What Is the 80/20 Diet?

At Verywell, we believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to a healthy lifestyle. Successful eating plans need to be individualized and take the whole person into consideration. Prior to starting a new diet plan, consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian, especially if you have an underlying health condition.

What Is the 80/20 Diet?

The 80/20 diet suggests eating nutritious foods for 80% of the time and relaxeing on the remaining 20%. The idea is based on The Pareto Principle, an economic rule stating that 80% of consequences (or outputs) come from 20% of causes (or inputs). This way of eating is not a diet plan but rather a mindset and is open to individual interpretation.

What Experts Say

"The 80/20 diet approaches healthy eating with a message of moderation—80 percent healthy choices and 20 percent flexibility for less healthy options. Nutrition professionals back this approach, as it’s feasible for all, allows for a variety of foods, and avoids deprivation."
Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

The 7-Day Diet Plan

There are endless possibilities for meals on the 80/20 diet. Below is an example of a week's worth of eating 80% healthy foods and 20% indulgences. Note that what is considered "healthy" or "unhealthy" is open to interpretation, and in fact, there are no foods that need to be strictly off-limits when you consume a generally well-balanced diet and eat in moderation.

What You Can Eat

Technically, you can eat anything you like on the 80/20 diet, so long as you stick to the premise of eating healthy foods for 80% of your meals and snacks. To fully benefit from the plan, make sure that your 80% contains a variety of nutrient-rich foods. Focus on whole foods, including whole grains. These foods are generally recognized as healthy.

Whole Grains

Whole grains offer carbohydrates for energy, along with fiber, vitamins, minerals, and some protein.

  • Brown rice
  • 100% whole wheat bread and pasta products
  • Oatmeal
  • Quinoa

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and veggies are whole foods and therefore rich in key nutrients. They're a good source of dietary fiber and are also naturally low in calories.

  • Leafy greens
  • Potatoes
  • Zucchini
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Mushrooms
  • Melons
  • Berries
  • Citrus
  • Apples
  • Peaches

Lean Proteins

Build your meals around lean sources of protein. Do your best to avoid trans fats.

  • Lean meat
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Legumes
  • Fish and seafood
  • Soy protein

Saturated Fats

For 20% of your calories, you might choose to consume foods higher in fat, but portion control and moderation are still important. 

  • Higher-fat meats
  • Butter

Refined Carbohydrates and Sugar

As with saturated fats, moderation is key for your carb and sugar intake. You can enjoy some pasta or white bread—just don't go for the whole loaf. The same goes for processed foods you might choose to include in your 20% of "less healthy" calories.

Alcohol

You might choose to avoid alcohol most of the time. Then, you might enjoy a beer with friends or a glass of wine with dinner once a week or so.

What You Cannot Eat

There is nothing you cannot eat on the 80/20 diet, and although you should consume only 20% of "unhealthy" or "indulgent" foods, which foods constitute this 20% are open to interpretation and personal beliefs. Some people believe anything that isn't "whole food," such as bread products instead of unprocessed grains, is unhealthy, while others say the unhealthy foods are things like candy, dessert, and chips.

How to Prepare the 80/20 Diet & Tips

To follow the 80/20 rule, you eat a "clean" diet 80% of the time and allow yourself to enjoy a few indulgences 20% of the time. For many people, this means they focus on nutritious, whole foods during the week and relax a bit on the weekend. Others may choose to consume a bit of indulgent food each day, or some other combination.

The plan allows you to enjoy indulgences on a regular basis without making you feel like you are straying from your diet. This can be a balanced approach to a healthy diet and lifestyle for many people.

If you are pursuing this eating pattern to lose weight, remember that even your 20% indulgences should be enjoyed in moderation. If you overdo it, you can gain weight. And If you overeat any food, even healthy food, you are likely to gain weight. 

If you find that you are unable to lose weight, or are gaining weight, on the 80/20 diet, you might want to consider making an adjustment. Adjustments can include additional exercise, counting calories to ensure a deficit, watching your portions more closely, or moving to a 90/10 style instead.

Sample Shopping List

There are no foods you need to buy or avoid specifically, but focusing on healthy, whole foods during your shopping and a few indulgent foods will help. This is not a definitive list and other foods may work better for you.

  • Whole grains (oats, whole grain bread, brown rice)
  • Vegetables (leafy greens, zucchini, asparagus, potatoes)
  • Fruit (apples, citrus, melons, berries, bananas)
  • Lean protein (chicken, beef, eggs, fish)
  • Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese)
  • Your favorite treats (chips, cookies, dark chocolate, ice cream)

Pros of the 80/20 Diet

This style of eating has much to recommend it, including these advantages.

  • Easy to do: The 80/20 diet is not a restrictive, feast-or-famine plan. All of your meals and indulgences are included. The only thing that changes is their relative proportions.  
  • No counting: There is no need to use food intake apps or food diaries to track your food choices, or to count calories or carbs.
  • No foods to avoid: On the 80/20 diet, no food is off-limits. You can enjoy everything you like, just not all the time. 
  • No deprivation: If you have a party or a special night out, you can still enjoy indulgences like a restaurant meal or birthday cake and ice cream. 
  • Promotes healthy habits: Since you are eating nutritious foods 80% of the time, you learn to adopt healthy cooking methods and healthy grocery shopping strategies.
  • Acceptable for any diet needs: Anyone can try this diet since no foods are demanded or restricted completely. So, if you are gluten-free, vegan, diabetic, or have an allergy, the 80/20 diet can work for you.

Cons of the 80/20 Diet

There are still a few drawbacks of this plan, even though it is quite modifiable.

  • May not work for everyone: If you currently eat high-fat, high-calorie foods every day, the 80/20 diet is likely to help you lose weight—at least initially. You will need to eat lower-calorie foods most of the time. The result should be that you consume significantly fewer calories overall and lose weight. However, if your current diet is fairly healthy, you’re not likely to see a calorie deficit large enough to produce weight loss. You may need to evaluate your caloric intake and adjust your energy balance to lose weight.
  • May not have enough structure: The 80/20 rule is not an excuse to overeat or overindulge. On your relaxed days, you should still practice moderation. The only change is that you are not as rigid about your food choices. For example, you might choose to have a slice of chocolate cake after dinner. However, if you eat three slices of cake, you’re not following the 80/20 principle and you won’t see any change in your weight. If you need more strict rules to stick with an eating plan, the 80/20 diet might not be right for you.

Is the 80/20 Diet a Healthy Choice for You?

With its flexibility and lack of restriction, the 80/20 diet is in line with expert guidelines and shares similarities with other gradual weight-loss plans. For example, the MyPlate guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest a balanced eating plan of reasonable portions of grains, lean meats, fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, which aligns with the 80/20 diet's principles.

For weight loss, the USDA suggests a daily calorie intake of roughly 1500 calories for women and 2000 calories for men, but these numbers can vary based on age, sex, activity level, and weight. The 80/20 diet doesn't set a recommended calorie count (that's one of the reasons it's simple to follow).

The 80/20 diet is a good introduction to moderation and eating a balanced, nutritious diet. Learning to plan for and accept indulgences without guilt can prevent feeling like a diet is too strict. However, it may not be enough to induce weight loss, if that is your goal, since it doesn't necessarily create a caloric deficit.

A Word From Verywell

If you are looking for a way to maintain healthy eating habits, consider the 80/20 diet. It is the diet of choice for many people because it allows for both balance and indulgence.

If you want to lose weight, you may need to adjust the 80/20 rule to a 90/10 diet to see results. After you lose weight, you might be able to shift back to the 80/20 plan for maintenance, since it is simple to follow for the long term.

Remember, following a long-term or short-term diet may not be necessary for you and many diets out there simply don’t work, especially long-term. While we do not endorse fad diet trends or unsustainable weight loss methods, we present the facts so you can make an informed decision that works best for your nutritional needs, genetic blueprint, budget, and goals.

If your goal is weight loss, remember that losing weight isn’t necessarily the same as being your healthiest self, and there are many other ways to pursue health. Exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle factors also play a major role in your overall health. The best diet is always the one that is balanced and fits your lifestyle.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hernandez M. 80/20 diet efficacy in regard to physiology and psychosocial factorsJ Obes Weight Loss Ther. 2017;07(06). doi:10.4172/2165-7904.1000357

  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture. What is MyPlate?.

By Malia Frey
 Malia Frey is a weight loss expert, certified health coach, weight management specialist, personal trainer​, and fitness nutrition specialist.