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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
November 05, 2022
The 80-20 rule diet is the most popular, unscientific diet plan to sweep the fitness world. No one really knows where it came from, but everyone knows about it. And as it's swept the fitness industry, it's brought with it a plethora of misunderstandings and misrepresentations about how the diet actually works.
As a result, people mess up what can be a very effective way of dieting, and that simply won't do. That's why we're about to take a deep dive into the 80-20 rule diet, covering:
The 80-20 rule diet plan isn't so much an actual diet as it is an eating plan that encourages healthy eating habits and a balanced approach. There are two rules to following the 80-20 rule diet.
The rules are:
This basically says that if 80% of your diet is "clean" and consists of eating healthy foods, the other 20% of your diet can consist of the "junk" that you enjoy. This is because the 20% isn't enough to derail your diet, assuming you really are eating nutritious foods for the other 80%.
So broken down into a day, 80% of your food choices should go toward things such as high protein low fat foods and tons of plant-based options. The other 20% can go toward that Starbucks drink you love so much and a piece of dark chocolate, following a nutritious muscle-building meal for dinner, of course.
No one really knows, and we're not going to try and pretend it comes from some secret study. Some people will claim that it comes from an economic principle known as The Pareto Principle.
The Pareto Principle states that under normal circumstances, 80% of consequences are derived from 20% of causes. For example, in its original context, Pareto noticed that 20% of the population in Italy owned 80% of the land¹.
Also known as a power law distribution, it's seen in many areas. For example, 20% of hazards in a work setting make up 80% of injuries. In healthcare, some have noted that approximately 80% of our healthcare expenses come from only 20% of the population.
While this is an interesting concept, this doesn't seem to apply to the same thing as the 80-20 diet.
Maybe it came from Pareto Principle, or maybe it didn't. At the end of the day, it's really a form of flexible dieting that encourages healthy foods. For some background, flexible dieting is a broad term used to describe diets that focus more on hitting your macros rather than the specific food you eat.
Another example of flexible dieting is the metabolic confusion diet, which focuses on calorie cycling throughout the week.
This begs the question, if the 80-20 diet is just flexible dieting, what makes it different from other flexible dieting plans?
Here are a few differences.
One of the biggest complaints about some forms of flexible dieting is that they support eating less healthy foods. The diets may not have intended for it to be this way, but that's what many dieters have taken it as (we are aware we're making a generalization, but it's based on experience).
For example, IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) is used by some to eat what they want, as long as they stay within their calories. So much emphasis is placed on macro counting that the food source and its nutrients are sometimes lost.
But eating too many processed foods, even if you're technically on a diet, can make it harder to build muscle, may cause you to feel lethargic, and can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease like high blood pressure.
While the 80-20 rule diet doesn't tell you exactly what to eat, it's an eating plan that requires healthy foods. Whether you're vegan or a hardcore carnivore, 80% of your diet must come from whole foods.
Again, we're making some generalizations, but this observation is basically just the opposite of the one we listed above. Many people will follow a flexible diet for the sole purpose of continuing to eat junk food.
An example may be someone saying they're saving their calories so they can eat a cookie. Or, if someone discovers they have an extra 300 calories, they almost always opt to put it toward processed food (i.e., not a healthy choice).
To be clear, the 80-20 rule diet doesn't say you should eat unhealthy food. Rather, it says you can as long as the other 80% is on point. That may seem trivial, but we believe it makes a huge difference physiology-wise.
In our opinion, you should always try to eat healthy, as it provides essential nutrients and makes you feel good. It shouldn't be seen as a punishment, which is what many flexible dieting plans suggest.
One of the main reasons some follow the 80-20 rule diet is to lose weight. So does it help?
Following an 80-20 rule diet plan can help lose weight. However, there are some important principles you need to understand.
Make no mistake about it. Eating more calories than needed will cause weight gain. This makes nutritious options, strength training, and some weekly HIIT crucial for weight loss.
As mentioned, the 80-20 rule diet provides general guidance for your food intake. This means you can't totally get away from counting calories in order to lose weight. Caloric intake still matters and is the main driver of weight loss in any diet.
In fact, research has proven that controlling calories is the primary factor in weight loss².
The same study that concluded no diet is necessarily better than another when calories are controlled also stated that adherence is the number one factor in a diet's success².
This makes sense when you think about it. Weight loss comes down to the total amount of calories lost in the long term. Most diets suggest you have a daily deficit of 300-500 calories. As 1 pound of fat requires 3,500 calories, you're only losing 4 pounds max every month. This means it takes a while to add up!
Therefore, following a plan you can stick to for years, even for maintenance, is much better than any extreme diet that causes you to bail in 3 months. And again, the proponents of the 80-20 rule are so simple!
Anything different can be challenging, especially when you first start. This is especially true when it comes to your diet, particularly if you're used to eating out, dirty bulking, or consuming microwaveable processed foods.
When first starting the 80-20 rule diet, you can expect it to take some time to adjust, depending on your diet beforehand. For example, you will likely need to learn some new recipes and how to prepare different foods. But once you get past that part, it becomes a lot easier.
It's a lot harder to eat too many calories when you develop healthy eating habits, and the majority of your food choices include healthy foods.
This is because these foods are nutritionally dense as well as low in calories. And some, like these high protein veggie sources, are not only packed with nutrients but also high protein.
Essentially, you are able to eat a lot more for the same amount of calories. Since many of us have become so used to eating high-caloric foods, our bodies aren't used to eating large quantities of food.
When you switch to eating more whole foods, you can eat more volume since they're lower in calories, and it can cause you to feel full easily. Think of it as natural portion control.
In fact, a good percentage of people don't even need to count their calories eating whole foods as they fill up naturally. We are not saying you shouldn't monitor your calories, especially at first. However, maintaining proper calories is a lot easier to do.
At the same time, you can easily use the 80-20 principle to put yourself in a caloric surplus if you want to improve strength and gain muscle. The 80-20 diet doesn't have to be for weight loss. Rather, it's encouraging you to eat healthy while allowing room for freedom. This means if gaining weight is your goal, it's still doable on the 80 20 plan.
In fact, you can incorporate tons of the nutritious foods the 80-20 rule diet encourages into a clean bulk workout and diet plan. You can also make healthy high-calorie protein shake recipes packed with nutritious foods to support your muscle-building goals.
With this in mind, you can add muscle with the 80-20 diet.
If you haven't been able to tell, we are fans of the 80-20 diet. Here are more great reasons why you should give it a try.
We've said this many times before, but the 80-20 plan is the only form of flexible dieting that encourages healthy foods while not telling you what to eat. Many other forms of dieting either tell what you can't eat (carnivore, vegan, paleo) or only concentrate on calories.
The 80-20 diet says that 80% of your diet must contain whole foods from the major food groups. It doesn't matter what foods those are, but it better have them. It encourages eating the right foods before a workout and after a workout, but it doesn't tell you which ones it has to be.
While you technically could do a vegan-type diet while applying the 80-20 principle, that's rarely ever actually done, and most guidelines don't restrict foods unless they're unhealthy.
Food is medicine, and your health will improve when you start ensuring that 80% of your calories come from whole foods. We rarely feel comfortable saying something is 100% fact, but we do here.
A vast amount of chronic diseases come from obesity and lack of physical activity. You can decrease your risk of just about any chronic disease by simply improving your diet. That sounds like hyperbole, but it's 100% true. Your health will improve.
The 80-20 diet is exactly what flexible dieting should look like. It allows for food freedom to occur, assuming you have the rest of your diet in check.
Think of it using this analogy. You're taking college courses, and you've aced every single class. The 80-20 rule says that if you bomb your last class, it will not make a difference as you killed the other classes. In comparison, other forms of flexible dieting are saying you should bomb that class since you aced all the others.
Get it? It's a subtle difference that we think makes a world of difference, particularly when dieting is such a mental game.
So this begs the question, what can you eat? The problem is that there aren't really guidelines for what counts. As in, what's the cutoff? Where does a cheese stick fall? Or a granola bar?
One of the essential weight loss tips of this diet emphasizes eating nutritious foods 80% of the time. However, the definition of "nutritious" can vary widely, and you'll get a million answers for what constitutes a healthy diet.
Some people will say a cheese stick is a healthy choice, while others claim it will clog your arteries. Some say brown rice only, while others say white rice is just fine too. This makes it very hard to say what constitutes nutritious meals.
That said, here are some guidelines for healthy options that fit the bill.
Try to avoid food if:
Some articles suggest that "no foods are off limits" for your 20 percent of the time. This isn't necessarily wrong, but again, it sets up the attitude that a diet is terrible and "good food" involves meals that are extraordinarily oily and greasy.
We get it! Sometimes we eat things that aren't amazingly healthy, but this should be a once-in-a-while occurrence. Unhealthy foods should be eaten in moderation.
There are some very easy ways to apply this to your eating. Instead of getting a double cheesy, cheese-filled crust with extra cheese (whew, that's a lot of cheese), get a thin-crust pizza (or at least a normal crust) and a normal amount of cheese.
Further, we'd encourage you to try some cauliflower or chickpea crust pizza. We know it sounds nuts, but some brands are great, like Banza (chickpea) or CAULIPOWER (cauliflower).
Another example: Let's say you're craving a decadent breakfast. Instead of eating 2,000 calories worth of sugar-riddled French toast, turn it into protein French toast using nutritious ingredients. Or, rather than bake a batch of chocolate chip cookies, how about turning them into protein cookies, opting to include more nutritious ingredients? Simple adjustments like this make a huge difference.
The point is you don't need to search for the worst food choices on the market just because you "can." When possible, choose minimally processed foods rather than full-blown junk.
Because the 80-20 diet is so broad, here are some suggestions to help make the most out of this non-diet diet.
This depends on your present eating style. If your current eating habits are packed with processed junk foods, going all in too quickly may lead to diet failure. That's why we want you to think long-term. Any change you make today will be better than yesterday and sooner or later, you'll get to the 80-20 split.
Even if your present diet looks more like 20-80, you'll get there sooner or later. Going slow promises a better chance of success.
When hunger strikes, having things such as Greek yogurt or some trail mix will prevent you from making a poor choice. Even some healthier cereal could do the trick. It's also a good idea to find a good protein powder you enjoy, so you can make a nutritious shake when you need something quick.
We think this is important as life can make dieting hard. Even when we're on our best behavior, you will almost certainly run into various events and situations where some pizza or cake will be staring you down, and there is no granola in sight.
Eating is a very social activity. It brings friends and families together for a time to enjoy one another's company and life. This is why we think there's nothing worse than ordering a salad at your best friend's engagement party. So, go ahead and enjoy that cheat meal from time-to-time.
The way we like to explain the 80-20 plan is that you should concentrate on eating a nutritious diet most of the time when you are able to. Therefore, when you find yourself in one of the situations we mentioned above, eating some "junk" is okay.
However, this doesn't mean you should skip adding avocado to your sandwich so you can eat that cookie later. Prioritize the 80% of highly nutritious foods.
In the same vein as above, don't plan what day you are going to eat your 20%.
Of course, if you know you have a wedding, you should plan to eat healthy until then so that you're free to eat all your favorite foods the day of the wedding. But don't randomly plan on eating pizza and ice cream on Friday night just because.
Think about it. What happens if the next day, your friend gets a job promotion and wants to go out? To be clear, we're not saying you can never have a pizza and Netflix night. We're just saying don't have a planned junk food night weekly, as that's how you can get in trouble and turn 80-20 into 50-50 or 20-80. Save the majority of your 20% for unplanned events.
One of our gripes with other forms of flexible dieting is that waaaaay too much emphasis is put on calories. Of course, they have names like If It Fits Your Macros, but through experience, a lot of focus is merely on the calories.
Here's an example of why calories aren't the end-all-be-all. Mcdonald's chicken nuggets are often spoken about due to their protein content. Now, we're all for making sure you eat enough protein per day to build muscle. And at 470 calories and 23 grams of protein in their 10-piece, it's not horrible... if you neglect to point out where the other calories come from, which is mainly saturated fat.
The point is to focus on getting all your macros from your real food.
We've hinted at this throughout this article, but the 80-20 diet does not say 20% of your diet needs to consist of junk food. It merely says at least 80% of your diet needs to contain healthy and nutritious foods. In other words, you're more than welcome to make that 85-15 or 90-10.
To reiterate what we said before, your 20% is not a free-for-all where you are "allowed" to finally eat whatever you want. We think this completely opposes the main concept of the diet, which is to concentrate on healthy foods so that when you are faced with a position where you aren't able, eating some junk food isn't going to affect you.
We think it just might be. It promotes a balanced diet that's full of healthy meals while acknowledging that life happens and there's no reason to beat yourself up about a pizza night or an occasional slice of chocolate cake. The 80 20 plan can be used to help you lose weight, gain weight and muscle, align with your current workout split, or maintain your weight.
We especially like the psychology behind its diet plans, as you know your diet isn't a total failure just because you ate a cheeseburger. On the other hand, it definitely encourages healthy choices. If any of this sounds interesting, we'd encourage you to check out the 80-20 diet!
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