Balanced Eating: The 80/20 Rule Explained

80 20 principle diet
I often mention that you should try and eat healthy (whole foods, lots of veggies, protein, avoiding too many processed carbs) 80% of the time.

In fact, it’s stated right in the 12 Minute Athlete food philosophy. And it falls right in line with the 80/20 principle of eating.

But what exactly does the 80/20 rule mean? Let’s break it down:

It means that you don’t have to cook every meal at home.

You know as well as I do that it’s way easier to follow a 100% healthy diet when cooking your own meals.

Cooking at homes means you know exactly what goes in your food—how much oil, butter, how many carbs, etc. And it’s about a thousand times easier to figure out your portion sizes as well.

Yet I don’t know about you, but I like eating out. I happen to be lucky enough to live in San Francisco, a mecca of awesome restaurants and new places to check out. I like having other people cook for me. And I get joy out of finding new places to eat and exploring the city.

And while I do try and cook my own meals the majority of the time, I typically eat out anywhere around two to five times a week. Some of my meals out are similar to what I’d make at home—salads, veggie-heavy meals, burrito bowls (I’m a huge fan of these). And some of them are a little more indulgent—trying out a great new pizza place, sharing really yummy Indian food with friends, having delicious, carb-heavy pasta on a special occasion or just to end a tough week.

And as long as I don’t eat out too often, I’ve stopped feeling guilty about these meals. And you should too.

Because what do we work so hard for in our workouts, if not to enjoy ourselves in life?

It means that on birthdays/holidays/special occasions you can have a piece of cake.

One of the hardest things about trying to eat healthy is those times—whether it’s your nephew’s birthday party, Thanksgiving dinner, or your best friend’s wedding, when it just feels wrong not to indulge just a little. And whether it’s a glass of champagne, a piece of cake, or both, it’s easy to feel like you’re completely ruining your diet if you have even just one bite.

But if you’re living by the 80/20 principle, this becomes completely unnecessary. Because as long as you’re not out indulging in cake and other yummy treats too often, and eating healthy the rest of the time, you’ll be totally fine.

I used to obsess over every single calorie at special occasions—avoiding pumpkin pie (my favorite) at Thanksgiving, Christmas cookies around the holidays, dessert at parties. I thought that if I did indulge, my entire diet would go to shit and I’d immediately gain 20 pounds.

Once I realized that was actually impossible, I started giving myself a little more flexibility in those situations—knowing that once the party/vacation/holiday was over, I’d naturally go back to eating healthy. I can’t tell you how much happier and less bitter this has made me over the years.

It means you’re building a lifestyle, not just following a diet.

Most people who start diets inevitably fail.

Diets aren’t sustainable. They’re based on restriction and denying yourself your favorite foods. They’re boring, and too often than not, based on the latest fad decided by the health and fitness industry.

What I want you to build, on the other hand, is a healthy lifestyle. I want you to start listening to your body, to realize that it actually craves protein and salads and sweet potatoes, not a 1,500 calorie hamburger. I want you to start relishing the taste of fresh strawberries, to experiment with new flavors and tastes, to order a kale salad instead of french fries at a restaurant not because you feel like you have to, but because it just sounds better.

And if you give up dieting, and focus on building a healthy lifestyle instead, you’ll get there, sooner or later.

Because as crazy as it might sound to you now, once your body starts getting used to eating adequate protein, fresh veggies, less grains… once it gets used to cutting out processed foods, not drinking soda, minimizing sugar… once you get used to feeling energized and pumped for your workouts… you won’t want to go back.

And then, when you have a cookie here and there, or a few too many chips, it’s just not a big deal. You’ll enjoy every bite—but then you’ll want to go back to your healthy meals.

It’s all about allowing yourself little indulgences here and there, so you don’t feel like you’re depriving yourself of every food you’ve ever loved.

It means you don’t have to be perfect 100% of the time.

Nobody’s perfect. And you might as well accept right now that you’re not either.

So while it’s a good idea to aim to eat healthy 100% of the time by not buying unhealthy foods, cooking at home when you can, and choosing smart when you’re eating out, you should expect to go off course at times.

In fact, allowing yourself a little give in your diet is actually a good thing. Because not only will eating perfect 100% of the time make you feel bitter about life, it’ll also make it more likely that you’ll go on a binge eating fest when your willpower is at its lowest and chow down on anything you can get your hands on.

Perfection is what leads people off course. It’s what makes you down that entire bag of chips and pint of ice cream because all you’ve eaten is carrots and boiled chicken for days.

Don’t aim to be perfect. Aim to be pretty good, the majority of the time. That’s the best you can hope for.

Balance is key

In life and nutrition, it’s all about finding a balance. Because as much as you know that proper nutrition will get you the body you want, boost your performance and allow you to live a long, healthy, active life, you also want to be able to just live.

And the 80/20 principle allows you to do that.

Because while you should always aim to eat healthy most of the time, aiming for about 80% of the time gives you that wiggle room every sane person needs to still enjoy themselves.

It’s what allows you to go to a party and have something other than water. To be able to go to a Mexican restaurant and try the chips everyone raves about. To go to Paris and eat a croissant for breakfast instead of your usual protein shake.

It means you don’t have to obsess about every morsel of food you eat. It allows you to try new things and be adventurous. And most of all, it gives you freedom.

And that’s what life is all about.

50 thoughts on “Balanced Eating: The 80/20 Rule Explained

  1. Right on Krista! I have been following this guideline for the past couple of years and it really is easy. It doesn’t hurt that I start the day with a monster salad every morning 🙂 I was out for lunch the other day and there was no way I was going to pass up or even feel guilty about having the pulled-pork-poutine.

  2. Love this blog post! I totally agree with everything you said. Krista, you should log what you eat in a day and share with us (with pictures!). I always think it’s interesting what people eat and would help put paint a picture of the 80/20 rule. Just an idea! 🙂 Love your website!

    Kylie

  3. Like this article. Do you or have you counted calories? I am trying to get away from my “obsession” from being a slave to numbers. Any advice?

    • I totally know what you mean about calories! I’ve counted them in the past, and yes, I’ve also gotten to the point where I felt obsessed with the numbers. I think the key is to start paying attention to the portion sizes you’re eating while counting calories, and then eventually trusting yourself to know about how many calories is in each portion size. You can always go back to counting calories for a few days to see how you’re doing with your estimates, but overall I think it’s a good thing to stop being a slave to numbers and just enjoy life and eating.

    • I think I love you! I think not giving myself room to play is what has made me quit trying to live a healthy lifestyle altogether in the past. You don’t feel deprived when you know you can have a little of the the things you crave. Also it doesn’t let one cookie declare this a “BAD” day and lead to binging.

  4. I’m so excited to start this 80/20 healthy eating program. I want so badly to lose weight (approx. 40 pounds) I have succeeded in most diets and failed in all of them. I was so inspired by Trisha Yearwood and her weight loss this year and read her story of how she started this 80/20 program. I makes so much sense. I would appreciate any advice and ideas to help me finally reach my goal and to stay there. Wish me luck !

  5. Thank you! Thank you! This is so right on! Exactly what I needed to read to keep me motivated for my & my family’s lifestyle change! With 3 little boys (ages 5 & under) it’s hard to always eat healthy, but we want them to grow with healthy eating habits! 80/20 rids the guilt if we have a pizza night or bake cookies one day together! I love your recipes & have started your workouts! Feeling better than I’ve felt in a really long time!! (Now if I can just get my kids to sleep so I can)

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  8. My problem if I don’t count calories is, that I will definitely overeat. I don’t get obsessed with it (I am not losing sleep when I go over by 100 calories) but I want to have an idea about what I generally put into my mouth. It’s a huge eye opener!

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    • Hi Rohan! Yes, diet is super important. It can be hard if you don’t know the basics, but once you learn them, it’s not that hard!

  10. This is not the 80/20 rule, also known as The Pareto Principle. If you apply the true principle to dieting, you would list all of your worst eating habits and attack the top 20%. That would give you 80% of the results that you’re looking for.

  11. Hi my names sarah I do a lot of intense sailing and I have to have a lot of carbs such as pasta to sustain my energy. I’m just wondering if there’s other foods that I could replace instead of pasta that give me the same energy? Thanks

    • Hey Sasha, just try to eat most of your meals as healthy as you can, by having lots of veggies, protein, good sources of fat and carbs, and as natural as you can. Then you still have a little bit of room for the “fun” stuff (not to say that healthy can’t be fun though!).

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