The 80/20 rule means eating healthily 80% of the time and being more flexible for the remaining 20%.
Insider’s fitness and nutrition reporters have both followed the eating regimen for years.
They mainly eat nutrient-dense whole foods but don’t exclude or stigmatize any foods.
The 80/20 rule is more of a mindset than a diet. The eating style involves following a healthy routine 80% of the time and being flexible for the remaining 20%.
Insider fitness and nutrition reporters, Rachel Hosie and Gabby Landsverk, both incorporate the 80/20 principle in their own lives and diets.
Their weekly meals include mostly nutrient-dense whole foods, like leafy greens and lean protein – but aren’t completely void of cookies, pizza, or other treats.
Following the rule requires no calculation or preparation, it’s simply about approaching your health and fitness with balance, the reporters said.
Here’s what they had to say about how the diet works and why it’s helpful for everyone – from a nutrition newbie to a health science nerd.
After years of fad diets, the 80/20 principle helped Rachel Hosie develop a healthy relationship with food
Senior Health Reporter Rachel Hosie first saw how the 80/20 principle works from her mother – even if she didn’t know it at the time.
“My mum has always eaten a balanced diet full of nourishing whole foods in very decent portions, but has never deprived herself of cake, enjoys a glass of wine at the end of the week, and has been a trim size 4 her whole life,” Hosie said.
Even with her mom as an example, Hosie got sucked into diet culture and tried various short-lived eating plans as a teenager and into her early 20s – including the alkaline diet, 5:2, and keto, which she said contributed to her unhealthy beliefs about food.
“It wasn’t until I made a conscious effort to work on my relationship with food and reeducate myself a few years ago that I really learned that there’s no such thing as a fattening food, and it’s only when you allow yourself to eat everything you enjoy that you can do so in moderation,” Hosie said.
She now approaches eating with the 80/20 principle in mind and says it’s the healthiest she’s been physically. The lifestyle also supports her well-balanced approach to food.
Eating mainly nutritious foods makes you feel good, but ‘fun foods’ are important too
Hosie occasionally enjoys burgers and donuts guilt-free, and doesn’t label any food as “bad” or “fattening.”
When she isn’t constantly trying to resist often demonized foods, she doesn’t feel an out-of-control desire to overeat them.
For Hosie, the 80/20 principle means breakfasts that include banana protein oatmeal with a few chocolate chips sprinkled in. She has an apple with peanut butter for an afternoon snack most days, but some days she has a cupcake. A chicken and vegetable stir-fry with brown rice is a typical dinner, then some ice cream for dessert. Her meals are mostly home-cooked and well proportioned, but she allows space for occasional indulgent restaurant dinners.
“It’s not something I control strictly. There’s not actually any counting involved, and I’m not thinking, say, ‘I had salad for lunch thus can have cake this afternoon,’ it’s just the overall balance and including everything in moderation,” Hosie said.
Consistency trumps ‘perfection’
Rather than try and eat “perfectly” and then have a “cheat day,” Hosie likes to incorporate all her favorite foods into her diet over the course of the week, which is a principle known as “flexible dieting.”
“I aim to eat largely whole foods, hit my five portions of fruit and veg a day, and get plenty of fiber and protein in. But I don’t stress out on days where I fall short of these targets, because they’re the minority.” she said. “And it’s what we do most of the time that matters, not the exceptional days.”
Gabby Landsverk said stressing less about food frees up energy for other things in your life that matter
The litmus test of a good diet is whether or not it supports the rest of your life and routine, according to health and fitness reporter Gabby Landsverk.
“The 80/20 diet passes, but not because it’s a magical hack for perfect eating,” she said.
“It’s the opposite – it keeps me from wasting my time and energy trying to be perfect when I don’t need to be.”
Eating healthy the majority of the time takes energy, knowledge, and preparation, even if you like to cook.
A typical day of eating for her includes a light breakfast such as a protein shake or Greek yogurt with berries, granola, and nuts. Lunch might be scrambled eggs with veggies, or sometimes a spicy gyro from a favorite neighborhood vendor. As a pre-workout snack, she’ll have a piece of fresh fruit (apples are a favorite). Dinner is often protein with a hefty side of vegetables and often a portion of whole grains – some examples are Thai coconut fish curry with spicy cucumber salad, tofu stir-fry with broccoli and peppers, or steak burrito bowls with guacamole, black beans, and brown rice.
The rest of the time, that 20%, is for eating without worrying about nutritional goals. Sometimes Landsverk eats fresh-baked bread, or grabs beer from a local brewery, or a fresh juice from the corner grocery store.
“The point is, it’s something that I enjoy without any of the pressure of defining it as ‘healthy’ or otherwise, and all the resulting mental energy that expends,” she said.
The 80/20 rule works for exercise, too
Eating this way also helps support a healthy exercise routine, Landsverk said.
She works out five to six times a week, a combination of lifting weights, running, and calisthenics.
She said the best strategy for improved performance and recovery is being consistent most of the time, but flexible enough to add an extra rest day when it’s needed.
“I like working out and don’t skip it often. Having the option to miss a workout without feeling like a failure, though, helps me continue to enjoy exercise without it becoming a chore,” Landsverk said.
Regular temptation to skip workouts because of fatigue or difficulty is a good sign that it’s time to reassess and maybe scale back, she added.
Being healthy doesn’t have to stop you from enjoying food
A lot of people – when confronted with the concept of guilt-free eating – worry about losing control and overindulging in their favorite treats for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Landsverk said there’s evidence that cravings or food fixation is often linked to restriction.
For example, she recently tried a carb-cycling diet, which limited carbohydrate-rich foods to only certain days. It left her with a bizarre, obsessive craving for granola and a temptation to sneak into the cupboard at night to scarf handfuls of raw oats. When she went back to eating carbs, the strange obsession with granola dissipated.
“The 80/20 rule is a useful reminder not to sweat the small stuff, and instead, spend time and energy on things that are more fun and fulfilling rather than painstakingly reading ingredient lists, counting every calorie, or measuring every gram of fat, carbs, or protein,” Landsverk said.
The bottom line
Overall, both reporters agree that the 80/20 rule is a great guide to balanced eating that won’t leave you miserable or mired in diet culture.
If you’re interested in trying it yourself, you don’t have to overhaul your whole life, but you can start by incorporating the eating habit into your life in small ways. That can look different from person to person – for some, it might mean an extra portion of veggies with each meal, while others could benefit more from enjoying a cookie or chocolate.
The key, according to Insider’s nutrition experts, is that healthy foods aren’t a duty, treats aren’t a guilty pleasure, and there’s no such thing as “cheating” or failing on this diet. Instead, it’s about learning to eat foods you enjoy in a way that makes you feel good mentally and physically, so you can sustain it for a long, healthy life.
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