The Truth About the 80/20 Diet

I think we crave the opportunity to put a measure on balance. After all, that's why every "way of eating" gives itself a label: paleo, vegan, vegetarian, plant-based, keto, Whole30, etc. We like being able to say, "I do this, and not that. I eat this, but never that." Especially for those coming off of a detox or even Whole30 that may have changed your way of eating and relationship with food, the struggle to reincorporate foods without totally losing the identity we tend to place on our new healthy lifestyle can be just that, a struggle.

That's why the concept of an 80/20 lifestyle has come about. So many people in the health and fitness world will tell you they eat 80% a certain way and 20% in the gray area. While I understand that the thought behind this mentality is to help people achieve balance, I think there is a huge issue with this way of thinking that we don't address: 

The achievability of an 80/20 lifestyle is immeasurable unless you spend your time counting, planning, and analyzing your food with specificity that keeps you tied to a diet mindset. 

I don't know about you, but one of the reasons I crave a healthy lifestyle is to be free of a sense of restriction and rules around food. Yes, I love experimenting with different trends and elimination diets, but I do not believe there is a one-size-fits-all way of eating or one thing we all have to do in order to be healthy. I'm not a believer in counting macros or any plan that keeps you measuring and messing with your food on a daily basis; while I understand these types of plans have created a sense of food freedom for some, that isn't a lifestyle I crave. 

In my opinion, the problem with the 80/20 mentality is the sense of let-down that comes when you can't be perfectly measured. For instance, when I go on vacation, I'm not 80/20 anything. I'm usually 100% eat whatever I want, and much of what I want is going to be a healthy choice, so my 80/20 might look different than someone else's. The 80/20 diet also reinforces the concept of "cheat foods" and implies that there are some foods that fall into the 20% that are off-limits the other 80% of the time. 

I hate the idea of "cheating" with food because it implies that food is a moral decision, and it's just not. We have to stop giving identity labels to food if we want to end the guilt and shame around our eating. 

When you live a healthy lifestyle, you will have days when your food is more nutritious and days when your food is not. And depending on where you are in your health journey, your 80% healthy foods may look so different than someone else's. If we get caught up in measuring, all that does is lessen the accomplishments of someone who is striving to do better. 

At the end of the day, that's what we should be encouraging others to do in their health journey: keep getting better. If someone switches from fast food to home-cooked, great! Better. If someone eliminates a food that has been problematic for them, awesome. Better. The sooner we stop trying to measure and craft the ideal healthy lifestyle, the sooner we can embrace progress in our own lives and the lives of others without getting caught up in comparison.

This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness week, and while you may have never struggled with a conventional eating disorder, it is crucial that we all realize the breadth of our society's disordered thoughts around eating. After all, that's how and why most of us continue to be caught in the struggle of body image, which we pass down onto our daughters, friends, and loved ones. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend watching the movie To the Bone on Netflix, especially if you or a loved one deal with disordered eating. (However, if you are newly recovering from anorexia or bulimia, I wouldn't recommend this film because it might be triggering.)

Our words and labels have so much power in crafting our awareness around food, and we have to start having the tough conversations in order to end the discussions that don't belong.