The 80/20 Diet Rule and Why it Works

It can seem like a new diet trend is popping up every day. The 80/20 diet, however, is less of a diet and can be a more laid-back approach to getting healthier.

Laid back and diet—sounds pretty good, right? Let's dive a little deeper. 

The 80/20 diet we’re referring to here is following your diet or eating nutritiously 80% of the time and enjoying more flexibility, aka “treating yourself” the other 20% of the time. 

In other words, this “diet” lets you have your cake and eat it too—literally. 

The goal is that lessening the restriction will prevent the all too common sense of deprivation we think of when it comes to dieting while still helping you make progress towards your health goals. 


What does the 80/20 diet rule mean?

The 80/20 rule originated by an economist observing agriculture yields, a field far away from the diet space, but has been adopted to mean different things in various fields.

There are two main interpretations when it comes to the 80/20 rule in health.  

Often it’s used solely for your nutrition, focusing on healthful foods 80 percent of the time and the other 20 percent of the time enjoying foods more for pleasure. 

Some others use it as a way to approach nutrition and exercise, placing the emphasis on nutrition 80 percent of the time and focusing on fitness the other 20 percent.

Learn more about this breakdown:

80/20 for Diet & Exercise


The overarching theme of the 80/20 rule is making sure your priorities are where they should be without neglecting your other needs. 

Similar to the “everything in moderation” rule, the 80/20 diet provides a bit more structure without feeling the restriction of a conventional diet. 

What does the 80/20 split look like?

The 80 percent of the split includes foods with high nutritional value.

This will primarily include less processed foods, things like fruits, vegetables, lean meats and proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats. 

A standard balanced meal with lean protein, healthy carbs, and healthy fats will meet this criteria. 

The remaining 20 percent of the equation includes foods that may not be traditionally viewed as “healthy,” but they feed your body in other ways (pleasure, emotions, etc.). 

This could be your favorite dessert,  a recipe your grandmother used to make, or enjoying eating dinner out with your friends. 

The Benefits 

Fact: most diets fail. This can be discouraging to hear but is a well-established fact. One review found that the success rate of long-term weight loss is only around 20% (1.)  

One reason is that individuals become too restrictive with their diet and end up overeating or binging to compensate.

This can often “undo” or outweigh any deficit that was created and go in the opposite direction resulting in weight gain. With this, we often see the result of the chronic dieter or the “yo-yo dieter.”  

Giving yourself permission to still enjoy some of your favorite foods (20% of the time) while pursuing weight loss can help reduce the risk of overeating. 

While there is a lack of research on the 80/20 diet specifically, one study showed that when dieters had to restrict their favorite foods, they were more likely to eat more of that food when the restrictive period was over (2).  

Ever heard someone say, “I’m so bad” when reaching for the candy jar? Food guilt is real, and not having to beat yourself up after enjoying a treat is another huge plus to this approach. 

Another win is that this model can be adapted to fit across many different styles of eating, so whether you are vegan, keto, paleo, you can utilize this diet. 

If sticking to a general healthier way of eating is your goal, this “diet” may be perfect for you.


The Risks

The allure of the 80/20 diet to some may be that it seems less strict and requires less time and planning than following a specific macro goal or meal plan. 

Unfortunately, weight loss is still a numbers game, and the 80/20 diet will still take time and planning. 

While there is flexibility in your meal plan, in order to lose weight, you still need to be in a calorie deficit.

It may be easier to stray from your plan when you're parameters for dieting are already a bit looser. 20 percent can quickly become 30, then 40, then 50, etc.

Tracking your meals in an app or food journal can be a helpful way to prevent this slippery slope effect. 

Staying mindful of your hunger and fullness cues can be advantageous in sticking to your split and not going crazy with the flexible 20%. 

If your goal is weight loss, the 80/20 diet can work, but you want to make sure you are achieving a slight calorie deficit for gradual and sustainable weight loss. 


The Takeaway

If you’re looking for a laid-back approach to dieting that can help keep you accountable while still giving you the flexibility to eat your favorite foods, this diet may be perfect for you. 

Keep in mind, if weight loss is your goal and you’re not familiar with your calorie and/or macro goals, you may want to dive deeper into that space. 

Once you have a better understanding of your needs, the transition to the 80/20 diet approach will be much easier.

To find success with the 80/20 diet, it’s important to keep your goals in mind and not get carried away with the 20%.


Where To Start  

Meal prep can be a great way to plan out your 80/20 diet and make it easier to keep track of the split. 

First, figure out how many meals you eat in a week, then calculate out what 80% and 20% of your week is.

For example, if you eat 3 meals a day x 7 days a week, you eat 21 total meals. 80% of that is 17 meals, leaving you 4 flexible meals for the 20%. 

Making those 17 meals something that is pre-portioned and calorie controlled can take some of the variability and guesswork out of this approach.

Those remaining 4 meals can be the ones that you eat out or make one of your favorite meals that may be less conventionally healthy.

Teach me how to meal prep

If meal prep seems like too much work, you can hit the easy button and get meal prep delivered to your door with a calorie-controlled meal delivery service like Trifecta