80/20 Rule: Healthy Balance with Diet and Exercise

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, finding balance can be a challenge. We’re bombarded with conflicting opinions online (especially on Instagram) regarding the best diet, exercise routine, products to use, and so much more. At In On Around, we prioritize the 80/20 rule for a healthy balance. So, what is the 80/20 rule? How can you really implement it into your daily routine? Is it realistic?

Keep reading to learn more the 80/20 rule for healthy eating, exercise, and more.

The 80/20 Rule

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Authors: Kendall Bierman, MHC-LP and Catherine Power.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ana Engelhardt.

Table of Contents

What is the 80/20 Rule?

When it comes to staying healthy it’s easy to get caught up in the trends with diet and exercise. We might spend time trying to stick to a perfect eating plan or workout routine in the pursuit of “optimal wellness.” However, chasing perfection sets an unrealistic standard that can be overwhelming and stressful. That’s why we believe and practice the 80/20 rule. This rule has changed our lives, and we know it can change yours too.

The 80/20 approach involves dedicating 80% of your time to maintaining a diet and healthy habits while allowing yourself 20% of the time for activities that bring joy and satisfaction. This principle can be applied across aspects of life, such as productivity, time management, and overall well-being. 

Let’s dive further into this idea…

The 80% Focus: Embracing Healthy Living

The 80% portion of the 80/20 rule underscores the importance of prioritizing long-term health through consistent healthy choices. By dedicating the majority of your efforts to eating real food, doing regular exercise, and engaging in positive lifestyle habits, you cultivate sustainable well-being. This approach allows for balance with occasional indulgences while maintaining a commitment to overall health.

The 20% Balance: Flexibility and Freedom in Lifestyle Choices

The 20% portion of the 80/20 rule focuses on embracing flexibility. It focuses on the importance of allowing yourself the freedom to enjoy occasional “treats” without a strict routine. By incorporating this balanced approach, you can maintain a healthy lifestyle while still savoring the pleasures that life has to offer.

80 20 Rule

Why "Diets" Don't Work

Hi, it’s Kendall here – As a therapist with a certification in Intuitive Eating I am a strong advocate against diet culture. Intuitive eating emphasizes a balanced and mindful approach to eating, where individuals learn to trust their body’s innate wisdom regarding hunger, fullness, and nourishment. The 80/20 rule is a similar concept to intuitive eating in that it promotes balance and listening to what your body needs. 

Dieting, on the other hand, typically involves strict rules, restrictions, and external guidelines on what and how much to eat. While dieting may show short-term results, it’s not sustainable in the long term. Dieting is a trigger for overeating. When we restrict certain foods or food groups, we are more likely to binge on them or overeat when we finally allow ourselves to have that food. This can result in a cycle of yo-yo dieting, which has been shown to have negative impacts on both physical and mental health.

 In one study, 3 years after participants concluded a weight loss program, only 12% had kept off at least 75% of the weight they’d lost, while 40% had gained back more weight than they had originally lost. [5]

Healthy eating is a lifestyle, not a diet.

Additionally, strict dieting can be harmful, both physically and mentally. Chronic and strict dieting can cause you to retain more fat, decrease metabolism, and increase binging behavior. Unfortunately, “dieting” can lead to even more weight gain longterm – studies back this up as well. While it may work for some people (and we applaud those success stories), dieting doesn’t work for the majority of people. Many fall into the constant, chronic cycle of losing weight but gaining again, oftentimes gaining even more. [1, 2, 3, 4]

Don't Make These Mistakes

Mentally, chronic dieting can be linked to feelings of failure, lowered self-esteem, anxiety, self-trust issues, and so much more. For certain people, it can even fuel the harmful cycle of eating disorders, like bulimia, binge eating, and anorexia.

Instead of relying on diets, it’s important to cultivate a positive and compassionate relationship with food and your body. Try using the 80/20 rule to eat nutritiously 80% of the time, while indulging in dessert or “food for the soul” 20% of the time. By tuning into our body’s cues and nourishing ourselves with a variety of foods, we can achieve a healthy and sustainable lifestyle without restriction.

Plus, for the 20%, you can still treat yourself while opting for healthier choices. For instance, if you want cookies, opt for homemade cookies with organic ingredients, instead of the dye-filled processed cookies with high fructose corn syrup. Even a small change like this can make a big difference, while still allowing yourself to treat yourself without too much restriction.

[P.S. If you’re looking for a great organic treat, we love Sweet Lorens Cookies! We also have a list of healthier candy options here.

An Important Note on Intuitive Eating

You can’t crave what you haven’t tried. Intuitive eating can work well for those who eat a well-balanced diet rich in fruits + vegetables, but can sometimes be difficult to “re-regulate” your tastebuds. 

This is where incorporating healthy foods slowly (like a new fruit or vegetable per week) can ease you into it. Processed foods are manufactured to be very addictive – hold strong in your conviction to eat healthier!

You don’t have to jump into healthy eating head-first – oftentimes, it can be better to start slow and work your way up. The more you cut out processed foods, and the more you eat real, whole foods, your taste buds will change over time. Who knows… you can even start craving healthy foods! 

80/20 Rule = The No-Diet Diet

80 20 for Healthy Eating

80/20 Rule Examples with Diet

The 80/20 rule can transform how you approach your daily diet. Below are nine examples how you can incorporate an 80/20 balance into your eating routine: 

  1. Balance your meals
  2. Keep portion sizes in mind
    • Be mindful of your portions by stopping when you’re mostly full to avoid overeating. Manage the bit of your hunger with servings or healthier snack options.
  3. Opt for healthier better choices, most of the time
    • Opt for options like vegetables, healthy proteins, and whole grains in most of your food choices. Indulge in treats like desserts or snacks every now and then as a part of your diet. Real, whole foods = 80% of the time!
  4. Focus on high-nutrient foods
    • Focus on foods such as leafy greens, berries, nuts, and seeds for the bulk of your daily nutrition. Allow room for foods or treats to fit into the rest of your eating plan.
  5. Opt for organic
    • If you’re trying to keep budget in mind, shop for organic most of the time. For the remaining 20%, if you can’t find organic, opt for conventional fruits and vegetables. Conventionally grown produce is absolutely better than not consuming any produce at all.
    • To learn more about eating organic, check out this article: 13 Pros And Cons Of GMOs (Backed By Evidence)
  6. Leave room for flexibility
    • When planning meals, prioritize options for most of the week while keeping space for flexibility, like dining out or ordering takeout occasionally.
  7. Slow down, be mindful, and savor
    • Practice eating habits by savoring and enjoying your food during meals. It’s okay to have moments of eating or indulgence in a while. [6]
  8. Drink water most of the time
    • Stay hydrated by choosing water as your drink most of the time. Feel free to enjoy tea, coffee, or the occasional soda or juice for the rest of the day.
    • For tips on the best water to drink, check out: What To Look For In A Water Filter or Purifier
  9. Moderation
    • Practice moderation when it comes to calorie or sugary foods. Limit them to a portion of your diet and focus on nutrient-dense choices for the majority.
80 20 Rule for Fitness

80/20 Rule for Fitness

When it comes to fitness, the 80/20 can help you to incorporate exercise into your life without feeling the need to count calories or hit the gym every day of the week.

  1. 5 out of 7 Days
    • Try using some sort of movement/exercise about 5 days out of the week for your 80%. Then use the remaining 2 days (20%) to give your body adequate time to rest and recharge.
  2. Reject “All-or-Nothing” Mentality
    • Don’t fall into the “all or nothing” trap/mentality. If you only have 15 minutes to exercise today, take those 15 minutes to take a walk during your lunch break. A 15-minute walk is better than spending that time sitting at your desk. 
  3. 30 Minutes of Movement
    • Aim to move your body for at least thirty minutes per day. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, this can reduce your risk of heart disease in half with 30 minutes of movement on most days. [7] 
  4. Aim for 80% Effort as Needed
    • On days when you’re not feeling like you can put your 100% into a workout, put in 80% and go for a 30-minute run, jog, or walk with your dog. Or maybe try taking the stairs today instead of using the elevator.
  5. Rest is Productive
    • If you’re running on a couple of hours of sleep, or your immune system is feeling taxed for the day, sometimes the best self-care is rest. 
  6. Focus on Strength + Stretching
    • Only have a short amount of time to exercise? Focus 80% of the time on strength training and stretching! After the age of 30, adults lose 3-8% of their muscle mass every decade. Stretching also helps to prevent injuries and improve muscle performance. [8]
80 20 Rule for Non-toxic Living

80/20 Rule for Non-Toxic Living

The 80/20 rule can transform how you approach your non-toxic living journey. 

  1. Have Non-Negotiable Favorites
    • Want to swap to non-toxic, healthier products but can’t give up your favorite nail polish or hair dye? Don’t! Life is a balance – swap what you can and keep what gives you profound joy. Don’t let a couple of swaps stop you from swapping the rest. It’s not all-or-nothing.
  2. Prioritize High-Impact Changes
    • Focus on the 80% of products that you use daily. How can you swap those out for better options? Replacing the products and habits that have the most significant impact on your routine can make the biggest difference.
  3. Focus on Ingredient Consciousness
    • When transitioning to clean beauty products, focus on replacing products with the best ingredients. But if you absolutely love a product and it’s only “better” with some ingredients that may not be totally “non-toxic”, at least it’s better than the “worst” options.

Finding Your Balance

Like any rule, it’s important that you recognize the individualized nature of it. Someone’s 80/20 rule of diet and exercise might look different than yours… and that’s okay. Give yourself grace when making healthy changes – it doesn’t happen overnight.

For example:

  • Some people might decide to eat nutritiously 80% of the week, and then for the other 20% (maybe the weekends), they allow themselves to indulge. 
  • Someone else might use the 80/20 rule by eating healthy for 80% of their daily caloric intake and eating less nutritious foods for 20% of their calories. 
  • You may also decide to sprinkle treats into 20% of each meal; like putting some sugar or whipped cream on your strawberries in the morning. 

Whatever you decide to do, know that there is no “wrong way.” The purpose of this rule is to help you balance your life with mostly healthy choices while allowing for treats and indulgences part of the time. Take some time to experiment to determine your ideal balance!

Don’t Get Discouraged

Don’t get discouraged if you have a day, or multiple days, where your 20% is higher than you anticipated. Rather than feeling like you failed and need to make up for your failure, recognize that it’s never too late to get back on track. Your day isn’t ruined by a meal choice, just pick it back up with the 80/20 rule for the next meal and move forward. Setbacks happen, but that’s all that they are – setbacks. Don’t let them become your new normal.

Signs You May Need Help

If you find that you are continuously struggling to keep your indulgent food at 20%, are binge eating, restricting, are overly concerned with your weight, and/or excessively exercising, please consider seeing a mental health professional.

Signs of bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa include: recurrent episodes of binge eating, recurrent inappropriate compensatory behaviors to prevent weight gain, restriction of energy intake relative to requirements, significant low body weight, and intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat.

Eating disorders can be deadly – please seek help from a qualified mental health counselor. [9]

Why Diets Don't Work

Benefits of the 80/20 Approach

There are many benefits to using the 80/20 approach. 

First, it’s easy to implement into your life! This is because it’s not restrictive. There’s also no need to use calorie counting or food diaries with this approach since there are no strict rules that you need to adhere to. 

Additionally, it’s acceptable for any diet or exercise needs because it is completely individualized based on your needs. By using the 80/20 approach, you’ll see how it is not necessary to be perfect or make drastic changes in every aspect of life. Instead, you can focus on making meaningful changes in key areas while allowing yourself flexibility and balance in other areas.

Holistic benefits:

  1. It’s a sustainable and balanced approach. It recognizes that it’s important to make healthy choices most of the time, but it also allows for flexibility and enjoyment. By using this approach, individuals can maintain a long-term healthy lifestyle without feeling deprived or restricted.
  2. Reduced stress and pressure. Because there are no strict rules. You can enjoy your favorite food or take a break from exercise occasionally.
  3. Improved relationship with food. It encourages a healthy relationship with food. You can enjoy treats and indulgences without feeling guilty. This helps prevent feelings of deprivation or the development of an unhealthy relationship with food, leading to a more sustainable and positive approach to eating.
Does Dieting Work?

Overcoming Challenges and Obstacles

While the 80/20 rule leaves room for balance, here are some common challenges or barriers when trying to implement it:

  1. All-or-nothing mindset
    • This is a common cognitive distortion that many people hold. A cognitive distortion is an irrational thought that negatively impacts a person’s emotions. People who hold an all-or-nothing mindset may believe that if they can’t be 100% perfect with their diet, exercise, or general lifestyle, then there’s no point in trying.
    • Using the 80/20 approach may be uncomfortable at first. Try challenging your all-or-nothing thinking with the help of a mental health professional, or by questioning the validity of your beliefs.
  2. Difficulty in finding the right balance
    • Striking the right balance between healthy and unhealthy choices may be challenging. You might struggle with determining what makes up your 20% of indulgences and how to allocate your choices effectively.
    • Remember that what makes something healthy can be based on your individual needs. It’s also up to how something makes you feel. For instance, someone with an intolerance wouldn’t be able to eat Greek yogurt, but to someone else, this may be a healthy choice.
  3. Emotional eating and habits
    • It may be hard to stick to only 20% indulgences if food is an emotional coping tool for you. If you find yourself reaching for food during times of high stress, speak with a therapist to work through why.
    • Instead of reaching for the bag of chips, start a new habit, like going for a walk or going outside for a breath of fresh air.

Final Thoughts: Finding Balance with the 80/20 Rule

Adopting the 80/20 rule as a guiding principle for health and happiness can be life-changing! By focusing on nourishing our bodies with wholesome, nutrient-rich foods 80% of the time while allowing for indulgences or less nutritious choices 20% of the time, we can strike the perfect balance that brings health and joy. 

Embracing this approach empowers us to cultivate a positive relationship with food, free from guilt or restriction. Plus, there are amazing “healthier” options out there that are still delicious treats for your 20% balanced diet. The 80/20 rule is a great tool for achieving long-term health and happiness – give it a try!

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80:20 Diet

How do you incorporate the 80/20 rule?

Let me know your thoughts and key takeaways in the comments below!


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Want to read more? Check out our other articles Want to read more? Check out my other articles here!

Other references on women’s health 80/20 diet:

Verywell FitHealthlineDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), Center for Disease Control (CDC), Virtua Health, BBC Good FoodToday, Women’s HealthHum Nutrition

Copyright In On Around LLC 2024 ©. The statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration). They are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information provided by this website should not be used as individual medical advice and you should always consult your doctor for individual recommendations and treatment. The information contained in this site is provided on an “as is” basis. Related to this site, there are no guarantees of completeness, accuracy, usefulness, or timeliness. In On Around LLC assumes no responsibility or liability for any errors or omissions in the content of this site.

Frequently Asked Questions – 80/20 Rule with Diet and Exercise

Click on the below FAQs to learn more about: lose weight, healthy foods, eating nutritious foods, healthy eating 80/20 rule diet how to calculate; 80/20 rule diet recipes; 80/20 rule diet book; does the 80/20 diet work

Yes, the 80/20 rule can be a helpful approach for weight loss by allowing flexibility while still promoting adherence to healthy eating habits and regular exercise.

You can effectively implement the 80/20 rule into your lifestyle by prioritizing nutritious, whole foods and regular physical activity for 80% of the time, while allowing yourself flexibility and indulgence for the remaining 20%.

A simple tip for embracing the 80/20 rule is not diving into healthy eating too quickly. It’s best to ease into it – don’t overwhelm yourself in the beginning. Make conscious lifestyle changes.

Focus on healthy habits for most of your time, reserving a smaller portion for indulgences or deviations from your routine. Don’t overdo the 20% – keep it well-balanced.

About Catherine Power

Catherine Power is the Founder and CEO of In On Around. She is a Harvard-educated Ingredient Safety and Environmental Toxins expert. Catherine has a background in Food Science, Personal Care Quality, and Regulatory Compliance.

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