What is the 80/20 diet and should you try it?

Our dietitian’s verdict on whether or not this food rule really works. 

What is the 80/20 diet and should you try it?

If you’ve ever been on a diet (and let’s face it, who hasn’t?!), you’ll know how hard it is to tell yourself you can’t enjoy your favourite foods – and stick to it for longer than a few weeks at a time.

The story usually goes like this: you’re ‘good’ for a while, but then eventually give in, binge and feel bad about yourself, only to start the process again the very next Monday... and that’s exactly why ‘dieting’ doesn’t work. But not all diets forbid all of your much-loved treats. Enter: the 80/20 rule.

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What is the 80/20 food rule?

The basic premise of the 80/20 rule is that you eat super healthy 80 per cent of the time and are ‘allowed’ to treat yo-self 20 per cent of the time. If you’re into maths, that means 17 of the 21 main meals you eat each week should tick all the nutrition boxes, while the remaining four can be ‘unhealthy’.

Essentially, that means you’re ‘good’ during the week and can relax on the weekends.

So, what’s on the menu? While there are no specific food rules, 80 per cent of your diet should comprise of core foods from the five food groups. That’s fruit, vegetables, proteins, dairy and grains, most of which should be classified as ‘whole grains’.

The remaining 20 per cent is exactly what you’re thinking – pizza, pancakes, deep-fried chicken, chocolate, wine... you get the picture.

What are the pros and cons?

The 80/20 rule encourages balance, which is a really good starting point. No foods are completely off limits and, at the same time, no foods are put up on a pedestal. So, it’s relatively sustainable in comparison to a lot of the fad diets out there.

That being said, the 80/20 rule still labels food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, which is not conducive to a healthy relationship with food. You see, food does not have a moral value. I repeat: there is no such thing as a single ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ food.

What really determines the healthfulness of your diet is your consumption pattern over time. Obviously, some foods offer more nutrition than others – but less nutritious options still have a place in a balanced eating plan. Treat foods fill up your happy cup and are good for the soul.

Another drawback of the 80/20 rule is the potential for developing a cheat meal mindset, even though that’s not the intention. Being ‘perfect’ with 80 per cent of your diet could make you think you can eat anything and everything you want for the remaining twenty percent.

Spoiler alert: if you’re digging into mountains of hot chips, buckets of deep fried chicken and entire tubs of ice cream on the reg, you’re not going to lose weight. Rather, the idea is that you don’t feel bad for enjoying something like a single slice or two of pizza (read: not the whole pie).

The verdict on the 80/20 diet

The restrictive nature of fad diets is the very reason they don’t work – and although the 80/20 rule doesn’t appear to be all that restrictive, there is inevitably still an element of ‘I can eat this’ and ‘I can’t eat that’.

As a dietitian, I’m obviously all for diets that are built on a foundation on healthy whole foods, so the 80/20 rule does have some nutritional merit. At the same time, however, I absolutely believe all foods fit and there’s no room for food rules or guilt – so I don’t think the 80/20 way of eating is a good one to follow long term.

Instead of enforcing any strict rules around food, I think focusing on healthy habits and flexing your mindfulness muscle around treats will be far more productive for long-term weight maintenance.

Melissa Meier is a Sydney-based accredited practising dietitian. You can connect with her on Instagram @honest_nutrition.