We all strive to eat a balanced diet—but figuring out what that ‘balance’ actually looks like? Not so simple.
That’s where the ‘80/20 rule’ comes in. The popular eating philosophy brings some much-needed structure to healthy eating, which can so often be hard enough to navigate that we dive face-first into a sleeve of Oreos. The 80/20 concept, though, is simple: “Basically, you eat healthy and purely for nutrition 80 percent of the time, and indulge or eat for pleasure 20 percent of the time,” explains Rebekah Blakely, R.D., dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe.
Your 20 percent might mean having that dessert, ordering white pasta, or having a drink when you’re out with friends—all of which can fit into your goals, even if you’re trying to lose weight. “When you take away the guilt associated with foods you consider ‘bad’ or unhealthy, you can decrease the negative cycle of guilt and deprivation many people get stuck in when trying to lose weight,” Blakely says. That’s a major plus for making any healthy eating or weight-loss plan sustainable in the long-run.
The key to successful 80/20 eating, though, is to make sure that 20 percent isn’t a complete free-for-all. “We should be mindful of what we’re putting in our mouths 100 percent of the time,” says Blakely. While your 20 percent may be higher in calories than your usual grub (like having a burger instead of grilled chicken), it should still provide some nutrition.
So say you eat 1600 total calories per day. With 20 percent of your total calories ‘free’ for those more indulgent foods, that leaves you 320 calories with more wiggle room than the other 80 percent of your calories.
If your 20 percent becomes a calorie, sugar, and fat binge that doesn’t offer any nutrition, it can easily undo the healthy eating you stick to the other 80 percent of the time. So make sure to always listen to your body’s hunger cues—eat when you’re physically hungry and stop when you feel satisfied, Blakey recommends.
If you tend to go overboard, or know your 20 percent will consist of processed nacho-cheesey chips and frosting straight from the jar, Blakely suggests bumping the 80/20 rule up to a 90/10 rule, just to be safe.
If you eat 1600 calories per day under the 90/10 rule, that gives you 160 flexible calories per day.
Want to try the 80/20 (or 90/10) rule for yourself, but don’t want to do the math? The following meal plans—straight from Blakely herself—will guide you through confusion-free balanced eating.
*Note: We based this eating plan off of the following profile: 40 year old woman (180 pounds, 5’5”), who exercises two to four times per week and wants to lose about one pound per week. Your individual calorie needs may vary.
Here are two days of 80/20 eating:
And two days of 90/10 eating: