How To Apply The 80/20 Rule To Weight Loss, According To Doctors

Weight Loss

One of the biggest pitfalls of being on a restrictive diet is, well, the restriction. Your favourite foods — maybe even entire food groups — are off-limits. You may be excited that you’re losing weight, but you really miss ice cream and chocolate and french fries. Aren’t there any diets that don’t involve total deprivation and sacrifice of all your worldly pleasures?

Enter the 80/20 rule, which is basically “everything in moderation” in action: You eat healthy 80 percent of the time and indulge 20 percent of the time. Sounds great, right? Even better, it’s apparently a legit mindset to adapt to get in shape. In fact, Blake Lively recently credited the approach with helping her get in shape before film roles, with the help of her trainer, Don Saladino. (An important note: Some people use the phrase “80/20 rule” to mean that weight loss is 80 percent eating right and 20 percent exercising, but for this article, we’re only focusing on how an 80/20 rule shakes out as a diet plan.)

But following the 80/20 rule is not as simple as munching on salads 80 percent of the time and enormous hot fudge sundaes the other 20 percent. There are best practices for successful weight loss. If you play your cards right, though, this approach to eating could help you reach your goals.

Here’s everything you need to know about losing weight with the 80/20 rule.

What is the 80/20 rule for weight loss?

You can apply the 80/20 rule — which many people also call the 80/20 diet when talking about weight loss, though it isn’t actually a diet in the traditional sense — to many areas of your life that need a dose of moderation, because it’s just enough compliance and restriction to see changes but not so much that you can’t ever kick back and enjoy yourself. Not having to follow something 100 percent to the letter can help you stick with it long-term, an important element in losing weight and keeping it off.

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To apply this rule to your diet, you eat healthy or “compliant” foods 80 percent of the time and then eat more freely the other 20 percent of the time. “The critical part of this plan is to determine what foods make up good calories and what foods make up bad calories,” says weight-loss expert Dr Matthew Weiner, a bariatric surgeon at Tucson Bariatric. “It’s important to measure the ratio of good calories—like those from fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans — to bad calories, like those from refined sugar, refined grains, cheese and other high-fat animal proteins.”

Suggested compliant foods for the healthy 80 percent of your diet:

  • Whole or plant-based foods (like fruits and veggies)
  • Lean animal protein
  • Seafood rich in omega-3s
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Monounsaturated fats from nuts, seeds, and olive oil

Suggested foods for the more indulgent 20 percent:

  • Foods high in saturated fat (e.g., fried chicken, cheese, and bacon)
  • Highly processed foods (ice cream, pizza, breakfast cereal)
  • Alcohol
  • White sugar and refined carbs

Depending on your calorie needs and weight-loss goals, you may need or want to move some of the healthy foods into the 20 percent category (like the animal protein, grains, and dairy). Those 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. To hash out what types of foods and nutrients below in each category, you may want to work with a nutritionist.

So how do you actually take these percentages and actually apply them to your real-life calorie intake?

If you want the best results then you have to do a little bit of math, says Dr Amy Elizabeth Rothberg, director of the weight management clinic at Michigan Medicine.

“Before beginning, it’s probably wise to take stock of your daily and weekly intake, by logging calories a couple of days during a typical work or school week and also on the weekend, particularly with respect to alcohol and high-calorie food intake,” she explains.

This will give you a baseline of how many calories you consume per day and over the course of a week, both of which are good to know, because you may eat more or less on some days compared to others (like if you work out on Mondays/Wednesdays/Fridays, for example).

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

Both Dr Rothberg and Dr Weiner say it really doesn’t matter whether you apply the 80/20 rule to each day (like eating three healthy meals and one treat) or to a seven-day week (like eating healthy for five days and then relaxing your diet restrictions for two). Either way, you’re subject to the benefits and pitfalls of this approach to eating.

Speaking of pitfalls, it’s pretty easy to mess up when you eat according to the 80/20 rule.

Pitfall #1: You overeat less-nutritious foods.

Dr Weiner says that if you eat cleanly for five days but then binge on junk food, fast food, and sugary beverages on the other two days, you probably won’t lose any weight. In fact, you could even gain some. Instead, you should still be eating healthy foods on 20-percent days, striving for what Dr Weiner calls a “modest deviation” from an otherwise healthy diet.

Pitfall #2: You overeat healthy foods.

Yup, said it: You can overeat good-for-you foods, too. Remember that, generally speaking, weight loss ultimately only happens when your caloric intake is less than your output. If you’re stuffing yourself with “healthy” foods, you could be eating just as much as when you allow yourself a modest treat.

“Limiting your indulgences to 20 percent of the time doesn’t mean you have free reign to overeat on the healthier days,” points out Dr Rothberg.

Pitfall #3: You forget to look at the whole picture.

Even if you crack the 80/20 code, you could still wind up not moving the scale much if you’re neglecting other aspects of your health. Dr Rothberg says people also need to reduce their overall portions, get regular exercise, and drink plenty of water.

What does an 80/20 diet look like in reality?

By now, you’ve (hopefully) caught on that the 80/20 diet isn’t a free pass to indulge in healthy or unhealthy foods. So how do you start eating like an 80/20 pro? That depends on whether you’re applying it to your daily or weekly calorie intake.

Eating 80/20 on a daily basis:

You fill the majority of your meals and snacks with healthy, nutrient-dense foods from the compliant list. When it comes time for your 20 percent indulgence, you reach for a snack bag of chips in the afternoon, a glass of wine with dinner, or a few squares of dark chocolate for dessert.

Remember: Even though you’re allowed to indulge, you can’t call half a pan of brownies a “snack” and expect to lose weight (even if your other meals are healthy!). The 20 percent refers to the ratio of “good” versus “bad” foods, but also to the amount of calories you eat every day.

Eating 80/20 on a weekly basis:

You stick to your calorie goals for five days in a row (let’s say weekdays, just to simplify). 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 you should be trying to make healthy choices as close to 100 percent of the time as possible from Monday through Friday. When the weekend comes, you relax your calorie goals.

Notice that says “relax,” not “throw out the window.” Overindulging on your 20 percent days, like eating fast food for every meal, won’t help you with your weight-loss goals. For example, enjoy a portioned serving of your favourite cereal for breakfast, a healthy lunch, one drink with dinner, and either the mac-and-cheese side dish or the slice of carrot cake for dessert (not both).

What are the pros and cons of the diet?

Like literally every other diet on the planet, the 80/20 rule will work for some people but not others, and it has both advantages and disadvantages you need to be aware of if you’re considering trying it out.

The Pros:

  • There’s no calorie counting or food weighing required. You might prefer to track calories to make sure you’re nailing the 80/20 ratio, but it’s not an essential part of the diet.
  • It can promote long-term lifestyle changes. “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 towards] a more wholesome, balanced diet,” says Dr Rothberg.
  • There’s no restriction involved. “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, who adds that the ability to control your hunger is one of the secrets to long-term compliance with an eating plan.

The Cons:

  • No calorie counting means less caloric awareness. “A disadvantage of any moderation-based approach is we tend to overestimate our healthy decisions and underestimate the unhealthy ones,” explains Dr Weiner, “so without a detailed tracking system what you consider as a 80/20 diet may actually be a 60/40 one.”
  • It may not work with other diets, like keto. Dr Weiner says that eating a lot of high-fat animal protein and relaxing the keto carb limits 20 percent of the time will make it hard to lose weight and could even help you put on pounds.
  • Labelling foods as “good” or “bad” can be difficult for anyone with a history of disordered eating or body-image issues, or even a sensitivity to the pressures of diet culture. No single food is truly bad; it’s the frequency and quantity with which we eat certain foods that contributes to our health. And all foods, even “good” ones, can do harm if we don’t eat them in moderation.

The bottom line: For people looking to overhaul the way they eat on a broad scale, applying the 80/20 rule allows for just enough flexibility to learn how to make smarter, healthier choices every day. If you need strict guidelines about calories and nutrients, though, the abstract boundaries of the 80/20 rule could set you up for frustration or failure.

This article was originally published on

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