The 80/20 Rule Will Make It So Much Easier To Stick To Your Healthy Eating Plan

When you’re on a weight loss journey, you may think you need to overhaul your entire routine and start restricting foods ASAP. However, it’s totally possible to lose weight while eating delicious meals and focusing on moderation instead of elimination. The secret? The 80/20 rule.

The 80/20 rule, sometimes referred to as the 80/20 diet, involves eating healthy, whole foods 80 percent of the time and "indulging" 20 percent of the time. (Worth noting: The "80/20" ratio has also been used to call out that weight loss is 80 percent eating well and 20 percent exercising, but this article will mainly focus on how the 80/20 rule works as an eating routine.)

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If you're interested in trying the 80/20 rule, here's everything you need to know about the diet and if it's right for you, including the pros, cons, a suggested food list, and practical tips for following the plan, according to weight loss experts.

The 80/20 rule typically refers to eating nutritious foods 80 percent of the time, then eating more freely the other 20 percent of the time. Unlike a restrictive diet plan, the 80/20 rule focuses on moderation—you're able to enjoy foods you love, but are encouraged to have a higher ratio of healthy, whole foods and treats in moderation. This approach can be helpful whether you want to eat a more balanced diet or if you want to lose weight.

The critical part of the plan is determining what foods fall into each category, says Matthew Weiner, MD, a bariatric surgeon at Pound of Cure Weight Loss. It’s important to measure how much of your diet includes fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and beans, along with not-so-healthy options, like foods full of refined sugar, refined grains, cheese, and other high-fat animal proteins, he says. The exact foods you eat on the 80/20 diet are entirely up to you, and your specific meal plan will likely depend on individual calorie needs, weight loss goals, and how certain foods make you feel.

According to experts, anyone following the 80/20 diet should aim to consume the following foods 80 percent of the time:

  • Whole or plant-based foods: fruits and veggies

  • Lean protein: chicken, fish, tofu, turkey, and tempeh

  • Seafood rich in omega-3s: salmon, herring, and trout

  • Whole grains: oatmeal, quinoa, barley, and wild rice

  • Low-fat dairy: plain Greek yogurt and cottage cheese

  • Monounsaturated fats: nuts, seeds, and olive oil

In some cases, you may want to move some of the “healthy” foods above into the 20 percent category (like animal protein, grains, and dairy), Dr. Weiner says. This is because certain foods can be part of a healthy diet for many people, but others may feel better (or have more weight loss success) when those foods are considered an “indulgence.” That said, it’s always best to talk with your doctor or a nutritionist before trying a new diet.

These foods typically make up the other 20 percent of this diet, experts say:

  • Foods high in saturated fat: fried chicken, cheese, and bacon

  • Processed foods: ice cream, pizza, and breakfast cereal

  • White sugar and refined carbs: bagels, pastries, and pasta

  • Alcohol and sugary beverages

One of the biggest advantages of the 80/20 diet is that it doesn’t require calorie counting and is less restrictive than other elimination-based diet plans, focusing on moderation instead. You may prefer to track calories to make sure you’re nailing the 80/20 ratio, but it’s not an essential part of the diet. “80/20 doesn't require you to limit the total amount of food you eat, so you can eat whenever you get hungry and not feel like you're starving yourself,” says Dr. Weiner.


Plus, the 80/20 diet can promote long-term, sustainable lifestyle changes, says Amy Elizabeth Rothberg, MD, director of the weight management clinic at Michigan Medicine. “It could be ideal for people who are so busy with work, community, kids, and activities that they don’t have time for a more aggressive strategy, [but who still want to move toward] a more wholesome, balanced diet.”

Before trying this diet, it may be helpful to use a food journal and take stock of the types of foods you're currently consuming. If weight loss is your goal and calorie counting doesn’t bother you, it may also help to do a bit of math to see exactly how much you're eating, says Dr. Rothberg. Ahead, here are two common approaches to the 80/20 rule:

“Take stock of your daily and weekly intake by logging calories for a couple of days—both during the typical work or school week and also on the weekend,” she says. This includes your consumption of alcohol and high-calorie foods. This can give you a “baseline” of how much you consume regularly and help you identify if you eat more or less on some days compared to others, Dr. Rothberg says.

From there, you can decide how to frame your 80/20 percentage split. You can either calculate how many specific calories make up 80 percent of your daily or weekly intake, or count how many meals and snacks comprise 80 percent of what you eat in total. Then, everything else you eat can fall into the remaining 20 percent.

You can also apply the 80/20 rule to each day, like eating three healthy meals and one treat. Or if you prefer to think about eating 80/20 on a weekly basis, you can practice what's sometimes known as the "weekend diet," where you eat healthy for five days and then relaxing your diet restrictions for two, Dr. Rothberg says.

Fill the majority of your meals and snacks with healthy, nutrient-dense foods from the compliant list above. Then, your 20 percent “indulgence” can involve a bag of chips in the afternoon, a glass of wine (or low-calorie alcoholic drink) with dinner, or a few squares of dark chocolate for dessert.

Stick to your healthy food and/or calorie goals for five days in a row (for example, on weekdays). You don’t have to be overly strict—that might leave you tempted to swing too far the other way when the weekend arrives—but try to make healthy choices as close to 100 percent of the time as possible from Monday through Friday. When the weekend comes, you can relax your calorie goals. But remember, even on the “indulgence” days, you still want to have mostly well-balanced meals—especially if weight loss is your long-term objective.

women's health 80 20 meal plan guide pdf

For sure, because it allows you to eat healthy, whole foods 80 percent of the time. However, since the diet is mostly self-directed and can be subjective, some experts say it can be tough to know if you’re actually achieving an 80/20 balance. “A disadvantage of any moderation-based approach is we tend to overestimate our healthy decisions and underestimate the unhealthy ones,” says Dr. Weiner. “Without a detailed tracking system, what you consider as an 80/20 diet may actually be a 60/40 one.” This is where a food journal comes in handy!

One last thing: Labeling foods as “good” or “bad” can be harmful for anyone with a history of disordered eating or a sensitivity to the pressures of diet culture. So, know that foods are not inherently “good” or “bad”—instead, the 80/20 diet is about finding a sustainable eating plan (think: veggies, fruits, lean protein, and complex carbs) that provides your body with fuel and nutrients that help you feel good 24/7.

Meet the Experts: Matthew Weiner, MD, is a bariatric surgeon at Pound of Cure Weight Loss. Amy Elizabeth Rothberg, MD, is director of the weight management clinic at Michigan Medicine.

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