What Does the 80/20 Rule Really Look Like?

by tinareale on September 26, 2012

If you read health or fitness magazines, books, or blogs, then I bet  you have likely heard about it. That lovely “80/20 Rule” – the recommendation to focus on 80% of your food choices coming from wholesome and nutritious foods with 20% from the things you enjoy that might not be the best for your body. There is a lot of reasoning to support approaching healthy eating in this way. My big reasons?

  • Don’t have to be perfect. I know that keeps me from feeling overwhelmed and like a “failure” if I enjoyed a dinner out on the weekend. In the past, one slip up on my “must be perfectly clean” meal plan would lead to binges for days.
  • Promotes a lifestyle change. When I don’t feel the pressure, it’s a lot easier to remain consistent and do my best. And CONSISTENCY is what helps get results. When I don’t feel deprived, I can stick with things a lot longer. A lot lot longer.
  • I can live without obsessing. Social gathering? Sure! Holiday dinner? Sure! Super duper craving that just won’t quit? I got you covered! I know those instances aren’t the majority of my food choices, so I can live a little and not feel guilty because I know I’ll go back to balance right away at the next meal.

I’m 100% on board with the 80/20 rule myself and do my best to put it into practice. However, I will admit that it took me awhile to figure out what that balance really looks like.

You see, a small daily treat plus a few large weekend splurges may feel like that 80/20 balance…but then those pants are fitting tighter and you’re questioning how it could happen because you’re living BALANCED! Just like “they” told me would work. Who’s been there? *raises hand*

When I first started applying this tip to my life, I admittedly went a bit overboard at first. It was probably more like 60/40…then maybe 70/30…then I figured out my balance. I thought some others out there may have felt the same frustrations, so let’s break it down together. What exactly does 80/20 look like?


I brought out the old math nerd and put together some scenarios to see how it plays out – Neat (aka clean eating meal) vs Treat (a not so nutritious option). PS – I picked those labels just for ease of terminology…let’s not get into the discussion on labeling foods as “cheats” and “splurges” and “good” vs “bad” and all that yada yada yada. Mmmmkay? Good.

  • 3 square meals per day: 21 meals per week. 80/20 = 17 Neat & 3 Treat meals over the week.
  • 5 small meals per day: 35 small meals per week. 80/20 = 28 Neat & 7 Treat over the week.
  • 2000 calories average per day (daily view): 2000 calories. 80/20 = 1600 Neat & 400 Treat calories per day.
  • 2000 calories average per day (week view): 14,000 calories per week. 80/20 = 11,200 Neat & 2,800 Treat calories per week.

So this could cover those 1-2 times you ate out on the weekend (still within reason) and the bowl of ice-cream after that rough day at work. Or, hey! We can end each day with a small treat instead of another mini-meal. Or save up some of those calories to balance out for that celebratory lunch at work tomorrow.

Now, I don’t suggest you have to plan out all your meals to the tee for the week and then bring out your calculator to determine the exact percentage of your neat vs treat meals/calories to make sure you’re hitting a particular percentage each day/week/meal. Not at all! Heck, that would drive me bonkers.

I simply want to put out there that we DO have wiggle room in our eating habits and don’t have to be perfect, but that we also must remain mindful. We can’t just claim balance without really considering what we put into our bodies. And some days/weeks may be more like 60/40 or 90/10. Some people may thrive more on 95/5 and others do just fine and dandy with 75/25. Do what works for you, but remain mindful…so you can consistently give your body the best in a way you can do for life.

Your Life – What are your thoughts on the 80/20 guideline? How do you use it?


1 Bek @ Crave September 26, 2012 at 6:41 am

I really love this post (have I already said this a million times to you? haha). Thanks for putting it into numerical terms and into context I guess. I like the terms neat and treat ahha- very cute. I guess sometimes I worry about categorising foods into treats- is a big snack (all healthy) a treat because it’s big? Is a healthy snack a treat because it’s high calorie? Sometimes I over think things and it makes things worse haha!

2 Antonia @ Health Inspirations September 26, 2012 at 6:43 am

Great post Tina! I’ve always thought very highly of the 80/20 rule since it allows splurges and prevents binges. I guess I sort of follow the rule myself, although I’m not too strict about it. Luckily I will always, okay mostly, choose healthy food instead of fast food so if I have a treat after dinner it’s really not a big deal. At the end of the day I remind myself that food should be enjoyed and I try not to calculate around too much since it takes away most of the joy.

3 Khushboo September 26, 2012 at 6:44 am

LOVE this post, Tina! I definitely follow the 80/20 (or sometimes 70/30 rule) because it keeps me healthy & the indulgences keep me sane! It’s one of the main reasons why I stopped being so meticulous about counting my daily calories…ultimately it all balances out if you’re mindful to an extent! Unsurprisingly, the wiggle room seems to mostly make its appearance on the weekend as that’s when I eat out more!

4 Lindsay @ Lindsay's List September 26, 2012 at 6:46 am

what if i eat ice cream every single meal? but only a spoonful.

5 tinareale September 26, 2012 at 4:37 pm

it’s okay if it’s a teaspoon…but not a tablespoon. then I would have to come spank you and we all know how that ends. ;)

6 Glenneth September 26, 2012 at 6:57 am

i love this breakdown….so helpful. Thanks Tina!

7 Paige @ Your Trainer Paige September 26, 2012 at 7:13 am

LOL – I’m not laughing at your post, because this is seriously awesome. But take one guess as to what I talk about in my post this morning..80/20!!! We seriously ARE blog twins.

Annnyway – I totally love how you break the 80/20 rule down like this and make it more…chewable, ya know? :)

8 chelsey @ clean eating chelsey September 26, 2012 at 7:16 am

Love this – I’m definitely somewhere in between 80/20 and 90/10. We all need a little wiggle room.

By the way, 9 days. That’s all! :) Can you tell I’m pumped?!

9 Coco September 26, 2012 at 7:28 am

Hah! This really hits home. I think I follow the 80/20 rule calorie-wise on weekdays but still have a splurge meal or two on the weekends, so I am SURE that my “balance” is a bit out of whack. I know you can’t out-exercise a bad diet, but I do burn extra calories with my weekend long runs, and occaisionally step on the scale for a reality check.

10 Nicole September 26, 2012 at 7:43 am

great post tina! I usually follow the 80/20 rule, but during this pregnancy it’s probably been closer to 70/30 :)

11 tinareale September 27, 2012 at 6:28 am

That’s good. During my pregnancy with Braedon I was like 60/40…and maybe that was even on a good day. Haha!

12 Marilyn September 26, 2012 at 7:55 am

Thanks for this breakdown. I’d be interested to hear what 80/20 looks like for you. I’ve been experimenting with mine recently, and right now it looks like – enjoying 2-bite or < 100 calorie desserts during the week and 1-2 meals out during the weekend. I'm feeling pretty satisfied with it. :-)

13 tinareale September 27, 2012 at 6:30 am

That’s what I was going to say mine looks like. Generally a bit of dark chocolate to kill a sweet tooth during the week and then I’ll have something like pizza for dinner or a dessert or dinner out or something 1, maybe 2 times, over the weekend. Some weekends has a bit more indulgence when there are lots of things going on (like birthday parties, date nights, social events, etc) but on the whole mine is the same as yours.

14 Brittany (Healthy Slice of Life) September 26, 2012 at 8:18 am

I used to strive for 80/20, but found I work best at about 90/10. I really enjoy healthy food, so it’s no big deal to me. My 10% comes from beer/wine (which I enjoy 1 glass of most nights… but some may argue that as healthy?) and from MEXICAN food. I may go up to 70/30 on Mexican nights out ;)

I loved your math breakdown, though. Interesting way to look at it that I never had before!

15 Sue September 26, 2012 at 8:24 am

Great post! Thanks for doing all that math!
I also try to follow the 80/20 diet approach. But I sometimes find it hard to draw the line between ‘neat’ and ‘treat’, e.g. one handful of nuts is health, several large handfuls are a treat. Overnight oats are a great breakfast, but maybe a bit heavy as a late night snack.
I’ll try to stay under 400 treat calories per day, guess that should work.

16 Lee September 26, 2012 at 8:27 am

That is interesting because I am definitely guilty of thinking that I eat healthy about 80% of the time, when really I bet it’s more like 50%. It’s interesting to see it in terms of meals or calories.

17 tinareale September 27, 2012 at 6:31 am

Totally not related to your comment…but I miss seeing you!

18 Julie @ Sweetly Balanced September 26, 2012 at 8:46 am

This is a great post!! Thank you so much!! I’m still new to the whole stop trying to diet and instead live a healthy balanced life idea. I started this at the beginning of August and have been feeling unhappy because I don’t really see any changes, after seeing this I think I’ve been probably more on the 60/40 side of things. I’ve never actually heard the whole 80/20 rule so this is incredibly helpful!! I’m going to practice being a bit more mindful! :)

19 Christine @ Love, Life, Surf September 26, 2012 at 8:53 am

I totally agree – I think that I live a 80/20 lifestyle but I’m not positive. It’s really helpful the way that you broke it down in neat vs. treat. That’s super helpful in terms of thinking about how I eat over the course of the week.

20 Katie @ Talk Less, Say More September 26, 2012 at 9:12 am

I love the breakdown! And I’m totally for the all things in moderation approach! And I think it’s important to remember 80/20, especially when we feel we’ve fallen off the bandwagon.

21 Kaitlin @4loveofcarrots September 26, 2012 at 9:22 am

I love this! I try to eat 80/20, or 90/10, I think on weekends I am more lenient but I try to follow 80/20 all the time. I definitely never feel like I deprive myself and avoid the I am so full I can hardly move feeling because of this way of eating.

22 Jess September 26, 2012 at 9:25 am

Two things I absolutely adore about this post — the breakdown calorie-wise of just what 20% equates to. REALLY good reminder that 20% is good leeway but it’s not an all-out food fest either. That’s balance. The second thing I love — the word ‘mindful’ towards the end of this post — amen sista. I am absolutely with you on that one, mindful, good choices, making it count when it matters most. Great post!

23 Katie @ Peace Love & Oats September 26, 2012 at 9:33 am

I guess I don’t really think too hard about the 80/20 but I’ve learned it on my own. I think it helps that I rarely eat out, so when I do eat out or when I get froyo, those are usually my 20! It makes it easier knowing that what I eat at home is all good for me!

24 Therese September 26, 2012 at 9:47 am

17 “neat” and 3 “treat” meals a week. I’ve never seen it spelled out like that. I like it! Also worth reading is Gretchen Ruben’s thoughts on people moderation vs abstaining personality types: http://happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2012/05/quiz-are-you-an-abstainer-or-a-moderator/

25 tinareale September 27, 2012 at 6:32 am

Off to read that now. Sounds like a good read.

26 Bethany @ Accidental Intentions September 26, 2012 at 10:29 am

Thanks so much for doing the math for me in this post! Haha. I like the 80/20 concept, but I’ve never made an active effort to incorporate it in my life because I didn’t really know what it looked like. Having you crunch the numbers for me makes it a lot easier to see how this all works. Thank you!

27 Erin @ Girl Gone Veggie September 26, 2012 at 10:53 am

I love this! Very informative. I’m totally guilty of eating a lot less healty than I think I do. I need to get better about that!

28 Shanna, like Banana September 26, 2012 at 11:05 am

Heck sometimes I do the 70/30 rule. Depends on the week, season, my mood, etc. I definitely eat pretty healthy most of the time, but now that the holiday season is approaching, I need my daily candy corn and I have been craving a piece of white sheet cake like nobody’s business.

29 Danielle September 26, 2012 at 11:19 am

I love ways to keep track of what I’m eating that don’t entail counting calories. I like to keep track of servings of fruits and vegetables, and adding an overall count of neat vs. treat would be good for my system! Thanks for spelling this all out!

30 Elly September 26, 2012 at 11:19 am

Thank you so much for this, Tina! I’ve been trying to figure this “balance” out for months now while trying to recover from an ED. I restrictive ate myself right into a binge/purge cycle (which is how I found your blog btw). You have been so inspirational and a great source of information for me on this road to recovery. Thanks again :)

31 tinareale September 27, 2012 at 6:34 am

Hope things are continuing to get better for you on your journey. It’s rough, I know…but balance can come more and more over time. I always say “progress not perfection”. Wishing you all the best, Elly!

32 Lisa September 26, 2012 at 11:28 am

This got my math loving brain pretty excited. I love how you broke it down. It makes it easier written out this way than 80/20. I think people can get confused with those percentages.
I think its so important for our mental health to have a little wiggle room in our diets, otherwise we can get too restrictive, which also prevents us from having a happy mind and a happy social life. I recently wrote a post about a “perfect diet” where I kind of talked about the idea of this.
I think I’m a little too hard on myself, so I should be splurging more:)

33 jobo September 26, 2012 at 11:40 am

I was nodding my head reading this! Because it is NOT about moderation in terms of ‘oh eat whatever on weekends and eat more balanced during the week’ – it IS about consistency, and that can of course include small treats etc, but balanced eating, eat when hungry, don’t when not, etc. Well put my friend!!

34 Sam @ Better With Sprinkles September 26, 2012 at 12:01 pm

I try not to overthink it – I eat mostly healthy meals and when I feel like a cookie or onion rings, I go for it. I know it probably doesn’t work out to be 80/20 100% of the time, it works for me.

35 Angela @ Happy Fit Mama September 26, 2012 at 12:07 pm

I love the math! It really is a great way to live life and not feel restricted. Thanks for breaking it down!

36 [email protected] September 26, 2012 at 12:24 pm

Great post! I love how you broke it down. This is SO me–I totally live mostly neat with some good ole’ treats splattered throughout. Esp my ice cream bowls on saturday nights :)

37 Iris Lee September 26, 2012 at 12:25 pm

Thank you for breaking things down like this, Tina!! I believe in the 80/20 concept too, but sometimes it’s hard to know just where the 80 stops and the 20 starts. You are so right that it is a lifestyle change – that’s a huge shift in mentality for many people, but I think it’s so crucial!!

38 Katie @ KatieEnPursuit September 26, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Excellent post on a much-discussed topic! I’m with you; by adopting the 80/20 rule, I’ve drastically cut down on previous “binge” eating. What used to be considered “slip-ups” causing me to throw all progress away, are now considered part of the 20%. It really is just a shift in thinking…it WORKS!

39 Danielle @ Clean Food Creative Fitness September 26, 2012 at 12:31 pm

I love this post! Seeing it broken down is really helpful! I tend to struggle with what exactly is a “treat”, what makes up that 20% so this is super helpful cause now I know! Love this and it is definitely a must share!

40 Brittany @Berries and Barbells September 26, 2012 at 1:01 pm

I am just like you Tina. I really try to live by the 80/20 rule. I love being able to go out and eat whatever I want AND get dessert on Saturday night. I usually do my long runs on Saturday so I feel like I earned it! And I never feel guilty.
I also like that you mentioned staying mindful because I know it can be really easy to say I am balanced when in reality, I am probably having a few too many cookies!
Thank you for this post. It was awesome.

41 Leonor @FoodFaithFitness September 26, 2012 at 1:08 pm

I always thought of myself as an 80/20 eater, but I ever thought about it being broken down that way. Great post! The main thing is balance. Everyone has to find their perfect balance.

42 Maria September 26, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Great post (as usual!), Tina! I struggle with the 80/20, but it’s a struggle worth fighting for, because life is too short to deprive yourself of the things you enjoy (for me, that’s anything salty!).

43 Annie September 26, 2012 at 1:31 pm

As a recovering binge eater this post came at just the right time :) I’m currently in the “maintenance” phase and having trouble adjusting to being able to have treats and forget about them the next day. Had an unplanned evening out with dessert last night and out for dinner again tomorrow night. The old me is thinking oh dear, I should really have a salad or even a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce but the new me is thinking, hey I’ve been craving a cheesy pizza for AGES and the restaurant where I’m going is notorious for them so what the hell, I’ll have the pizza and enjoy every mouthful of it!

44 tinareale September 27, 2012 at 6:36 am

I hope you enjoy that pizza and then just have the balance in your everyday eating. You’ll be fine! :)

45 Pavement Runner September 26, 2012 at 2:04 pm

oh, the 80% is supposed to be the HEALTHY part? I’ve been going about this all wrong.

Great share.

46 Marla-Deen September 26, 2012 at 3:42 pm

I talk about this all the time in my classes! One of my favorite reminders – great post!

47 Purelytwins September 26, 2012 at 5:17 pm

always need some wiggle room, we love your views on the 80/20, and we agree with your thoughts! we try to eat clean majority of the time but realize who we are and what we can handle, and we are dessert lovers so always have to squeeze something sweet in :)

48 Noelle McKenzie September 26, 2012 at 7:27 pm

I’m not super super strict on myself, but lets just say I’m always aware. I don’t deprive myself of my cravings, but what I do find is because I’m generally very healthy in my diet, I don’t crave all the junk that others would (i.e. the fast foods and the processed snacks). I also have a rule where I prepare all my own meals during the week and only eat out on the weekends for dinner, which helps alot too because I actually know what I’m eating. Just because it looks healthy on the menu doesn’t always mean it is.

49 Amanda @ Diary of a Semi-Health Nut September 26, 2012 at 11:51 pm

Wow I’ve never seen that rule in actual numbers before. Good going! It is so easy to claim to be “balanced” but when it’s really just an excuse to eat a bad meal once a day…that’s not really 80/20 is it?

Thanks for this post and reminder, Tina! :)

50 Amanda @ Diary of a Semi-Health Nut September 26, 2012 at 11:56 pm

Oh and pinning your graphic….the word I couldn’t figure out in a different post of yours haha! :)

51 Elena September 27, 2012 at 12:12 am

This post was meant for me today!
I have a birthday coming up and was planning ahead and trying to find the balance for my big day. I actually calculated this same thing today, so that i dont go into the same cycle i have in the past of eating a ‘treat’ and then thinking my whole day has been ruined and eating many ‘treats’ throughout the day. It’s all about finding that balance and allowing myself some wiggle room!
As always…Thank you Tina for putting it in such clear terms and breaking it down so nicely.

52 Sabrina @Work It Ms Jackson September 27, 2012 at 1:57 pm

I LOVE this post! I’m all about the 80/20 rule. I do realize I need focus a little more to follow this rule but I’m not one that is going to deprive myself of the things I love. I won’t feel guilty about a treat meal either. It’s not who I am. I think I would drive myself crazy if I was. I believe in moderation and I think the 80/20 rule is GREAT for that!

Thank you for putting it into numbers so it’s easier for people to see!

You rock!!!

53 Heather @ For the Love of Kale October 4, 2012 at 10:14 am

I love, love, love this post, Tina! It’s so smart and is such outside-the-box thinking. I think it is so helpful for girls suffering from / recovering from EDs because, while it is “numbers,” it is also evidence. It shows that we can enjoy life – we don’t have to be and shouldn’t be expected to be perfect. BRAVO, girlfriend! xoxo

54 Hannah Smith October 18, 2013 at 8:08 am

Hi Ive just come across this approach as Ive been finding it hard to have the appropriate balance.

I always have healthy meals but crave the sweet stuff. This has helped me a lot with not being guilty!

Thank you

{ 12 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: