What is the 80/20 Rule and is it the Secret to Weight Loss?

When researching weight loss diets, you may have heard the saying “Weight loss is 80% nutrition and 20% exercise,” but what does this ambiguous phrase really mean?

What is the 80/20 rule, and is there any truth to applying it to weight loss? Are abs really made in the kitchen? We’ve broken down the basics of the 80/20 rule and what it actually means in reference to your health.

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What is the 80/20 rule for weight loss? 

The 80/20 principle for weight loss refers to the thought that 80% of your weight loss comes from diet and 20% from exercise, a concept that’s a bit more sustainable than a lot of the crash diets that promote strict eating rules and unrealistic calorie cutting. 

When applied to diet and exercise, this rule can be pretty useful. There are no strict guidelines on what you’re supposed to be eating or the type of exercise you’re doing, so it can be adapted to any kind of lifestyle or dietary approach. 

Unlike other restrictive diets and weight-loss regimes, the 80/20 rule is flexible and takes into account that what works for some doesn't necessarily work for everyone. 

Where did the 80/20 rule originate? 

Believe it or not, the 80-20 rule emerged from a field that has nothing to do with health and wellness.

The 80-20 rule was introduced in 1906 by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who, according to legend, observed that only 20% of the pea pods in his garden were responsible for 80% of the peas. He then investigated this principle further by applying it to macroeconomics and observed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population. 

The 80-20 rule refers to the generalized phenomenon that 80% of results (outputs) will come from just 20% of the action (inputs). 

This “universal truth” became known as the Pareto principle or the 80/20 rule, and while it doesn’t always come to be an exact 80/20 ratio, this concept has been applied across various fields from business, time management, and personal finance to overall health and our own individual habits. 

While there is a lack of scientific evidence that proves or disproves the 80-20 rule, it is well known that a combination of diet and exercise is preferred for weight loss and weight loss maintenance. 

Using the 80/20 rule in health and wellness can actually be a great way to identify your strengths and use them to conquer your health goals.

It can also be used as a guideline on which areas of your life you should focus your efforts on and which areas of your life are the most important to you. I.e., creating better habits around health and wellness for weight loss. 

If we follow the 80/20 rule for weight loss, is nutrition that much more important than exercise with it comes to weight loss or our overall health? In the end, it really depends on your goals. 

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Is nutrition really more important than exercise? 

While exercising has tremendous health benefits, nutrition will always play a larger role in transforming your body composition and achieving weight loss.

Science has continually shown that weight loss can be achieved by decreasing the quantity of what you eat (achieving a consistent calorie deficit) and also by improving the quality of your diet (peer sources). 

You could exercise every day, break a sweat, and put in hours at the gym, but if you’re eating junk and constantly over your daily recommended calorie intake, you most likely are never going to get the results you want. 

So it’s true when we say you can’t outwork a bad diet, which is why the 80/20 rule emphasizes nutrition and getting serious about how and what you’re choosing to fuel your body with. 

Following this rule also helps you investigate other factors that impact our weight—like changes in water weight, hormones, stress, sleep, and human error. Because as perfect as the calorie model for weight loss may appear on paper (i.e, burn more calories than you consume), it doesn’t always work perfectly in practice.  

Can you lose weight without exercise? 

Although nutrition plays a more important role in the weight-loss equation, this doesn’t mean that exercise isn’t beneficial for overall health and well-being. Research has proven that exercise can help boost your mental health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, strengthen your bones and muscles, and support metabolic health (2, 3, 4). 

It is entirely possible to lose weight without exercise by creating a calorie deficit by reducing the amount of food you eat, but you may experience some unwanted symptoms like cravings and mood swings from trying to just cut calories alone. 

It’s also important to note that there is a difference between weight loss and fat loss. Weight loss is a decrease in your overall body weight, whereas fat loss refers to weight loss from fat loss specifically.

Fat loss can be a better goal than weight loss because to achieve fat loss, you will focus on changing your body composition by increasing lean mass and decreasing body fat. This could mean the number on the scale goes up or stays the same, even though you are losing body fat! 

Luckily the 80/20 rule can be applied to both general weight loss and fat loss, as long as you stay within a healthy calorie deficit and cultivate more mindful eating habits


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Key Takeaway 

The 80/20 rule isn’t a rule but rather a notion that weight loss can be achieved by focusing on your diet 80% of the time and 20% of the time on exercise.

What this actually looks like is up to you, but it emphasizes that your nutrition is more important than your exercise routine when it comes to losing weight. 

In the end, if your goal is weight loss, then focusing more on your nutrition will give you the upper hand in your transformation. But if your goal is general health and wellness, then you'll probably be splitting your focus 50/50 between optimizing your nutrition and finding an exercise routine that you enjoy. 

Ready to start prioritizing your nutrition? Here are a few resources to help you get started: 

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