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Unlocking true balance: The 80/20 rule for nutrition


The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, has become a namesake in the health and fitness world. It’s a powerful concept that states 80% of outcomes are determined by 20% of efforts.

Put simply, it means you don’t have to be perfect all the time. And the best part? You can still achieve incredible results without perfectionism!

Perfectionism can be a large burden to carry, adding unnecessary stress to your life when things don’t go as planned. Perfectionists often set unattainable standards, leading to frustration and a cycle of procrastination.1

That’s where the 80/20 rule comes in. The 80/20 method encourages a more realistic approach, acknowledging that perfection is not necessary in every aspect of a goal. It’s about honing in on the efforts that’ll deliver the biggest impact, but that’ll also give you wiggle room to live (and indulge in) your life.

Applying the 80/20 rule to nutrition

The 80/20 rule is all about balance. It’s practical and encourages a flexible approach without sacrificing long-term health goals. Yep, it’s about having your cake and (actually) eating it too.

Applying this rule to nutrition involves a shift toward flexibility and adaptability, which can be difficult at first if you’ve spent years fearing certain foods. The 80/20 approach encourages you to let go of those unsustainable practices and to prioritize 80% of your diet with impactful habits. That leaves 20% to indulge in treats, snacks, and foods that just sound good, but aren’t necessarily the healthiest.

Now that we know we can have dessert and see results, let’s break down what your meals should look like when you apply the 80/20 rule. The key to success here is dedicating 80% of dietary choices to nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables.

The 20% should be reserved for the occasional indulgences such as a slice of birthday cake, pizza night, your favorite ice cream – really nothing is off limits! Imagine not being stressed every time someone offers you dessert at dinner. Now that’s the life.

This approach not only promotes physical well-being but also nurtures a positive relationship with food, fostering a mindset that encourages long-term success.

Benefits of the 80/20 approach to diet

Weight management and sustainability: Research has shown that the 80/20 rule promotes healthy weight management by advocating a sustainable and realistic approach to nutrition.2

By focusing on the most impactful aspects of dietary choices and overall health, you can achieve and maintain a healthy weight without succumbing to the pitfalls of extremes.

Improved relationship with food and reduced likelihood of binge eating: A flexible approach to diet has been linked to a reduced likelihood of binge eating.

When you allow yourself occasional treats alongside a well-balanced diet, you can cultivate a positive relationship with food, free from guilt and anxiety.

Accommodating real-life scenarios: Life happens. We hear it all the time. How about we find a way to enjoy it while still reaching our goals?

The 80/20 rule recognizes the importance of accommodating real-life situations, such as social occasions and special events. This flexibility enables you to enjoy these moments without feeling deprived or derailed from your nutrition goals.

Long-term consistency: We’ve all seen it, right? The diet that is going to change our life. And maybe it does, until it doesn’t. Eventually, motivation wanes, and that too-strict diet fades away.

Long-term consistency is vital to building sustainable habits.3 The 80/20 rule emphasizes small, repeated behaviors over time, fostering habits that withstand the test of time. And we’re all about that long-term game.

Practical tips: Striking the right balance

The 80/20 rule isn’t a prescription, but rather a guideline to approaching nutrition. Experimenting with different ratios within the 80/20 framework will allow you to find the balance that suits your lifestyle and goals.

This process is inherently personal and may require a tweak here or there over time. The key is discovering what works for you and building from there.

Everybody is different. Some will require a bit more freedom due to their busy lifestyle. Some just need a treat or free pass here and there. It doesn't matter which side you fall on, just accept it and focus on your goals.

One thing you must keep in mind – this approach isn’t a free pass for overindulging and overeating on the reg. Moderation remains key, and the rule encourages you to continue making healthy choices the majority of the time.

But what if I get stuck?

Setbacks are going to happen. Don’t ignore them. Learn from them.

Adopting a growth mindset will help you to learn from setbacks rather than be deterred by them. Don’t let the little slip-ups overwhelm you or take away from your progress.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect. Shout it from the rooftops, write it in your journal, and read it again and again – letting go of perfectionism is the most important takeaway.

Progress over perfection

Oftentimes we default to letting our perfectionist tendencies shape our approach to both fitness and life. But it doesn’t need to be this way. The 80/20 rule offers up that happy middle, a balance where you can reach your goals and enjoy life along the way.

By prioritizing impactful habits, embracing flexibility, and fostering a positive mindset, you can unlock the potential for a sustainable and enjoyable life.

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  1. Stoeber, J., & Edrooke-Childs, J. (n.d.). The assessment of self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism ...
  2. Sacks, F. M. (n.d.). Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates. The New England Journal of medicine.
  3. Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012, December). Making health habitual: The psychology of “habit-formation” and general practice. The British journal of general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners.