Should You Do the 80/20 Diet?

We can see why this diet is so popular. Instead of following a ‘clean’ diet every day, you’re encouraged to eat healthy 80% of the time. But is the 80/20 rule too good to be true? And will eating less-healthy foods 20% of the time sabotage your weight loss/muscle building efforts completely?

Is it healthy?

It sure can be. Following an 80/20 diet can help you maintain a balanced mindset about eating, some experts say. “Being healthy doesn’t require eating ‘perfectly’ – whatever that might be,” says Rachael Hartley, RD, a dietitian at Avocado A Day Nutrition LLC and co-founder of the Joyful Eating, Nourished Life program. “If 80% of your diet consists of nutritious whole foods, there’s room for the other 20% to come from fun foods without compromising health,” Hartley says.

Knowing you can occasionally indulge in an ice cream sundae or to-die-for Italian pasta meal will make you more motivated to stick to healthy habits at other times, notes Chicago-area dietitian Christine Palumbo, RDN.

The negatives

“We are notoriously terrible at counting calories, estimating portions, and assessing how much we really eat,” says Samantha Heller, RDN, author of The Only Cleanse and a SiriusXM radio host. “So it makes sense that we wouldn’t be very good at estimating what 20% of our diet is.”

It’s also important to consider how to categorize the foods that fall into that 20% category. Labeling chips or brownies as ‘bad’ can ultimately make you feel guilty about your choices, and that’s the exact opposite of what 80/20 is supposed to accomplish for you. The word ‘cheat’ “implies that healthy eating is punitive,” she points out.

Ultimately, know that periodically indulging has a place in every sane diet plan. “While the 20% may not be contributing much nutritiously, these foods can be nourishing in other ways,” says Hartley.

How to apply it

For the 80%, fill your plate with fresh, whole foods like veggies, fruit, whole grains, nuts, dairy, lean meats, and fish. Your 20% can be any foods you like, though it’s best to pick the foods you truly love most!

You can consider 80/20 a general guideline rather than a rule. Hartley is a big proponent of intuitive eating –
listening to what your body is telling you, feeding it nutritious foods a majority of the time, and following your intuition while indulging. She says that eating like this tends to naturally shake out to 80/20 without really overthinking it.

If you’ve tried 80/20 and find you go overboard with ‘cheat’ days or meals and you’re not seeing the results you desire, Palumbo recommends aiming for 90/10 instead. “Often 80/20 leaves too much leeway for indulgences, whereas 90/10 is pretty strict but does allow for a few,” she says. You can look forward to two freebie meals per week, and this method reduces the risk of overeating. “You can easily consume hundreds of calories in a few minutes, which can negate all of your hard work,” she says.

So ask yourself is this the diet for you? I sure think so…

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