Olivia Munn says the 80/20 diet helped her drop 12 pounds; Cameron Diaz and Miranda Kerr also swear by it. Heck, even weight loss guru Jillian Michaels is a fan. But what’s so special about the 80/20 rule?
The general concept is simple: You eat clean, nutrient-dense foods 80 percent of the time and leave room for indulgences 20 percent of the time. This makes the diet more sustainable than plans with stricter guidelines — and more realistic for many people.
“It encourages a healthy balance, with the freedom to enjoy your favorite foods every once in awhile,” says Torey Armul, RDN, a Ohio-based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s also a good long-term approach, because it’s less restrictive and more of a permanent lifestyle change.”
But how does a kale salad with full-fat ranch dressing factor into each category? What if the dressing is made with Greek yogurt? We spoke with top nutrition experts to get the answers to all of your 80/20 rule questions.
5 Questions About the 80/20 Rule, Answered
1. How do you follow the 80/20 diet exactly?
Just as there is no set definition for “clean eating,” there’s also no clear-cut definition for how exactly to put the 80/20 rule into motion. None of the experts we spoke with could pinpoint the origin of the diet and the suggestions on how to follow it vary. Jillian Michaels, for instance, wrote on her site that you can devote 20 percent of your daily calorie allowance to treats like brownies. But, sometimes that’s easier said than done and can take some calculation and willpower.
Pinpointing exactly what constitutes 80 percent of your time “is a very difficult thing to nail down,” says Jen Bruning, RDN, a Chicago-based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Plus, the goal number of daily calories will be different for everyone, so it’s hard to give guidelines to stick to. “What I’ve found to be the most reasonable approach is to write down how many times you eat a meal and a snack in a day. Then multiply that by seven (to account for a week) and calculate the 20 percent based on that.”
In other words, if you have one snack between breakfast and lunch and another one between lunch and dinner, you eat five times a day, or 35 times a week. One-fifth of those is seven, so you can devote seven of your weekly meals and/or snacks to the 20 percent treat-yourself category. “That’s a little bit easier, as opposed to trying to pick and choose certain foods within one meal or snack,” Bruning says. “On the days you have a lot of options, control and time to make healthy choices, stick with the 80 category. And then those times when you want to be able to relax a little bit, go with the 20.”
2. What counts as the 80 percent, though?
Keep in mind that the 80/20 “diet” isn’t like Atkins or Whole 30, for which someone has created clear parameters. That means there’s no definitive rules about calories, fat or sugar. But a few experts have some advice that can help you make smart choices for your 80 percent healthy meals. For starters: “Lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” says Roberta Anding, a registered dietitian with Baylor College of Medicine. “The more sugar and highly processed foods your overall diet has, the less healthy it becomes.” Similarly, Armul recommends your 80 percent be “exclusively healthy foods, like fruits and veggies, lean protein, whole grains and healthy fats. If you’re unsure about a food, consider it part of the 20.”
“Part of 80/20 idea is that you’ll never feel the deprivation that often leads to binging, since you’re treating yourself occasionally.”
3. How crazy can you go on indulgences for the 20 percent?
While sweets, comfort foods and refined carbs (like white bread) all have a place in the 80/20 diet, experts don’t recommend wolfing down an entire box of cookies as a 20 percent “snack.” “Portions still count,” says Armul. “You shouldn’t be eating an entire gallon of ice cream as an indulgence. But part of 80/20 idea is that you’ll never feel the deprivation that often leads to binging, since you’re treating yourself occasionally.”
Bruning suggests eating mindfully and stopping when you’re satisfied — whether you’re eating an apple or chocolate. “You want to listen to your body’s signals,” she says. “And you always want to honor the point at which you feel full.” Whether you’re having an 80 percent meal — like a great salad or a piece of chicken — or one of the more indulgent meals, like a greasy slice of pizza, stop before you get stuffed.
4. How do you know if the 80/20 rule will work for you?
While the 80/20 rule doesn’t ultimately amount to much more than “everything in moderation,” Bruning says it can actually be a great way for all-or-nothing folks to find a form of moderation that works for them. “Because it gives a quantifiable numerical goal, it’s also good for people who find the term ‘eating in moderation’ a little too vague,” adds Armul.
If you have specific medical concerns — like a chronic illness that requires dietary modifications — you should check with a doctor before starting any eating plan, even the 80/20 approach, says Anding. Also, if your relationship with food is complicated because of anxiety or depression, 80/20 may not be right for you, says Bruning.
5. Will it help you lose weight?
Ah, the million dollar question. While the 80/20 rule can make healthy eating a permanent part of your lifestyle, it won’t necessarily help you lose weight. “If you follow the 80/20 rule and you’re still getting more calories in your day than you’re expending, you can still gain weight,” says Bruning. Without a definition for portion sizes or calorie control, it can really be variable in terms of how much people are eating — and how much they’re gaining, losing or maintaining.
If you want to see faster weight loss without obsessing over calories, Armul suggests following the 90/10 rule. “It’s a heavier focus on the healthy foods but still reminds people that they can treat themselves every so often,” she says.