complicit with your diet isn’t easy when going through stressful periods like a job change, a new baby, or a big move.
The 80/20 diet is beneficial in situations like these because it encourages you to continue eating healthy meals while allowing yourself to grab takeout or indulge in a comfort dish when you feel like you need it.
Drawbacks of the 80/20 Diet
1. You May Unintentinionally Eat Too Much
When following the 80/20 diet, keeping your overall calories in check is still important.
Going over your daily calories by 100 once a week won’t affect you much. But eating 500 or more calories over your daily allotment 3-4 days per week can cause unwanted weight gain.
2. It’s Not Suitable for All Goals
Because the 80/20 diet is less structured than other diets, it’s not ideal for everyone. For example, eating treats or comfort foods 20% of the time may still be too much for a competitive powerlifter who has to make weight for an upcoming meet.
Therefore, understanding your goals and evaluating how the 80/20 diet may affect them is important before implementing this eating method. While it’s a good approach if you’re not interested in losing weight or in the off-season from your sport, it may not be ideal if you have specific fat loss goals.
3. You May Use Food as a Coping Mechanism Too Often
The 80/20 diet can lead to an over-reliance on food for comfort if you use it to condone overeating every time you’re stressed.
If you frequently use food as a coping mechanism for stressful or emotional periods, you may want to consider other methods of dealing with stress. You can try journaling, meditation, taking a warm bath, or – if nothing else helps – speaking with a therapist instead.
4. It Can Be Time-Consuming and Expensive
As I’ll discuss in the following section, meal prep is still essential when following the 80/20 diet.
But buying meat and fresh produce can be pricey, depending on where you shop. You also have to cook all the food you buy, which can be difficult to fit into a busy schedule.
Tips for Following the 80/20 Diet
1. Keep Up With Your Meal Prep
As with any diet, being prepared can make it easier to follow the 80/20 rule. It helps to continue meal prepping at least once a week so you have healthy breakfasts, lunches, and dinners ready.
You don’t have to force yourself to eat your prepared food if you’re tired of it, but at least you have the option.
For example, let’s say Friday rolls around and you’re bored with your lunch of grilled chicken, brown rice, and green beans. There’s nothing wrong with getting takeout instead as long as it doesn’t turn into a downward spiral of poor eating for the rest of the weekend.
2. Come Up With Shortcuts for Your Meal Prep
If you don’t have time to meal prep multiple meals for every day of the week all at once, try coming up with creative shortcuts to reduce the amount of time you spend in the kitchen.
On Sunday, you can meal prep all of your meals through Wednesday. Then on Wednesday, you can meal prep your meals for the rest of the week. While it may be annoying to cook twice, you likely won’t spend as much time cooking because you’ll have less food to prepare.
When shopping, you can also look for items like vegetables in steamable bags or pre-cooked meats. All you have to do is pop them in the microwave for a few minutes to heat them up.
3. Use Coupons or Shop at Discount Food Stores
If food costs prevent you from trying the 80/20 diet, use coupons or shop at stores like Aldi or Lidl to save money.
Buying food in bulk from stores like Costco and freezing whatever you don’t use right away can also help you save money in the long run.
4. Continue Tracking Calories
As mentioned earlier, it’s easy to accidentally overeat when following the 80/20 diet. Counting your calories with a calorie-tracking app or food journal can help you enjoy your favorite foods without eating more calories than you need.
If you don’t want to track calories, watch your portion sizes. A good rule of thumb is that protein should be about the size of your palm, carbs should be about the size of a closed fist, and fats should be about the size of your thumb. This is an easy way to keep your portions reasonable without meticulously tracking your food.
What NOT To Do When Following the 80/20 Diet
There aren’t many hard and fast rules regarding the 80/20 diet, but the one thing you shouldn’t do is use it to justify frequent overindulgences.
The 80/20 diet isn’t an excuse to eat an entire pizza every Friday night or drink multiple cocktails at your office’s weekly happy hour. Moderation is still key in ensuring you don’t overdo it or negate the benefits of the healthier meals you eat during the week.
Does the 80/20 Diet Work for Weight Loss?
The 80/20 diet can be good for weight loss if you’re in an overall calorie deficit (eating fewer calories than you burn). You can lose weight if you’re able to fit some treats into your meal plan without going over your daily or weekly calorie goals.
If you’ve been following an 80/20 approach but aren’t losing weight, measure and log everything you eat to ensure your meals fit into the 80/20 ratio. When you write down everything you eat (including how much), you may realize that your meals are closer to 70/30 or even 60/40.
But let’s say your meals do fit into the 80/20 rule, and you’re still not making the progress you want. You may have to be more strict and implement a 90/10 or 95/5 approach instead. Once you reach your goals, you can be less stringent with your diet again and go back to the 80/20 rule.
Related Article: Burning More Calories Than You Eat: How To Do It Properly
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Who Should Follow the 80/20 Diet?
As discussed, the 80/20 diet is a good method for most people. But a few specific groups of people who would benefit from this approach are:
- People who need a break from strict dieting
- People who are new to dieting
- People who don’t have fat loss goals
- People who are going through stressful periods but want to maintain some consistency with their diet
- Athletes who are in the off-season
Who Should NOT Follow the 80/20 Diet?
Examples of people who should not follow the 80/20 diet include:
- Bodybuilders preparing for a show
- Athletes in weight class sports (like powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting) who may need bigger caloric deficits to make weight
- People who already have a healthy relationship with food but prefer more structure with their diets
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The 80/20 diet is a reasonable dieting approach that encourages you to eat mostly whole, unprocessed foods but doesn’t restrict you from eating treats occasionally. It allows you to get the nutrients your body needs without depriving yourself of your favorite foods.
The 80/20 diet can help you lose weight, but you have to ensure you’re in an overall caloric deficit if you have weight loss goals.
Continuing to meal prep and count calories when following the 80/20 diet can also help ensure you always have healthy options available so you don’t accidentally overeat and cause unwanted weight gain.
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.