The 80/20 Rule is a popular phrase for dietitians, alongside “everything in moderation” and “fill half your plate with vegetables”. The idea is that you want to eat healthy 80% of the time, and allow yourself to eat less healthy 20% of the time.
I have used the 80/20 Rule for years, and in a culture that can be very “black and white” or “all or nothing” when it comes to food and nutrition, the spirit of and intention behind the 80/20 Rule is a good one: you don’t have to be perfect in order to be healthy. In fact, it is often the pursuit of perfection that leads to an obsession with numbers, distorted body image and disordered eating.
So, what is my problem with this seemingly sensible statement?
3 Reasons Why the 80/20 Rule Isn’t Serving Me (and Might Not Be Serving You, Either)
1. It’s Doing the Exact Opposite of What It’s Intended To
People like numbers and structure, so the 80/20 Rule is catchier than simply saying “You don’t have to be perfect in order to be healthy.” Problems arise, however, when people start taking the 80/20 Rule literally.
Back in December, I did a segment on healthy holiday eating where I mentioned the 80/20 Rule, and at the end of the segment (skip to 4:25) the host says, “So, 80 pieces of lettuce for 20 pieces of chocolate…” I know it was a joke, but even the way that the segment was promoted made me feel uneasy:
— Jill Belland (@jillbelland) 20 December 2016
The 80/20 Rule is not meant to be taken literally! #imperfection #8020rule Click To Tweet
While the intention was to help people let go of food rules and perfectionist tendencies, the 80/20 Rule has instead reinforced them. For one, it’s called a rule (perhaps 80/20 Principle might be a better fit?) And instead of using it as a reminder that it’s OK to not be perfect, what many are doing (without really realizing) is trying to be “100% perfect at eating healthy 80% of the time”. Worse yet, it’s sometimes used as a strategy to deny an eating problem, “Oh, I’m not trying to be perfect – I still have my 20%!”
2. It Promotes “Good” vs “Bad”
At best, the 80/20 Rule can be interpreted as choosing nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods 80% of the time, and less nutritious, convenience foods 20% of the time. At worst, the 80/20 Rule is just reinforcing the diet-binge cycle – you white-knuckle through a miserable, tasteless and restrictive diet 80% of the time, only to binge on “cheat meals” or a “cheat day” as the 20%, then rinse and repeat.
At the end of the day, categorizing foods as “good” or “bad” is not healthy or sustainable. First of all, no one seems to be able to agree on what’s “good” or “bad” – I mean, is barley good? It’s a whole grain, but is it bad because it’s not gluten-free or Paleo-friendly?
Even when you’re allowing yourself “bad” foods, there’s a lot of fear/guilt/panic around this “20%” idea, and you’re secretly/openly hoping that you keep those “bad” foods as far away from being 20% of your diet as possible.
It may be more helpful to remember that all eating serves a purpose. While our diet culture upholds eating for nourishment/fuel only, who’s to say that eating for enjoyment, comfort or just to feel good is not as worthy?
3. It Reinforces the Idea That You’re Not the Expert
You might be thinking, wait, what? But I’m not the expert… aren’t you the expert?
As a dietitian, I might be the expert when it comes to evidence-based nutrition, for example, what the evidence is saying and where to find credible information, but you are the expert of you and your body.
The science of nutrition can help us explain why certain foods/eating patterns might make us feel a certain way, or what works/doesn’t work for people in a controlled environment, but true health comes from taking that information and figuring out how it applies to your individual needs.
Our diet culture breaks the innate trust we have in our bodies and inner wisdom by teaching us that we need an expert to tell us what, how much and when to eat, whether that “expert” is a friend, family member, health professional, or even a meal plan ripped out of a magazine.
Even though the 80/20 Rule may seem benign, it’s still essentially saying that we “should” or “need” to be eating a certain way, even though that may not be what your body wants or needs.
So, What/How Much Should I Eat?
The short answer is, the types and amounts of food that make you feel good.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. Particularly for those people who have dieted for most of their life, and/or struggle with their weight and relationship with food, you may feel like you’ve lost your ability to listen to your body, let alone trust what it has to say.
You might even feel like, “I don’t want to listen or experiment, I just want to eat normal and feel normal right away!”
The problem with blindly following a bunch of food rules is two-fold: 1) they might not work for you, leading to more frustration; 2) when someone else tells you to do something, you’re less likely to want to do it.
Instead, I invite you to just experiment with listening to your body – even if it’s just for a day. What are you really asking for when you are hungry? What does that feel like? What happens if you don’t/can’t feed yourself exactly what you want? What does fullness feel like? How do different types and amounts of foods affect feeling full or satisfied? How do you feel between meals and snacks?