What Is the 80/20 Diet?

In This Article

Many people successfully lose weight with the 80/20 diet. It's not technically a full-scale weight loss plan, but the 80/20 diet works. If you hate following strict food guidelines, you don't want to count calories or carbohydrates, and you can't find the time to balance complicated macronutrients, then the rules of the 80/20 diet might be right for you.

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

Background

The Pareto Principle is an economic rule stating that 80 percent of consequences, or outputs, come from 20 percent of causes, or inputs. Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto came up with the rule in 1896. Since then, it's been applied to everything from business management to sports training to closets (you wear 20 percent of your clothes 80 percent of the time—so get rid of the 80 percent you're not wearing) and, here, to eating.

How It Works

To follow the 80/20 rule, you eat a "clean" diet 80 percent of the time and then allow yourself to enjoy a few indulgences 20 percent of the time. For many people, this means they eat well during the week and relax a bit on the weekend. The plan allows you to enjoy indulgences on regular basis without the kind of guilt people often feel when they “cheat” on a strict food plan. For many people, this is the most balanced approach to a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle and one we support.

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Whole grains

  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Lean proteins

  • Low-fat dairy products

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Saturated fats (in excess)

  • Refined carbohydrates and sugar (in excess)

  • Alcohol (in excess)

  • Processed foods (in excess)

Whole Grains

In order to benefit fully from the plan, you need to make sure that your 80 percent is comprised of a variety of nutrient-rich foods. Focus on whole foods, including whole grains. Choose brown rice instead of white, 100 percent whole wheat flour, and so on.

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and veggies are whole foods and they are excellent sources of nutrients and fiber and low in calories.

Lean Proteins

Build your meals around lean sources of protein, such as lean meats, legumes, and low-fat dairy products. But do your best to avoid trans fats.

Saturated Fats

On your "off" or 20 percent days, it's okay to consume foods that are higher in fat, but portion control and moderation are still important. 

Refined Carbohydrates and Sugar

Again, moderation is important. Enjoy some pasta or white bread, but not the whole loaf. The same goes for processed foods on your 20 percent days.

Alcohol

During your 80 percent days, you might avoid alcohol altogether. Then, during your more relaxed days, you might enjoy a beer with friends.

Recommended Timing

Any day of the week, even any meal, can be either an 80 percent or a 20 percent. Many people who practice this eating plan consume a whole foods diet during the week and relax their food choices on the weekends. But if your weekend starts on Friday and ends on Monday, you’re not really practicing the 80/20 diet. To lose weight, you must make sure that your 20 percent is really only 20 percent. That equals one and half days a week, or about four meals in seven days. 

Resources and Tips

For best results in terms of weight loss and weight maintenance:

  • Don’t overindulge on your relaxed days. Remember even your 20 percent days should be enjoyed in moderation. If you overdo it on your days “off,” you can gain weight. 
  • Avoid punish yourself on your "clean" eating days. If you white-knuckle your way through the week, you will be more likely to overindulge on the weekend. In addition, the program won’t be sustainable. Diet fatigue will cause you to quit, or worse, to binge.
  • Remember portion control. Eating a whole foods diet still means paying attention to your portions. If you overeat any food, even a healthy food, you are likely to gain weight. 
  • Exercise. The 80/20 rule is perfect for people who participate in a balanced exercise program and are physically active most (if not all) days of the week. The exercise helps to balance out the extra calories that you consume on your 20 percent days. If you are not physically active and you don’t exercise, then the calorie deficit created by the diet may not be significant enough to create a change in the scale.

    Modifications

    If you find that you are unable to lose weight, or are gaining weight, on the 80/20 diet, consider these adjustments:

    • Add exercise. Anyone who is trying to lose weight should get some physical activity every day. But daily exercise is especially important if you are on an eating plan, like the 80/20 diet, that includes some higher-fat and higher-calorie foods.
    • Count calories. If the 80/20 diet doesn’t work within the first few weeks, then keep a food journal for at least seven days. Evaluate your caloric intake and compare it to your caloric needs. Make adjustments to your eating plan or to your activity level to create a calorie deficit of about 500 calories per day.
    • Watch your portions. The best way to create your calorie deficit is to practice portion control. On your clean eating days, you might be making great food choices, but eating too much of them. Portion control becomes even more important on your 20 percent days when you eat higher calorie foods.
    • Move to a 90/10 plan. If you practice portion control and exercise regularly and you still cannot create the calorie deficit needed to lose weight, then adjust the 80/20 diet to a 90/10 plan. Instead of relaxing your food choices for four meals, eat only two meals that allow for indulgences.

      Pros and Cons

      Pros

      • Easy to follow

      • No food tracking or calorie counting

      • No foods are off-limits

      • No deprivation

      • Encourages healthy habits

      Cons

      • Won't work for everyone

      • Requires moderation

      Pros

      Easy to Do

      This is not a harsh, feast-or-famine plan. All of your days—whether you are in the 80 percent or the 20 percent—are moderate eating days. The only thing that changes is the laxity of your choices.  

      No Counting

      There is no need to use food intake apps or food diaries to track your food choices or 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 clean 80 percent of the time, you learn to adopt healthy cooking methods and healthy grocery shopping strategies.

      Cons

      Not for Everyone

      If you currently eat high fat, high-calorie foods every day, then the 80/20 diet is likely to help you lose weight, at least initially. The clean eating (80 percent) days will require you to eat lower calorie foods most of the time. The result should be that you consume significantly fewer calories overall and slim down.

      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.

      Moderation Matters

      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, on one of your 20 percent days, you might choose to have a slice of chocolate cake after dinner. That’s reasonable. But if you eat three slices of cake, you’re not really following the 80/20 principle and you won’t see any change in your weight. If you need more strict rules to keep your intake in check, the 80/20 diet might not be right for you.

      How It Compares

      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.

      USDA Recommendations

      Variety

      The USDA's MyPlate guidelines 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.

      Calories

      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). If you find you need one in order to lose weight, try this calculator.

      Similar Diets

      Whether for shorter-term weight loss or a longer-term lifestyle change, the 80/20 diet shares some features with other eating plans.

      80/20 Diet

      • Safety: As long as you don't binge on fatty and processed foods on the 20 percent days, this diet is very safe.
      • Practicality: The 80/20 plan is easy to understand and follow. There is no counting or tracking, and no special foods or supplements to buy.
      • Effectiveness: The 80/20 plan can help many people lose weight or maintain a weight loss, but success will depend on how conscientious users are with eating clean 80 percent of the time and still eating in moderation on the 20 percent days.
      • Sustainability: Since it is practical and usually effective, this diet is also sustainable. It is safe and manageable to follow long-term.

      Flexitarian Diet

      • Safety: This diet is quite safe. It can also be called a semi-vegetarian diet. It means eating vegetarian most of the time, but having the freedom to consume meat and fish on occasion. So it naturally includes plenty of healthy nutrients, fiber, and complex carbohydrates.
      • Practicality: With no hard-and-fast rules, it's simple to follow this eating plan. It offers flexibility along with its emphasis on nutritious, readily available, plant-based foods.
      • Effectiveness: This diet is not necessarily designed for weight loss. Rather, it is a way for users to be mostly vegetarian, but consume meat sometimes if they are missing it. Depending on their weight and diet at the time they adopt this eating plan, some people will lose weight because they will consume more low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods.
      • Sustainability: It's healthy, safe, and accessible to adopt this as a life-long way of eating.

      Whole Foods Diet

      • Safety: This is the 100/0 version of the 80/20 diet. A whole foods diet is generally safe, since the foods that it eliminates (processed foods, refined carbohydrates) are not particularly healthful. However, for some people, a goal of eating whole foods becomes an unhealthy fixation on clean eating.
      • Practicality: It can be hard to avoid all processed foods (and probably unnecessary, since some minimally processed foods are quite healthy). There is a lot more planning, shopping, and preparing food when you are doing it all yourself instead of using any convenience foods.
      • Effectiveness: As with the flexitarian diet, people following a whole foods diet may not necessarily be trying to lose weight. They may find choose to eat this way for other health or philosophical reasons. Still, eliminating added sugars, fats, and refined carbs will often lead to weight loss.
      • Sustainability: Eating only whole foods may be challenging, especially outside of the home. That could make this diet hard to sustain for the long term.

        Intermittent Fasting

        • Safety: Intermittent fasting is sort of the inverse of the 80/20 rule. It means eating as you normally would for most days per week (typically five), but consuming very few calories on the other days (about one-fourth of the regular daily intake). So you could look at it as 80 percent normal eating and 20 percent fasting. Experts say this is reasonably safe for most people, as long as their regular diet contains plenty of nutrient-dense foods.
        • Practicality: Willpower aside, this diet is pretty simple. There is no need to count calories or carbs or track food. Simply cut way back on consumption on those fast days.
        • Effectiveness: The scientific evidence on fasting for weight loss is not entirely clear. It can work, but may not be a lasting effect.
        • Sustainability: This eating plan may be difficult to stick with, as noted by some of the research. Those two very low-calorie days are very challenging.

        A Word From Verywell

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

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

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