If you’ve ever chatted with a nutritionist or read about healthy indulgence online, you’ve probably encountered something called the “80/20 lifestyle.” “The concept of 80/20 is to follow a healthy diet 80% of the time while allowing for indulgent foods 20% of the time,” explains Allison Knott, MS, a registered dietitian and founder of ANEWtrition. In other words, you eat whole, nutrient-dense foods 80% of the time, and the rest of the time, you can indulge in what you want.
While not all nutrition pros recommend this approach to every client, it is pretty common advice to try to adopt this eating style, especially when someone is pursuing weight loss. “I recommend the 80/20 concept to my clients because I think moderation and balance are essential to healthy eating,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, certified diabetes educator, a registered dietitian and author of “Belly Fat Diet For Dummies.”
This style helps avoid all-or-nothing thinking and prevents dieters from feeling they can’t eat their favorite foods ever — which can lead to overeating and even bingeing on those foods. “All foods can fit in moderation, and the concept of 80/20 helps to illustrate that balance,” Palinski-Wade adds.
THE TROUBLE WITH CHEAT DAYS
It’s important to note that 80/20 is different from having a cheat day or meal. “I personally do not believe in or encourage ‘cheat meals’ and ‘cheat days,’ says Brooke Zigler, a registered dietitian nutritionist. “I believe that no food should be off limits completely and every food can be worked into a person’s diet. With 80/20, people may look at food differently because they do not have to consider anything a ‘cheat’ since it can be incorporated into their diet.” In this way, 80/20 can be really freeing for those who struggle with black and white, healthy versus unhealthy thinking about food.
THE CHALLENGE OF 80/20
That being said, though the concept of 80/20 is pretty straightforward, it’s not always so easy to put into practice, especially when you’re new to it. Ahead, find the most common problems dieters encounter when implementing an 80/20 eating style, plus how to solve them.
There are plenty of different ways to implement 80/20. Most people choose to have individual meals or snacks they’d consider indulgent. For example, if you eat 5 small meals or snacks per day, then you eat 35 meals or snacks per week. The 20% would be 7 meals or snacks, meaning you can have 7 “indulgent” meals or snacks. Of course, the key here is to keep the portion sizes in check.
That can be tough for some, so it might be worth trying another approach. “I recommend visualizing filling 80% of your plate with nutritious, whole foods and reserving the remaining 20% for a small indulgence at each meal,” Palinski-Wade says. “This allows you to feel completely satisfied without overdoing it.”
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”HEX 0073bb” class=”” size=””]We typically enjoy and get more satisfaction from the first bite more than the last bite. [/perfectpullquote]
Some people feel that keeping indulgences in check via portion control isn’t “worth it,” so they’d rather just skip them altogether. For these eaters, Zigler points to a theory called the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility, which can apply to food. “This law states that as a person increases their consumption of a product, there is a decrease in the marginal utility they derive from each additional unit.” In plain English, it means that when eating, we typically enjoy and get more satisfaction from the first bite than the last bite. “This is because our taste buds adjust to the flavor of what we are eating, and we generally get less pleasure from each consecutive bite,” Zigler says.
“If you take the time to really enjoy and savor those few bites of a treat, then you may realize that you may find greater satisfaction than if you had eaten more,” Ziegler adds.
“It can be really hard for some people who are trying to lose weight to eat ‘off plan,’” Zigler says. “They might feel like that one meal or dessert will completely ruin their progress, and, as a result, they might just give up completely.”
That’s why it’s important to not consider any foods off-limits or forbidden — and that’s really the point of 80/20 eating, to help you learn to incorporate indulgent foods into your diet in a way that still helps you reach your goals. “It’s not to say you should have an entire bar of chocolate everyday. But if a couple of pieces of chocolate satisfy you and keep you from overeating when you are around it, then have those few bites of chocolate,” Zigler says. Like anything else, it takes practice.
Many people feel like once they start with a certain food, they just can’t stop. If this sounds like you, try being mindful when eating your 20% foods. “Enjoy your 20% by putting it on a plate, sitting down, eating it slowly and being present when you eat it,” Palinsky-Wade suggests. “Eliminate distractions and really pay attention to the food. When you do this, you feel much more satisfied with a much smaller portion.”
It also helps to plan out 20% foods ahead of time, so you know what you’ll be eating, when you’ll be eating it and how much you plan to eat.
One last issue with 80/20 is some people find themselves focusing on their 20% foods almost obsessively. If you feel like you’re focusing too much on those indulgent foods, try shifting your focus to finding regular meals you love.
“The number 1 goal is to eat foods you love,” Knott says. “This applies to all foods, not just 20% of the foods we eat. For instance, you may hate strawberry ice cream, but absolutely love chocolate ice cream. Would you force yourself to eat the strawberry ice cream just because it is ice cream and you think you ‘should’ be eating it? No! Don’t do that with nutrient-dense foods either. If you hate kale, don’t eat kale. We all know we should be eating vegetables, but you can choose a different kind of vegetable prepared in a way you actually do enjoy to make that a reality in your diet.”
When you find ways to make your 80% foods enjoyable, the 20% suddenly seems less important.