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The 80/20 Mindset: Eat Healthy Without Feeling Deprived

Blog, Food

By Melinda Maryniuk, MEd, RD, CDCES

The “80/20” style of eating has become a popular way to describe a healthy and balanced approach to food. With the 80/20 approach, you eat nutritious, less-processed foods 80-90% of the time (choosing foods that come in their natural, whole, unprocessed forms), and enjoy less nutrient-dense foods & treats 10-20% of the time.

The 80/20 approach works because an important part of adopting a healthy approach to food is to eliminate strict rules, “forbidden” foods, and guilt. Here are some guidelines for food choices in the “80%” period: 

  • Eat more fruits and veggies – aim to have a fruit or veggie at every meal and snack
  • Eat more whole grains – in addition to whole wheat and brown rice, try other grains such as farro or quinoa
  • Eat more legumes, nuts, and seeds – these can be great as snacks, or as a meat substitute for meatless meals, as they contain protein and heart-healthy fats
  • Drink more zero-calorie beverages – for example, water, seltzers, and unsweetened tea
  • Eat less added salt and sugar – check the label and avoid these, as well as other additives
  • Eat less processed foods – whenever possible, eat fewer foods that have a list of ingredients full of words you can’t pronounce!

Here are a few ways to think about putting the 80/20 approach into practice:

  • 80/20 Day-by-Day Plan: During a typical 7 day week – one day can feature some special treats, perhaps enjoying nachos at a restaurant meal with friends or birthday cake at an office party.
  • 80/20 Meal-by-Meal Plan: If you have 3 meals a day (21 per week), aim for 16-17 to follow your meal plan – and 4-5 to be a little “off” your ideal plan.
  • 80/20 Snack Plan: If you snack twice a day (14 snacks/week) plan for 11-12 of them to be healthy choices such as fruit, nuts, & yogurt, and 2-3 times a week make room for the cookies, ice cream, or other favorite treats.

Adopt a healthy attitude towards eating and exercise. Set small, realistic goals, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Know that small steps in the right direction can make a big difference, and beating yourself up when you slip up can be even worse than overeating itself. Keeping a positive attitude is important!

  • All foods can fit – in balance. There are no “good” foods or “bad” foods – just foods that are more nutritious, and foods that are less nutritious. We do not want to deprive ourselves of anything.
  • Be mindful – enjoy your food. This means being very intentional with how you eat so it is a planned, enjoyable experience. Eat when you’re hungry. Avoid distractions (like snacking in front of the TV, or while on your phone) and eat slowly to savor the flavors. Keep a food journal so you can learn more about your usual food habits.
  • Make physical activity a planned part of each day. Incorporate something you enjoy into your daily routine. Walking is great – but you can also try something new! You might find that water aerobics or a dance class is really fun.
  • Seek support. Making long-term lifestyle changes can be hard. Ask for the help you need from your family and friends. Talk with your doctor about weight management programs, or a dietitian that can help. Participate in online communities with others who can provide support.

While this article provides guidance about healthy eating, it’s important to stress that for many people, diet and exercise alone aren’t enough to reach a healthier weight. The good news is that there are safe and effective medical treatments available that can address the biological issues that make sustained weight loss difficult. To find a physician near you who specializes in weight management, click here.