If you haven’t heard of the 80/20 diet, it’s a pretty simple concept. Eat healthy at least 80 percent of the time, and allow discretionary or “cheat” foods 20 percent of the time. Many diet trends are marked by extreme restrictions and strict recommendations on foods to eat or avoid. But this trendy diet is different in that it allows for a lot of flexibility and even the occasional treat.
My 80/20 Diet
As a dietetic intern and future registered dietitian, I assumed that my typical diet followed the outline of the 80/20 concept pretty closely without having to think about it. Most of the foods I consume are nutritious and have key nutrients that are beneficial to my health. But, of course, there are a few savory and sweet foods I enjoy that are beneficial to me in other less clear ways (such as a glass of wine with the interns on a Friday night).
I calculated the makeup of my diet by calories, aiming for 80 percent from healthier foods and 20 percent from whatever sweets or treats I wanted. When I participated in this diet, I did not calculate out foods before I ate them; I calculated at the end of the day to see how well I did. I kept the diet in mind but did not follow it down to the exact calorie. For means of comparison to my typical diet, here is how my three days of the 80/20 diet broke down:
The 80/20 Breakdown
Foods: fruits, vegetables, brown rice, eggs, nuts, popcorn, avocado, cottage cheese, etc.
Foods: sweetened tea, popcorn*, margarita
*Popcorn is a whole grain and a good snack, but eating the entire bag myself was not necessary; I counted half of the calories in the 80% and half in the 20%
19% calories from “treat” foods
81% calories from healthy foods
Pretty good for my first day!
Foods: essentially the same as day one
Foods: sweetened tea and chocolate truffles
13% calories from “treat” foods
87% calories from healthy foods
Despite my intentional trip to the IFIC candy bowl after realizing my “sweets and treats” calories were lacking today, I still fell pretty short of my “20.”
Foods: eggs, vegetables, avocado, whole grain bread, steak and chicken pita
Foods: sweetened tea and ½ of steak and chicken pita*
*The steak and chicken pita that was brought for lunch had almost 2,000 mg of sodium and 30 g of saturated fat; I split the calories between my two categories.
19% calories from “treat” foods
81% from healthy foods
Lunch was brought in for the office today, but I still did well in terms of the 80/20 diet.
On two of the three days, I was right on the mark with my calories for this diet. I would consider those two days to be atypical for me; I usually don’t eat a bag of popcorn and drink a margarita on a Monday, but “The Bachelor” was on—can you blame me? A stipulation to my 80/20 diet was that I did not calculate calories before eating. If I had been following this diet strictly, I would have had to calculate the calories when lunch was ordered in for the office to make sure it fit. Talk about an inconvenience.
What I Like About This Diet
The non-restrictive characteristics of this diet are a big advantage. With the only guideline being that you eat “healthy”—or whatever that means to you—80 percent of the time and limit treats to 20 percent, it’s easy to stick to. When comparing this to my typical eating pattern, I would say this diet is sustainable and could be used long-term for someone who wants to eat healthier. Many diets fail because they are too restrictive, which can turn regular events like social gatherings into something to dread. You know what they say: If you’re told you can’t have something, you’ll crave it that much more. This diet solves that problem and allows you to indulge on occasion.
Problems with This Diet
Some proponents of this eating pattern are pretty wild in their interpretations of what the “80 percent healthy” means. In one interview, movie star Olivia Munn stated that when she implemented this diet, she opted for 80 percent of her diet from fruits and vegetables and 20 percent from “whatever.” That is an awful strict interpretation of the term “healthy,” and may not provide enough calories or nutrients for optimal health.
The main, glaring issue with this diet is the lack of distinction as to what “healthy” means. Though the flexible nature of this eating pattern makes it easier to sustain over time, many of the details (even important ones, like the meaning of “healthy”) are left up to interpretation.
Sources also disagree about whether this eating pattern should be divvied up by meals or by calories. Some proponents suggest sorting it by meals instead of calories. For example, you would eat “healthy” (or, an even more vague distinction, “clean”) for 17 meals per week and “fun/cheat meals” for four meals per week. In a way, this might make more sense because you can sort meals by those that adhere to MyPlate and those that do not.
Though it might be a more straightforward process than trying to find your own definition of “healthy,” or matching every food you eat to the FDA definition, defining an entire meal as either healthy or not is still problematic.
If you are looking for an eating plan that allows flexibility and doesn’t restrict food groups or calories, the 80/20 diet could be beneficial for you. If you choose to implement this way of eating, my recommendation is to think of it more as an eating concept than a diet. Try not to get obsessed with the actual numbers and percentages. Eat mostly foods that are packed with nutrients, and when you are craving a treat, feel free to have one without guilt.