The 80/20 principle is a guideline that encourages individuals to eat healthy 80% of the time while leaving 20% leeway for those less healthy choices. This allows you to incorporate all the foods you love into an eating plan, even the worst of them, (Twinkies, anyone?) without feeling guilty. Although this sounds too good to be true, many nutrition experts have found that this concept has helped many individuals fight the battle of the bulge over time, yet knowing a little nutrition know-how and keeping yourself accountable is pretty much essential if you want this concept to guide you towards better health.
First, you have to realize that this principle is a general guideline and not a precise equation that should be used at every meal. Instead, it suggests that if an individual gives their best and eats as nutritionally as they can, successfully sticking to this plan 80% or more of the time will result in success. Or in other words, you don’t have to be a perfect eater to successfully reach your healthy living goals.
And that’s a good thing according to nutrition expert and author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips, Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN. Zied who says that “by giving people permission to indulge in small amounts of nutrient-poor but delicious foods like candy or cookies, they may feel less deprived and perhaps it will motivate them to try to include more healthful foods in their diet.”
Yet, not all dietitians agree. Although many are a fan of the overall concept, the fact that it’s hard to monitor this type of dietary guideline is frustrating. According to registered dietitian Kim Lett, RD, the guidance is too general and too difficult for people to accurately quantify. “Too many people I see don’t know how to translate this type of guidance into real foods they can eat each day.” Instead, Lett likes to take the guessing out of the equation all together for her clients and, after identifying what foods her clients would typically place into their “20%” category, give more rigid guidelines on when to incorporate those types of foods into their day.
Nutrition expert and established author Maye Musk, MS, RD, CDN is also a fan of setting goals for her clients instead of leaving room for interpretation. “I don’t have my clients calculate 80/20,” claims Musk who instead simply encourages her clients to follow more basic food rules such as having plenty of fruit, veggies, dairy, whole grains, eggs, and fish around.
Since the 80/20 principle is an overall concept and not a specific food rule to follow, the interpretation of it is left up to the individual applying. This could be a good thing; however, it is very easy to use it as a crutch or an excuse to “cheat”. For example, if you find yourself looking for ways to fill up that 20% of your diet with less healthy foods first, you probably aren’t using the principle appropriately or effectively. In addition, you still want to get a varied diet. Although foods like lean meat and low-fat dairy can be beneficial on their own, if they are comprising 80% of your calories, that could be a problem.
In the end, the 80/20 principle is simply a guideline that can help you keep eating healthy in perspective. If you are giving your new meal plan everything you’ve got, you should be celebrating all the good decisions you are making and not constantly worrying about possible failures or pitfalls. By giving yourself permission to slip up or enjoy an indulgence every once in a while, you give your self the freedom to enjoy your new way of eating and increase your chances of successfully achieving your goals.