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.