What Is the 80/20 Diet—and Is It Healthy? – EatingWell

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Data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows 17.1% of U.S. adults are following a specific diet and nearly half of adult Americans (49.1%) are attempting to lose weight. Given the popularity of restrictive and weight-loss-focused eating plans, it’s likely that trending diets are on your radar if you’re interested in losing weight. 

The 80/20 diet is a popular way of eating that appears to be resurfacing thanks to its flexibility and ease. But, is it right for you? We’ve talked to nutrition experts to get the details on what you need to know and who should consider the 80/20 diet as part of their lifestyle. 

What Is the 80/20 Diet—and Is It Healthy?

The 80/20 diet is one of the few that tells you right in the name what it’s about. Those who follow an 80/20 diet approach enjoy more nutrient-dense foods (think: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, dairy, etc.) 80% of the time while allowing 20% of their diet (or a few eating occasions) to include less nutrient-dense choices. 

According to Christy Brissette, M.S., RD, president of 80 Twenty Nutrition in Laguna Beach, California, “The 80/20 way of eating means prioritizing minimally processed foods (such as vegetables and fruit, beans and pulses, fish and poultry, eggs, whole grains and nuts and seeds) most of the time while also enjoying foods that are delicious but may be higher in added sugars or saturated fat. That could mean going out for pizza or a glass of wine with friends or having a couple of scoops of ice cream for dessert.”

Research is still evolving and there is not a solid body of evidence to date that supports the 80/20 diet as healthy for everyone, But a small case report published in the 2020 issue of Integrative Medicine found that through using a multifaceted approach to treat obesity, the 80/20 diet offered flexibility for the patient after coming off an elimination diet. Not only did it help prevent them from feeling deprived, it also decreased urges to binge-eat. 

Pros of the 80/20 Diet

A well-balanced diet should include a variety of nutrient-dense foods. However, there are many reasons we eat beyond just nutrition, and our diets should make room for the foods we enjoy regardless of their nutrition content. Proponents of the 80/20 diet say it allows space for both of these options. Let’s take a look at what experts see as the main benefits of this style of eating. 

You May Build a Base for an Overall Healthy Diet

The 80/20 diet can help individuals learn the basics of a healthy diet, aligning with what the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans encourage. Toby Amidor, M.S., RD, CDN, FAND, an award-winning nutrition expert and Wall Street Journal bestselling author of Up Your Veggies: Flexitarian Recipes for the Whole Family, shares, “The majority of your diet will consist of healthy foods from a variety of food groups including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats and milk and dairy foods.” This advice is best used as a guide to help you build your meals and snacks in a balanced way. 

You Don’t Have to Be Highly Restrictive

Have your cake and eat it too? Both experts agree that this is an appealing part of the 80/20 diet. Amidor shares, “You don’t have to feel deprived—many diet plans are very strict and don’t allow for sweets and treats, making the individual feel very restricted. Oftentimes, this may lead them to feel guilty if they do indulge even in a small treat.” 

Brissette echoes Amidor, sharing, “There are no restrictions on what you can eat, so your favorite foods are all on your plan. This means greater enjoyment and satisfaction from eating and less stress over what to eat and what not to eat. Restrictive diets can lead to disordered eating and food anxiety.”

It’s Not Focused on Counting Calories or Macros

Calculating or logging each and every meal can feel daunting. Thankfully, with the 80/20 diet, you don’t have to do either. Brissette shares, “I appreciate that with 80/20 eating, the focus isn’t on calories or macros—it’s on diet quality. It’s about the big picture. Your overall eating pattern is what I feel is most important, not what you ate at that one meal or snack.”

Cons of the 80/20 Diet

While the 80/20 diet may have some positive attributes, here are some potential drawbacks to be aware of as well. 

It Lacks Structure 

If you thrive on structure, then this may not be the best fit for you. Since it’s up to the individuals to decide which foods they want to consume and how they choose to eat them, it can be challenging for some to make the best eating choices on a regular basis. Brissette shares, “For people that like to get really granular with their eating, the flexible nature of this eating plan can feel too loose to them.” There are numerous ways to achieve a healthy, balanced eating pattern, and it will look different for everyone. To get individualized advice on how to reach your nutritional goals, it’s best to talk to a registered dietitian rather than relying on a diet. 

It May Not Teach You to Regulate Emotions without the Use of Food 

Understanding how to cope with emotions without the use of foods can be tricky for some individuals, nutrition experts included. Amidor shares, “Healthy habits aren’t learned, especially when it comes to cravings.” While there are certainly better-for-you options to satisfy a sweet tooth (like fresh or dried fruits), learning how to manage your stress without relying on the 20% for flexible foods is an important skill to work toward.  

You May Get Hung Up on Numbers 

While one may not have to log foods daily on this diet, Brissette shares that clients sometimes get hung up by the numbers. “What does 80% of their diet really look like? Is it based on calories, macros or number of meals or snacks? For the most part, I think it’s helpful to look at your patterns over a whole week and to give yourself grace if you go over that 20% during special occasions or holidays.”

Being able to eat intuitively means listening to your hunger and fullness cues, and knowing that all foods are allowed at any time. If you try to be strict about limiting certain foods, it can defeat the purpose of building a flexible and sustainable healthy eating pattern. 

It May Lead to Labeling Foods as “Good” vs. “Bad”

If there is one thing most nutrition experts can agree on, it likely is that dichotomous labeling is not the best way to think of foods. Brissette agrees, “Another aspect I don’t love is that this approach makes it necessary to classify foods as ‘80’or ‘20,’ or ‘more healthy’ versus ‘less healthy.’ This can encourage black-and- white thinking, and foods are complex. The intention of this plan isn’t to villainize certain foods or promote others. It’s meant to encourage reflection and help people see that as long as we are trying our best to make healthy choices most of the time, we’re taking great care of ourselves.”

Should You Try the 80/20 Diet? 

Maybe, but maybe not. As Brissette explained, nutrition isn’t black and white. While Amidor agrees that an individual who “doesn’t like much structure” and is able to practice moderation may thrive on this way of eating, it may be more challenging for others. Plus, it can reinforce the idea of “bad” foods. This may damage your relationship with food in the long run when compared with eating more intuitively without a focus on meeting specific percentages. 

While Brissette does think it’s a good approach for many people, she advises those who have a health condition to work one-on-one with a registered dietitian to determine what healthy eating should look like for their unique health needs.

The Bottom Line

The 80/20 diet is a flexible eating plan that allows individuals to practice balance and moderation in their food choices. With this in mind, it certainly can be considered a healthy option for those who want some guidance on how to build a balanced eating pattern. However, experts advise working with a registered dietitian to ensure your personal health goals are met without needing to follow a specific diet plan. 

Read Next: These Are The Best and Worst Diets of 2023, According to U.S. News & Health Report

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